Belief and Witness

At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him.”

Matthew 1:25–30

The closer one comes to the Harvard faculty lounge, the nearer one approaches a society built upon gentle contempt for Christianity, comfortable in the neglect of God.  Such statements must of course always be qualified for as one indulges the generalization one may be surprised to find important exceptions. Yet it remains true and dispiriting that by all appearances God has indeed hidden the truths of Christ from very many of our wise, highly educated academics who, although perhaps even now occasionally born in the parsonage or the rectory, have, as the morality of Christianity became unfashionable and troublesome, moved more and more into atheism, not the angry atheism of Voltaire or even Christopher Hitchens, but the cool atheism of neglect, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Jesus that the things of God may be hidden from the wise but shown to the humble.   This feature of Christianity, its tendency to prefer the faith of the humble to the wisdom of the philosophers was a cause for Pagan contempt; the second-century philosopher Celsus charged:  “Just as the charlatans of the cults take advantage of the simpleton’s lack of education to lead him around by the nose, so too with the Christian teachers:  they do not want to give or receive reasons for what they believe.  Their favorite expressions are ‘Do not ask questions, just believe!’ and ‘Your faith will save you!’ ‘The wisdom of the world,’ they say, ‘is evil; to be simple is to be good.’”    

Of course there is a profound sense in which God never begrudges the truth to any person; God does not prevent the wise of this world knowing the truth but some minds are so clouded with pride and preconceptions that they cannot see or hear.  Hearing they do not hear.  Behind this blindness is  a habit of mind that revels in obviousness and derogates as unrealistic wonder, that attitude of soul  with which, says Aristotle, philosophy begins.    For them the world does not open upon a mystery but is known exhaustively  through facts, or a series of facts called scientific, which are held to explain exhaustively.   They are progressive, which means at its limits the destruction of every form, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic, in things, every tradition, and every rule to be replaced by a  vulgar utilitarianism that values existence and pleasure above sacrifice and virtue. Add to this the fact of pride and the closed-heartedness that pride brings, the self-sufficiency of the closed mind that clouds the eye of the heart.

   This is why Jesus taught us that if we would learn the rules of the Kingdom we must become like children; not that ignorance can be virtuous but that when we are willing to listen, we can be taught.  But without faith, that threshold virtue without which we are left with a religion of our own devising. Knowledge of God on the other hand comes by revelation.  No one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom He wishes to reveal Him.   Revelation is a situation foreign to modern expectations.   Christ speaks; we listen. There are many hints and clues in nature, experience, and philosophy that point toward Christian truth, but these will remain pieces of a puzzle ever incomplete until we allow them to be made whole and effective in our lives by the submission of our wills to the teaching of Christ as it is represented by the apostolic mission that is His Church and the transformation of those same wills by the Spirit of God through the Sacraments.    Christ says:  “Learn from me.”    “I am meek and humble of heart.”  Learn the lesson that Jesus exemplified from the beginning to His death.”  Learn to listen and obey.  At least superficially, nothing could be more alien to the autonomous, self-creating person of the twenty-first century.   But this submission, real as it must be, is an easy yoke and a light burden, for it is the will of God not to subsume His creatures into Himself but to fulfill in them the goodness that was foreknown at the dawn of creation, and indeed with the greater gift, life with Christ in glory in the new creation.    

Early in its career Christianity met those who would have turned it from a religion of faith and obedience into a religion of knowledge and self-realization.  These were the ancient Gnostics, or knowers, or intellectuals, who in the early life of Christianity, especially in the second and third Christian centuries, proposed that Christ had not come by the shedding of His blood and the gift of the holy spirit to renew mankind and creation but had rather descended from a spiritual fullness to enlightened the gnostic elect with the truth that mankind is already divine, a saving truth among those able to appropriate it.

In the same early centuries there was an argument as to whether while the great Church always produced martyrdoms, witnesses unto death, the gnostics produced few or none.  For it was an entailment of Christian profession that Christians did not deny Christ but bore witness, if necessary, with their blood.   Regarding this feast of suffering and death Christ was quite specific.  If we acknowledge Him before men, He will acknowledge us before his Father in Heaven; if we deny Him, He will deny us before the Father of us all.  Jesus left us specific commands:  Go, teach, baptize (Matthew 28:18).   Do this in remembrance of me (Luke 22:19). Be my witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). 

Belief entails witness, or, to say this in other words, belief is the first half of membership in the kingdom of the new heart, witness the second.  Perhaps it would be true to say that while the apostolic teaching never fails, witness to that faith is presently endangered.  The great issue in western culture is nothing less than the definition of the human person.  Does every person belong by right to God, who created mankind and to whom we must answer, or do persons belong to other persons or to the state?  This question comes home in the matter of the lawfulness of allowing the destruction of children in the womb, not primarily for reasons of health, regarding which there might be an argument, but  in order to ensure that the irresponsible pursuit of pleasure does not involve what is seen as an intolerable burden.  Assuring the technical legality and availability of this destruction is the sine non qua of one of the great political parties, among whose members there are many who by their profession as Christians know better.  

Silence means consent.  As Newman wrote in his Biglietto Speech of 1878, in the humanitarian age, an age in which there are many faiths and many skepticisms, each claiming an equal place, religious profession will become a very private thing; religious practice permitted only on sufferance, tolerated as long as it does not constitute an annoyance.    The silence one hears regarding the routine destruction of little children for pleasure’s sake is the silence of a civilization in decay of which the immediate cause and immediate consequence is apostasy. 

Dr James Patrick  —  Lewis Tolkien Society


Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into His death?  We were buried therefore with Him in death
so that as  Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life but now made manifest.

Romans 6:3-4


In this text from Romans Paul is being a good teacher to Christians who are still learning the full meaning of their faith.   The situation is not unique.  Age after age there have been those possessed of the treasure of union with Christ and life forever in Him who have understood the meaning of their baptism only in part.  Thus Paul begins with a question:  “Are you unaware?  Do you not know what your baptism means?   

It means, says Paul, that when you were baptized, you have already passed through the door marked death, with death taken to be the penalty for rebellion pronounced by God in the Garden, into new life with Christ forever.   “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).     If many died through that one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” (5:15).  “For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification” (5:16).   And the free gift is that baptism into Christ through which we are freed from the punishment of rebellion and made righteous by the gift of Christ’s sacrifice so that we can indeed walk in newness of life, already, in Paul’s words, living unto God, enjoying in the Holy spirit a foretaste, the firstfruits as Saint Paul says (Romans 8:23), of life everlasting.  

Newness is the great theme of the eternal Gospel  The prophets promise a new heart (Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 11:19, Joel 2:28-32).  Jesus gives a new commandment that is not new: Love one another (John 15:12).  Paul promises that by baptism one may walk in newness of life.  The prophet John sees a new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21:1), and in his great vision He who sits upon the throne says, “Behold I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  

Of all the promises of Christ, moderns find His promise of redeemed persons, bodies and souls, and a renewed creation most difficult.   Perhaps this is why we find it easier to descend to a kind of naturalistic paganism, somehow unwilling to believe that death is the final word, hoping that something of the soul survives to live a kind of pointless existence, meanwhile overlooking the very explicit promises of the Gospels and the apostolic writers that offer a texture of insights into the new world that is coming.   In it we will not be unclothed but clothed in glory (II Corinthians 5:4).  We will sit down at table with Abraham, the father of our faith (Matthew 8:11).  Christ will wipe away every tear we have suffered for Him and His kingdom (Revelation 21:4).  There will be pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11).  We will judge the nations (I Corinthians 6:2). We will join with the angels in endless praise of God (Revelation 4:11, 6:9-10).   

Each of these images is in  its own way a mythic clue to the new world that is coming. Almost every civilization has it own natural insights regarding the ultimate fruition of hope, testimonies to the nearly universal human intuition that there is, or at least there ought to be, a perfecting moment that redeems the pain of historical existence, offering a promised reward for the virtuous or righteous who deserve life in the Blessed Isles or in the glory of the ever-living stars, or the eternity of the Egyptian underworld for which kings were so carefully prepared, or in the eternal warriors’ hall, where there is feasting forever, a time when those who are wise “will shine like the brightness of the firmament” (Daniel 12:3),  a Narnian world beyond the West.  Or Bilbo’s song as he makes his way toward the grey havens: 

Thoughts on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Remember Me

“Do not forget the LORD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery.”

Deuteronomy 6:12

“And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart
and you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Deuteronomy 6:6

“Do this in remembrance of me.”

Luke 22:19

       Among the religions of the Mediterranean world the religion of Israel was distinctive in that it was a community of memory.  The Greeks had no communal story of what Zeus had done for them; indeed paganism had no historical root. There was no time and place when any member of the Olympian pantheon had entered history, but to know an observant Jew has always been to hear the remembered story.  As Stephen was dying, he recited it: the God of Glory appeared to our Father Abraham, and He delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt.  And so Saint Paul, who remembers that after their rescue they were unfaithful (I Corinthians 10:1).    To be a Jew is to remember.  The story did not have a happy ending.   Stephen also recalled the fact that Israel forgot God. They offered sacrifice to idols, and God gave them over to worship the hosts of heaven (Acts 7:42).  As Romans 1 teaches us, God does not always punish sin with plague and destruction or with fire from heaven as at Sodom and Gomorrah; His worst punishment is to let us go, to withdraw His protective hand, to allow us to forget Him.

       Augustine gave us the beautiful image  of the palace of memory that contains all of the past, all of our past, our past which is our present.  Furnishing that palace with things good beautiful and true.  It is the arsenal from which we draw judgement and hope.  It is the fact of experience and the work of education to have a memory well furnished.  It is the work of a lifetime.  Perhaps we can understand this terrible time in which we live as the age of chosen amnesia, the age of forgetfulness.  The true history of our country is now seen and taught through the lens of ideological obscurantism.  The books that in the past have formed our imaginations are forgotten.  The one book that formed our character as a people is now closed to many of us; children no longer know th story of Eden, the history of Israel, which is their history too, or the story of the barn-builder or of the lost coin. We have allowed the very mention of Christ’s Holy Name to be pushed out of our public culture.  Like sleepwalkers, we have allowed the schools to which we send our children to be seized by those who believe that forgetting the God of Glory would be beneficial and indeed necessary.  The result, increasingly, is a race that does not remember what it has forgotten, so that the culture is coarsened, sensuality considered normal,  barbarism reigns in the streets, and many, many souls threatened with eternal loss. Meanwhile the ethical and political wisdom of the centuries is forgotten.  Hapless legislators behave as they do at least partly out of ignorance.  They do not know what to do. They have forgotten.  There is a turn of speech that comes to mind when a good person, perhaps ourselves, has wandered from the right path:  we say, he has forgotten himself.  He has abandoned that good self laboriously constructed and must now begin again, perhaps with sorrow and repentance to remember who he truly would be.

       The Church of Jesus Christ is constructed from the apostolic memory.  After Christ died on the cross, the twelve had intimations of faith, but memory was uncertain.  Then they remembered that He had told them He must die (Luke 24:8).  Later the risen Christ would explain to them the Scriptures (Luke 24:32).  After His resurrection the twelve remembered that Jesus had prophesied His resurrection (John 2:22).  The twelve did not understand Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but when Jesus was glorified, they remembered Zechariah 9:9.

       After the apostolic memory was informed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, only two actions were required.  Jesus said, “You are my witnesses for all ages and to the ends of the earth.”   And this: “Remember me.” The principal sacrament the Church offers for the daily road is rooted in memory, for on the night in which he was betrayed Jesus took bread and broke it, took the cup in his sacred hands and said, “This is my body, my blood, do this in remembrance of me.”  Do not forget me; if you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall have eternal life with me forever (John 6:35-59).  “This,” many of his disciples said, “is a hard saying; who can bear it?” But from the time on the Emmaus road when He was known to the disciples in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35) He had been remembered at the altars of His Church.  This Holy Eucharist exists as a reiteration of the sacrifice of the cross, and as a means through which we remember Jesus and in remembering Him, we remember who we are.   And so, remembering the Lord, and remembering the command “Do this,” we are transformed into His likeness by our participation in His very person.  “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness” (II Corinthians 3:18).

The Political Economy of J. R. R. Tolkien

     The PPE curriculum, philosophy and political economy, was I suppose an Oxford invention, calculated to combine the reflective, intellectual aspects of thought with the arts of politics and economics.  It suggested that what we do in the marketplace and in the forum is grounded in a set of philosophic principles.   With Tolkien this was certainly true; his pen carried with it the entire freight of the Christianity into which he was baptized when his mother became a Roman Catholic in Birmingham about 1903.  The most visible, obviously operant principle was Tolkien’s conviction that Eden had existed, and that the rebellion was real, marking human actions with the brokenness that belongs to a fallen will.  

     We can know something of what Tolkien might have considered the ideal society from his descriptions of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.   Although there are occasionally houses, most hobbits live in excavated space under the hill which is accessed by round doors, the round doors being a clue to the anti-industrial character of the Shire.  A hobbit’s concerns are genealogy and food, and communal feasting seems to be the nearest that Shire life comes to having  a sacrament. Unless, of course, you want to count the exchange of re-gifted objects.  Charles Williams, who was in Oxford in December 1944, commenting on the unpublished text, saw that the great thing about the book was not Frodo and his heroic vocation but the fact that the center was not in strife and war but “In freedom, peace, and good liking.”  

     Hobbits, as Gollum shows, can be corrupted, and Tolkien sees the world as the work of corrupted Hobbits who want to exercise power through organization and regimentation.    In the Lord of the Rings this is Sauron, who would organize the world right into slavery; in England in the 1940s it is your local county council.  When Christopher wrote complaining of the waste and stupidity of camp life, Tolkien replied remembering his own experience in 1917 and 1918:  “What makes it so exasperating is that . . . its worst features are unnecessary, and due to human stupidity, which (as the planners refuse to see) is always magnified indefinitely by ‘organization.’  . . . However it is, humans’ beings what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short of universal Conversion) is not to have wars—nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation.”  

     In July 1944, the invasion of Europe well under way, Christopher, who was flying over the channel, wrote of  flock skimming martins he had seen.  Tolkien replied, “That touches the heart of things, doesn’t it? There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare.  Unlike art, which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World, and that cannot really be done with any satisfaction.  Labor-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labor.  And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to a new and horrible evil.  So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the giant bomber.  It is not an advance in wisdom!  This terrible truth, . . .  sticks out so plainly and so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse meaning for the future, that it seems almost a worldwide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive it.” On 30 January 1945 Tolkien wrote, “Well, the First War of the Machines seems to be drawing toward its final chapter—leaving alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or dead and only one thing triumphant: the Machines.  As  the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful.   What’s their next move?”

     It was part of Tolkien’s character that he saw the imminent Allied Victory as deeply flawed.  This was in part because he disliked the Americanization of England and Europe,   He never visited the United States, but he saw that “American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production would spread throughout the world. There will be no place to go, so people will (I opine) go all the faster.”  This was the passage in which Tolkien became at least one of the fathers of the flattening metaphor as a description of the modern world.  But seriously, he wrote,  “I do find this American cosmopolitanism very terrifying.  Qua mind and spirit. . . . I am not really sure that the victory is going to be so much better for the world as a whole. . . .”    It was in this mood that he criticized the English press for declaring the Germans who held out to be drunken fanatics, warning that you can’t defeat Mordor with Mordor and reminding that Germans, too, had their just loyalties.   His fear was that victory would bring a culture that meant defeat: “When it is all over will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it,  or will they be too tired to resist. The last rather seems the idea of some of the Big Folk, who have for the most part viewed this war from the vantage point of large motor-cars.  Too many are childless.  But I suppose that one certain result of it all is the growth in the great amalgamations with their mass-produced notions and emotions.  Music will give place to jiving.  His delicately cultured amusement is said to be a fever in the U. S. A.   O God! O Montreal! O Minnesota!   

     The center of Tolkien’s social life was the Thursday evening meetings of the Inklings in the Bird and the Baby, a tiny pub perhaps fourteen feet wide. Back in 1925, when he had first come to Oxford from red brick Reading University, Tolkien had been one of the sponsors of the Kolbitars, assembled to read Icelandic poetry.  This had gradually given way to the Inklings:  Lewis, Tolkien, Havard, Charles Williams (1939-1945), and others.  This was about beer, good company, and reading manuscripts in progress.  In this company Tolkien was superbly at home.  The company began to fray when after 1957 Lewis would bring Joy Davidman, whom he soon would marry, who was considered by Lewis to be  master intellect and sparkling wit but considered by others to be merely intrusive.  Whatever else it was, the Inklings fostered the literary genius of Lewis and Tolkien.    Both seem to have had very little literary conversation at home, where Lewis found  the woman he had cohabited with and cared for since about 1925, and Tolkien found Edith.  Having fallen in love about 1915, Tolkien was forbidden by his guardian to communicate with her until his twenty-first birthday, upon which, perhaps unwisely, they were married.   Edith did not want to be the wife of a professor.  She did not want to be a Catholic, into which profession she was shuttled.   They managed, she being sometimes in the Church, sometimes out.  Toward the end of her life she received some reward, doing what she enjoyed, which was living in a Bournemouth hotel and playing bridge.  So the Inklings was a lifesaver and a kind of model of the good life.  One supposes this is what provoked the “good Christian friends engaged in conversation before the fire.”  

     Tolkien wrote little directly about politics.  His Catholicism was traditional; he regretted the destruction of the Roman Rite, along with Waugh and T. S. Eliot.

Thoughts on the Second Reading for the Sixth Sunday in Easter

Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
1 Peter 3:15-17

In the first line of the text above, behind the word for explanation is the Greek apologia. This means defense, a tougher word than explanation, which is given in the official translation.  Explanation tends to be self-referential.  One might have adopted the Christian faith from expediency, from the pressures of life’s unexpected events.  What Peter means, I believe, is that Christians should be able to give a defense of the Incarnation and the Atonement, to represent truly God’s wrath against the negligent and the unrepentant and the blessings He bestows on those who love and obey Him, and also to tell of the great hope that Christians will be with Jesus in a renewed creation at  the end of the age.     

Because Christians from the beginning considered, and still consider theirs the universal religion revealed by God to the Apostles, with a mission to all mankind, its apologists, while understanding that it is God who calls the elect, sought to convince the world that the texture of ideas it proposed to the intellect was true, as such deserving, first, consideration and finally acceptance. The first apologist was Paul, who appealed not only to principles found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but to tradition, conscience, nature, and poetic insight, arguing in Romans that Gentiles should learn from nature the power and existence of God (Romans 1:21–22) and from human nature that the existence of conscience is enough to establish the claims of righteousness (Romans 2:14–16). Paul sought by quoting the pagan poets and noticing the unknown god to make an apology for Christianity to the council of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22–31).   

Christian literature before Ignatius tends to be didactic as in the Didache, or disciplinary as in First Clement, but there survives a fragment of the lost Apology of Quadratus, probably written as early as 124.  Justin wrote his First Apology, addressed to Antoninus Pius, about 150. In his Against the Greeks Apollinaris of Hierapolis addressed the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Miltiades’ lost, nearly contemporary Apology for Christian Philosophy and Athenagoras of Athens’s Plea Regarding Christians, written after the Emperor Commodus was associated with his father Marcus Aurelius in 176, followed. The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus and Tertullian’s To the Heathen and Apology, belong to the early third century.  Underlying their intellectual, theological, and moral arguments was always the conviction that Christianity, far from damaging the Empire by teaching a degrading superstition, was the agent through which religion was rendered reasonable and morals lifted above the turpitude that characterized popular culture in the age of the Antonines, 138–92 AD. After Constantine made Christianity legal Christian apologies were fewer, while stories of the martyrs and of miracles tended to reinforce Christian belief.  Contemporary with the Constantinian revolution were the two appendices to his masterful treatise On the Incarnation, a Refutation of the Jews and a Refutation of the Gentiles. 

The apologists of the second and third centuries shared certain themes, the proof from prophecy which argued that Christ fulfilled perfectly the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the claim that Plato learned from Moses, who was much older than any philosopher.  There was the moral argument, which claimed that paganism had produced a squalid culture, which permitted infanticide and sexual promiscuity, while Christianity fostered a culture of purity and restraint.   And with a positive note it was argued that Christianity was good for the empire.  Their tone was factual.  Their arguments never became personal. But at the heart of it is always the conviction that Christianity is true, that while they may share some truths that belong also to  Plato, Christian doctrine is the summary regarding the destiny of man and his responsibilities before God.  These were not explanations for their hope but defenses of the faith on which that hope was founded. Paul added two injunctions.  Apologists for the faith were to make their defense with courtesy.   And when the world rejected their apology they were not to offer angry rejoinders but to bear rejection with the patience of Christ.    

The apologetic task directed toward an unbelieving world became important again in the late nineteenth century, when Christianity was losing the place it had held in the culture since the fourth century.   Robert Hugh Benson (1871 – 1914) was an  Anglican priest who in 1903 was received into the Roman Catholic Church in which he was ordained priest in 1904. His notable dystopian novel Lord of the World (1907) predicted the culture of the secular future. Ronald Arbuthnot Knox (1888 – 1957) was an English Catholic priest, theologian, radio broadcaster, and author of detective stories. Meanwhile he was a formidable defender of the Catholic faith in works such as  Heaven and Charing Cross (1935) and In Soft Garments (1942). Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was an English writer, philosopher, lay theologian, and literary and art critic, author of two of the greatest apologies in the English language: Orthodoxy (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925).    Two contemporaries who deserve gratitude are Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and King’s College in New York, author of over eighty books on Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics and Thomas Howard, whose “Chance or the Dance” and “Christ the Tiger” are classics of literary Christian apologetics. 

These authors, and a hundred others, took on the task of defending the faith in the face of a rising secularist tide, perpetuating the work of Quadratus and Justin Martyr in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, always remembering Saint Paul’s injunctions that defense should be carried on with courtesy and that apologists should never be disappointed by the world’s rejection but should bear with patience in imitation of Christ.  Every generation will have its apologists, defenders of the faith in  the face of the opposition of the world.  Their tasks will be more effective when they are surrounded by the prayers and example of the faithful.

Thoughts on the First Reading for the Fifth Sunday in Easter

The word of God continued to spread,
and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly;
even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
Acts 6:7

The sixth chapter of Acts has as its subject the mission of Peter which was blessed with the increase of the disciples in Jerusalem. We know that many of these first converts were Jews and some were Hellenists. Then Acts gives the surprising information that a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith. These were members of the hereditary priesthood, serving the Temple in shifts of three per week, witnesses to the dawn and evening, ninth hour, sacrifice of lambs, each having been inspected to assure that there were no blemishes, washed, given water from a golden cup, and tied, fore and hind legs together, as depicted by Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), in his “Agnus Dei,” and sacrificed in expiation for Israel’s sins. Later the meal offering would be made, the second lamb sacrificed, and the Ten Commandments and the Shema read: “Hear O Israel, the Lord Your God is one Lord.”

This is what the priests who were beginning to believe in Jesus would leave behind. The Lamb of God would now be Jesus. The liturgical phase, “Behold the Lamb of God” was introduced into the Roman Rite by Pope Sergius I (687–701) in the context of his rejection of the Council of Trullo (692), which was well received in the East and called the Quinisext Council, but whose canons had forbidden the iconographic depiction of Christ as a lamb. Jesus is named the Lamb of God nineteen times in the prophet John’s Apocalypse, a much-valued text in Rome, including Jesus depiction as the Lamb as having been slain, bearing still the marks of His wounds, standing on His throne, surrounded by the rainbow glory of the Father, in 5:6.

On two other occasions in the literature of the early church reference is made directly to the Jerusalem priesthood. The author of the Didache, written perhaps before the fall of Jerusalem, a Christian still much in the ambiance of the Temple and its worship, reminding his readers of the importance of the prophetic office, wrote: “The prophets are your high priests” (13:1). A century later Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, remembered that John the author of the Gospel had been a priest wearing the breastplate, information difficult to assimilate to any traditional account of the origin of John, but the evidence is from a weighty source.

Such references as well as the text from Acts above, serve to remind us just how Jewish the Jerusalem Church was in the beginning and how Jewish it has remained. This is of course inevitable, for the history of the Church is the history of Israel; it is not for nothing that at the Easter Vigil, the most solemn celebration in the Christian year, the Exultet: “Rejoice, O ye heavenly legion of angels,” is sung commemorating God’s redemption of Israel: This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea. The means of their escape had been the lamb slain, his redemptive blood spread on the doorposts. This is the lamb to which the sacrifices of the Temple before 70 AD always made implicit reference, and it is to the same Lamb to which the Eucharistic Sacrifice makes implicit if remote reference daily in the Church through the Agnus Dei: Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” The sacrifice of the Lamb in Egypt was the distant warrant for both the sacrifices of the Temple and for the recollected sacrifice of Christ the Lamb of God.

Our entire picture of Christian origins is inevitably colored by the extensive literature, thirteen or fourteen letters from Paul. Most were directed to Greek congregations in Asia, Macedonia, or Achaia, in which Paul’ efforts were largely, first, to tear new believers away from the Greco-Roman culture, and second to encourage the holy transformation of hearts by the virtues of faith, hope, and love, while always carrying on a stiff opposition to the belief that good works were salvific or necessary, and until late enjoying a tension-ridden relation to the apostles at Rome, Peter and James, to whose authority he submitted, reluctantly, to be sure that his Gospel did not differ from theirs. The heresies men leave are hated most, and while Paul a tenderness toward his own people, he was deeply convinced that any reliance on good works led away from the Gospel.

The Jerusalem Church, of whom the Epistle of James is representative, was fed by the Gospel of Matthew, written originally in Hebrew, and cherished by those who did not think that either its teaching or, in some cases, it language could be left behind. The theology of Matthew devolves entirely in the last chapters on the simple question of charitable works done to the poor, hungry, and naked. This is the piety of Judaism perfected. Similarly, John’s Apocalypse, despite the prophet’s warning to the Church at Philadelphia against those who say they are Jews but are not (3:7), is, like Matthew and James, born of a Jewish background and piety. Quite simply, the books are opened and all are judged by what they have done (Revelation 20:13). When one turns to the letter of James, one finds inspired moral advice but also a rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith apart from good works that made Martin Luther wish the book could be excised from the Bible (James 1:22–25, 2:14–26).

Throughout the second and third centuries there are rare references suggesting the survival of these Hebrew-speaking Christians, who are never cited for any defect in their faith but are always described with puzzlement as still clinging to the Hebrew Matthew, which is probably the core around which the Greek Mathew was written. Papias of Hierapolis, writing about 110, remembered that the Gospel of Matthew was written originally in Hebrew, but that everyone translated it, into Greek, as they were able. After the destruction of the Temple in 69–70, its sacred furnishings carried off in triumph by the Emperor Titus, his victor’s booty still to be seen carved in the arch that bears his name in the Roman Forum, the Jerusalem Church with James as its head disappears.

The site was the scene of destruction until a new city, Colonia Aelia Capitolina, named in part for Hadrian, whose gentile cognomen (clan or extended family name) was Aelius, and also for Jupiter Capitolinus, the Jupiter of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, was built during his reign (117–38), and then Jerusalem was a gentile city, having already been consecrated to Zeus, the Greek Jupiter, by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in the BC 168. But Jerusalem was so rich in sites associated with the life and teaching of Jesus that as the Church became a legal institution Jerusalem became the object of Christian pilgrimage, as it still is. Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, made the discovery of Biblical sites her project, causing churches to be built at these holy places. The remnants of the Hebrew speaking Church disappeared or were swept into the Constantinian Church of the early fourth century. But there were words that could not be put into Greek, notably Jesus’ last words from the cross, “Eli, Eli, Lama sabach-thani?” My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 


 – Dr. James Patrick

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Paley, Darwin, and the Future

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. 

— St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Article 3, Question 2) 

Animals have instinct, which is a name for we know not what, and planets, stars, and trees behave as though they have an intelligent purpose.  

William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity was published in 1794.  The illustration Paley bought forward was the finding of a watch on a forest trail.   His conclusion that someone must have made the watch, obviously some intelligent purposeful creature, construed as an analogy to creation by God, is considered jejune.     

Generations of students have believed Saint Thomas’s fifth way (and Paley’s watch analogy) to have been refuted by a parable told in John Wisdom’s book God.   It tells of those who came across a perfectly maintained garden in wilderness, the sight of which caused one of the party to claim that there must be a gardener. So they watched carefully and set up a guard.  No gardener appeared.  So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

This argument contains or presupposes a famous enthymeme; it assumes that if there were a gardener who tends the universe he would be a finite, material being,  Since God governs and perfects creation by his providence, one need not expect him to set off alarms.  Still, countless students of philosophy have been impressed by John Wisdom’s parable.   

My argument in this short paper is neither to refute nor justify either Darwin or Saint Thomas.  I might begin with the vernacular observation that, like all of Saint Thomas’s five ways, the argument from design seems rooted in human imagination.  At some point we wake up and look around and see that the world is wonderful.   We may be the Hebrew psalmist:  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), or Saint Francis, who sang of brother sun and sister moon, or Shakespeare: “Juliet is the sun!”  or Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world I charged with the grandeur of God,” or perhaps we remember the lyrics of the 1950s song: “Every time I hear a new born baby cry/ Or touch a leaf or see the sky/Then I know why, I believe.”   This, in words elevated or popular, is intrinsic to the human heart and to human experience; it is the argument from design writ small, and like Christianity itself I doubt that, while these just sentiments may be suppressed, they will ever disappear.         

Darwinism appeared in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), launched into a world that wanted a holiday from Christianity.  It was in its origin not very complicated.   It was enabled by Charles Lyell’s idea that, creation, as demonstrated by new-born geology, was a million years, not six thousand years old.  The same geology had unearthed hundreds of fossilized species.  The theory states that  all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.   There is no agreement as to just who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”   [This opens upon an ongoing argument as to the definition of the fittest.   To be truly human it is essential to believe that there is something more important than survival.]  

Darwin had a motive, even if seldom expressed.  He thought the argument from design false and Christianity cruel:  ‘I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.’ Of course that depends upon whether, having ample opportunity they consciously and advisedly had ignored God.  But the real complaint is not against God’s putative injustice but against his government in the first place.  Darwin was one of those Friends of Humanity who wished to set us free.   Interestingly enough, his friend and sometimes collaborator William Wallace, came to the conclusion that there must be an intelligent designer.   

The theory made some sense of an older, more complex, natural world.  On its face it contradicted the Genesis story.  If anyone knows anything about the history of public education in the United States it is easy to see why evolution, which John Paul II considered “more than a theory,” is as a practical matter relentlessly inflicted upon the sixth and subsequent grades.   A  person who believes he has been known to God from the foundations of the world and given a unique soul by God at the moment of conception is different from a person who believes he is one who believes he is a product of nature.          

As most of you know, I believe it is possible to do a better reading of Scripture that would not eliminate but reduce the apparently obstinate differences between the Bible and Darwin.   Broadly, twenty-first century students of the natural history of the world, evolutionists and students of Genesis, share two ideas or beliefs.  The natural world at some point or perhaps from many points has proceeded from disorganization and chaos to a state of organization suitable to human  habitation while at the same time humans suitable to inhabit this world appeared.   And the second:  there have been catastrophes, perhaps not enough to turn a hard evolutionist into a catastrophist, but elements of catastrophism have gained credence among evolutionists.   The opening verses of Genesis are a key and a difficulty.  I am the opponent of the modern translation of the Hebrew which reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was formless.”   Better is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was or came to be formless.”   I do not believe that God came upon a scene of pre-existing formlessness and chaos and then created the world we know by overcoming chaos.  That might be an evolutionary tale.  But if God can create anything out of nothing, he can create it in or with perfection.  Chaos, darkness, and emptiness are the hallmarks of Satan; God’s perfect creation had been invaded by the fallen angels.

But however the text is read, there is at some point a bringing of order out of chaos or next to nothing.  There is no chronology of the early verses of Genesis; if evolutionists wish to insert millions of years in Genesis 1, let there be no objection.   I am also intrigued by the fact that the age before the age of man was the age of serpents, small and large, birds and the brontosaurus rex.  All of whom were suddenly destroyed.  By a single meteor.  Maybe.  I wonder also why one of the gifts of the original covenant, with Noah, was the stability of the seasons (Genesis 8:22); not much gift unless there had been no seasons earlier.   What knocked the earth off its axis to create four seasons?  And by the way, what ripped the continents apart?  And how did all those broken bones of animals get deposited in caves and crevasses around the world?

   I am also interested in what mathematics might have to do with evolutionary theory.  Evolution as presents a process, not easily subject to rules.  Interestingly enough, these laws are held to be permanent; one does not hear  of the laws of thermodynamics changing when they become unfashionable.   Very often these laws are mathematical.  Surely you know somebody who has spent frustrating hours trying to explain to a high school sophomore why the inclined plane experiment is never exact, why in the end we get a percentage of error based on a rule that is never exemplified.  

So many puzzles.   Why was Paris at one time under water, populated by shellfish, then later dry land, then submerged again but with the bones of mammals, but then dry land again?  Why are there no trees older than BC 800?   And why are there shellfish on top of Mount LeConte?   Geology is not nearly as neat as evolutionary theory.

Finally, let us consider the last four of St. Thomas’s proofs as a cluster of reasonable reflection.   If real perfection doesn’t exist somewhere, then best and better are meaningless.   The existence of a world of finite beings, no one of which may be here tomorrow, argues by their very persistence the existence of a necessary first cause.  Everything that exists must have a cause; this world is no different. And always the argument from design; this beauty and order came from somewhere; I didn’t make it. 

As for the future, perhaps, the Pope to the contrary notwithstanding, school children should be taught to appreciate Darwin, as well as St. Thomas, and to remember that every large scale historical theory such as Darwin’s will be refined and amended, we know not how, in the future.

Thoughts On Easter

The Gift of Life

For you have died,
   and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
And you too will appear with Him in Glory

I Corinthians 5:8

     Sunday is a Roman name, the day of the unconquerable sun, but for Christians and the civilization Christianity formed it became the Lord’s Day, a celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection, not the old seventh day but the first day, the beginning of a new creation. Easter is of course the original feast day.  It is an oddity of the Old Testament and of Mediterranean culture generally, that nobody really believed in death as such.  The influence of this idea is still present among post-Christians who speak of the after life in terms of some sort of conscious survival somewhere.  Most Romans, thinking that just dying was not a realistic possibility, for how could a soul that was a spark borrowed from the gods die, held an almost universal conviction that the dead were in Hades.  This realm of the dead, with its river Styx and the three-headed dog Cerberus, was where nobody would wish to be, but it represented the realistic view that death was not a good thing and the attendant awareness that the dead had to live on somewhere.  Over time the Romans came to suspect that some moral distinction might be made, so that Elysian fields were provided for good soldiers and life in the stars for great generals, but the ordinary citizen looked forward to the half-life in the realm of Hades, god of the underworld. 

     Likewise the Hebrews, for whom the place of the departed was Sheol, another under-world in which the dead lived on forever.  Thus the Old Testament writers were given to reminding God not to send them down to Sheol hastily, for then who would praise Him (Psalm 6:5)?   

     But among the Hebrews, at least from the time of the writing of Job, there had been an awareness of the shallowness of the doctrine of death forever.   For one thing, it meant that justice would never be done, for if both good and evil men enjoyed the same dreary existence, where was the justice of it all, and why seek righteousness.  Job who reflected that men are in a worse condition than a stump; they lie down and rise no more; til the heavens be no more they shall not awake.  The condition of a tree was better, because when spring comes the stump may blossom again, but mankind is destined to live forever in the dark world that I Peter described as a prison of the spirit.   

But, thinking on, Job asked: 

If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change comes.  Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee:  Thou wilt have a desire for the work of Thy hands (14:!415).  

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was already a belief in the resurrection, developed from the prophetic revelation of the Day of God on which the just would be rewarded and the unrighteous punished, which belief was amplified by the unofficial intertestamental books. Belief in the resurrection was a common belief among the Pharisees.  Lazarus’s sister Martha was a well-catechized lady of that party, who could say, “I know that my brother will live again in the resurrection at the last day.” So the background for belief the human soul has an eternal destiny that was more than just endurance was in place.  But that one should rise from the dead, that had never happened until that day when the women, Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb only to find it empty.  The apostolic mission was then fired with the knowledge of the living Christ.  Paul, who saw Him on the Damascus road, knew that Jesus had appeared to Peter, James, the other apostles, to over five hundred brethren at once.   John the Evangelist says, “We beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”   

The time between Our Lord’s Resurrection on the third day and Pentecost was one of expectant confusion; the disciples believed, but they still did not know what this meant. They were glad when they saw the Lord, but there was still doubt.  Then came Pentecost, and the apostles were ready to preach not a better morality, although repentance was necessary, but the fact that a corner in history had been turned, that the resurrected Christ was the Man who lives forever and He has the power to draw all those who were His into the divine life of the Incarnate God that would be lived in the New City, where there will be no hurt, no sin, no darkness (Rev 21:4-7).   

Jesus gave His disciples, and through them all mankind, a very specific promise.  Jesus promised life to those whom He loved and who loved Him.   The promise was not given to those who had an abstract desire for life; everyman fears death, but to those who belonged to Christ.  And what was promised was not mere existence, but the fulfillment of the heartin knowing even as we are known, seeing face to face, and continuing forever in the community of the saints that will carry us, as C. S. Lewis described it, further up and further in. 

Of course there was a problem about the past.  What about all those countless souls who had gone down to Sheol without knowing the Messiah, the Patriarchs and prophets of course, but also our parents and friends who missed the Good News.  For them, as the Creed proclaims,  Christ went down into that gray world and those who had longed for Him, who had in whatever terms believed in goodness, in life, in virtue, in self-giving,  perhaps without knowing what Martha knew, saw the fulfillment of their expectations  and came to Him.  As the Apostle Peter says:  He preached to the Spirits in prison (I Peter 3:19).  It may have been a lack of understanding of this truth that concerned members of the first Christian generation, some of whom feared that their beloved departed, people that one knew and remembered quite specifically, would be forever denied knowledge of Jesus.  Thus for a brief period the doctrine of the communion of the saints was interpreted  to  permit the living to be baptized for the dead (I Corinthians 15:29), bringing them into the community of the elect.  Saint Paul neither commended not reproved this practice, and it soon disappeared.  One of the startling texts in early Christian literature is the passage in the second-century Shepherd of Hermas that attributes to the apostles an appearance in the place of the departed to preach the Gospel.   The Shepherd was a much valued but in the long run not a canonical book, but this conviction that the Gospel should be preached universally attested the charity that inspired the apostolic mission.  And for the rest of history there would be the witness of those who believed the resurrection.    

Of course to be a modern is to be troubled by the particularity of this question.  Saint Paul was not troubled with the abstract knowledge of the millions who lived beyond his tight Mediterranean world as are we, who have daily knowledge of vast races and nations who do not believe or who believe in something other than the Son of God.  How God may use what is good in the intentions of those who do not know or believe perfectly, how He may understand their circumstances and limitations gently or narrowly is not part of our story.  But God is the God of the particular.  His actions suggest that he does not know abstractions and medians.  He calls even the stars by name.   That He should have chosen one people, then one person, Jesus of Nazareth to accomplish His will, is no more mysterious than that anything at all should exist.

God’s Design and the Race We Run

He saved us and called us to a holy life,
not according to our works
but according to His own design
and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began,
but now made manifest
through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,
who destroyed death and brought life and immortality
to light through the gospel
2 Timothy 1:9-10

My purpose in these notes is to convince the reader, who from time to times may have been puzzled that we are bound to believe that God causes everything while at the same time knowing that we are responsible and free, to be grateful for God’s predestining justice and love while trying manfully to live each day to His glory.

The subject of the first sentence of the text from First Timothy is God. This text tells us what God, in the majesty of his omnipotence and foreknowledge, does, how He does it, when He began, and the effects of His action. He saved us and called us to a holy life, without which we will not see God, not by our own works but by His plan, which was in effect at the beginning of creation, and which plan envisioned from the beginning the revelation of Jesus, who by His death and resurrection destroyed death and brought life and immortality. Our part in this grand design is to accept the gift, to accept the grace God gives through which we are able to love Him and to adhere to His will obediently.

Our willingness to accept the grace God gives was effective before time began. It has been in place forever. A holy life, apart from which we will not see God, is the gift of God, a work of grace, made effective with the appearance of Jesus. A holy life may be chosen by anyone. It will not be effective without enabling grace. This text places agency squarely where it belongs, in the will of God as it had been eternally. The metaphor of the potter with His clay is rooted in the Old Testament, and perfected by Paul (Isaiah 64:8, Romans 9:21). Its unmistakable point is that until God calls, we cannot answer, and that, further, answering is His gracious work in us. The great symbol of God’s perfect will is the Book of Life, in which the names of the elect have been written from the foundation of the world (Revelation 20:12).

Saint Paul summarizes the text superscript from First Timothy in the eighth chapter of Romans. “Those whom He foreknew, those He called. And those whom He called, those He justified, and those He justified those He glorified. What then shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? The design and gracious power are God’s.  It has never been part of His Gospel, part of the teaching of the apostolic ministry, that the elect are saved through their wills and good works apart from God’s grace, nor is anyone saved in opposition to his will, the will of everyman being free even as it is subject to God’s call and design.

Life is an awful business, awful because God, whose purposes will be done, will not take from any of His creatures, angels or men, the freedom that lies at the heart of personality as God created it in love. From the greatest angel to the newly conscience-aware child, and from the rebellion of the great archangel to the disobedience of our first parents, to those described by the daily newspaper, the possibility of rejecting the grace of God has been among us since Satan said, “Non serviam, I will not serve.” Even Satan, alien and malicious, is permitted to wander throughout the world (Revelation 12:17). The rejection of the will of God by anyone, read backward as it were, tells us that the cause of the rebellion must somehow lie in God’s predestining will, not in His positive will, for God can do no evil, but in His permissive will, which will not deny His creatures’ freedom. To paraphrase Saint Thomas, from question 23, article 3, as predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory, so also it includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to receive the punishment of eternal loss on account of that sin, if unrepented and unforgiven.

These truths govern the fearful economy of salvation, over which the eternal good will of God presides. This high theology does not explain the fate or end of any one soul, which God knows from eternity but which we do not. We, however, who are still on the road are given instructions for today by Christ Himself. We are to believe in His good will toward his creatures, We are given the prayer which He commanded His disciples to pray. Its final petition is for a race whose moral future is open. We are to pray: “Lead us (O God) not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (or the evil, or the evil one).” The argument has been made that the text cannot mean that God leads anyone into temptation. Yet we are told in Matthew that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and if He spared not His beloved son this trial, that same trial surely belongs to those who are His.

This cannot mean that God is seeking the destruction of any soul, but it may be that He permits the trial of many, not only in obvious ways such as want and persecution, but by the enduring of temptation. “Count it all joy,” says the Apostle James, “when you fall into various temptations. For you know that your testing produces steadfastness.” And the same apostle warns that God tempts no one, but we may be drawn away by the lure of our own passions; passion conceives and gives birth to sin; when sin has reached its full growth it breeds death (1:1–2). Thus souls are lost. We know that this may happen. Luke records Christ’s words describing the man whose soul is not planted deep in grace, who when temptation comes falls away (8:13).

So it is not impossible that anyone should fall from grace, which fact ever warns the Christian away from presumption. The theology of divine salvation and reprobation, the grand story of what God has willed from eternity, is not the story of the blessedness or loss of any soul, and ours it is, not daring to know the judgment of God, and believing in His favor to us, to be certain that the story of the man of rootless faith, the story of the barn-builder whose soul was required, the account of the rich man who neglected to feed the poor, the story of the rich man on whose doorstep Lazarus starved; that none of these is our story.

Our making good of life, living so that we can live with God throughout the ages of ages, is opposed not only by our weakness but by Satan, who with His alien band labors endlessly to deny souls the vision of God. The only rational creatures known finally to be lost are Satan and His fellow rebels, for they, having been created beyond time, having one only act of will, cannot now repent. The glory of God’s predestinate will is a cause of confidence in His justice, a subject of meditation and praise, but we are saved through our participation in the race that Saint Paul describes. Enabled by God’s grace, we can pursue the goal of making a holy life; being called to a holy life, is the work of a lifetime, the end of which we will know only by faith. We have been given the privilege of running the race that is set before us.

– Dr. James Patrick


You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that strikes in darkness

Psalm 91:5

To understand the evil of which plague and pestilence are species one must begin with Genesis One, making a decision whether the picture given in the opening verses of Scripture is the image of God struggling to create a world from disorder and chaos or whether the image we are given is of God overcoming chaos, darkness, and emptiness after a primordial catastrophe, the rebellion of the angels, on behalf of order, fullness of being, and light, making a world for Adam and Eve.   I believe the latter is the right picture, while the former makes chaos, emptiness and darkness part of God’s original creation, which is impossible. God does not create chaos and disorder, or disease, or sickness, or viruses and germs. A cancerous cell is instructive; it is a cell that has given up on its proper form and gone wild.  

Disease and sickness, whether forestalled temporarily or not, are the heralds of death, which is both a divine punishment, given so that rebel mankind will not live forever, making up good and evil for himself, eternal beings given to evil, and at the same time death is Satan’s masterpiece. 

Both nature and supernature are expressions of God’s will, of His creative will and His salvific will respectively.  In a sense nature is not ‘natural,’ for its existences, patterns, and reliabilities are willed by Him in every moment of time.   At the same time there are no accidents. Whatever happens is willed or permitted by God. Because He has not denied Satan the freedom he accords every rational being, the interface between God’s will and Satan’s malignancy is to us a mystery.   

Various things can be said about God’s government of nature and of souls, some at least partly true.  Underlying all is His good will toward man and nature, which is expressed on one hand in the consistency of nature granted in Genesis, a covenant of which the rainbow is the sign and on the other by his patient pursuit of fallen mankind throughout long years described in the Old Testament until there is the Incarnation and life with the Blessed Trinity forever.  At the same time, just as sin is not driven from the world, natural evil, moderated in Genesis One, is not driven out of creation. These, perduring natural evils and sin, are used by God in his government of man and nature. They may be employed by God to compel obedience, as in the seven plagues visited upon Egypt to secure Pharaoh’s willingness to let Israel go.   They may be used in punishment, as when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. They may be used first to punish then to allure the woman depicted in Hosea Chapter One. The Babylonians may be used to punish Israel with captivity in a foreign land because of Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. One may doubt that Jonah appeared in the Jerusalem Directory while believing that God is quite able to have the prophet swallowed by a large fish and redirected toward the Lord’s purpose.  At the same time we are warned against attributing the suffering of evil to those specifically afflicted by Our Lord Himself, who pointed out the truth that the Galileans whom Herod destroyed and the eighteen men on whom the tower fell were not worse offenders than the other Galileans and other inhabitants of Jerusalem. It is not our’s to know who deserved what.

But the mitigation of blame we might think due others on our part does not exhaust the matter of God’s particular government, regarding which Shakespeare left a brilliant essay in Henry V.   Contemplating the fact that many will die in battle at Agincourt.  

There is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to arbitrament of arms, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.  Some peradventure have upon them the guilt of contrived and premeditated murder; some of beguiling virgins . . . some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle peace with pillage and robbery. . . .  Now if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God. War is his beadle; war is his vengeance. . . . Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed—wash every mote out of his conscience.  And dying so, death is to him an advantage, or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained. And in him that escapes, it were not sin to think, that making God so free an offer, he let him live to see his greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.

War, sickness, the permission of evil, evil that we let into the world,  of any kind, are God’s beadles or correction officers. We do not expect to die from any modern plague; planning and good medicine will mitigate.  This was not always true. The Plague of Athens in BC 430 blunted the Athenians’ chances to defeat Sparta and caused political instability. The Plague of Justinian, from about 540 to 585, was caused by Yersinia pestis bacterium, the same that fueled the Black Death.  DNA suggests that the origin of Justinian’s plague was in Central Asia. The most basal or root level existing strains of the Yersinia pestis as a whole species are found in Qinghai, China. After samples of DNA from Yersinia pestis were isolated from skeletons of Justinian plague victims in Germany, It was found that modern strains currently found in the Tian Shan mountain range system are most basal known in comparison with the Justinian plague strain. If order and health are good things, bacteria and contemporary viruses are evil things.  They are not ‘natural’ any more than Covid-19 is ‘natural.’ They must be a perversion of something but I do not know what.  

The rat-borne Yersina pestis literally plagued Europe until 1750.  Plague occurred in Venice 22 times between 1361 and 1528. The plague of 1576–1577 killed 50,000 in Venice, almost a third of the population. Late outbreaks in central Europe included the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, which is associated with troop movements during the Thirty Years’ War, may have killed one-third of the population. The Great Plague of Vienna in 1679 killed 100,000.

During the last century medicine has made a brave, and much appreciated, show of being able to manage epidemics and pandemics.   Perhaps ten common potentially killer diseases have been mastered though hygiene, clean water, sewage disposal systems, and vaccinations, one great triumph being that near eradication of poliomyelitis.  How the present plague is different from those in the past is still unknown. Its moral dimensions are no different from any other.

And by the way, one of the puzzles of God’s providence is the fact that he sometimes seems to change his mind about the planned reminders, if we ask and repent.

– Dr. James Patrick –