The “Christian Worldview” and the Sacramental Imagination

The sacramental imagination invites us to rethink one of the hottest topics within Christian apologetics right now: the meaning of “a Christian worldview.”

In 1963, Fr. Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) addressed this topic of Christian worldview in a study guide written for the Quadrennial Conference of the National Student Christian Federation in Athens, Ohio in December 1963. The students in this group were preparing themselves for a discussion of Christian mission in the contemporary world. Schmemann, who was a liturgical scholar of Russian descent who immigrated to America in 1951, wanted to guide the students’ discussion through helping them to develop a correct understanding of a Christian “worldview.”

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The Sacramental Imagination

My previous post, “A Visit From G..K. Chesterton“, raised the issue of what is often referred to as “the sacramental imagination.” Along with other poets and novelists associated with the sacramental imagination (one thinks of authors like George Herbert, George MacDonald, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), Chesterton invited his readers to look at the world in a new way, to see the divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life.

Chesterton believed that we can best approach this sacramental vision by becoming like little children. He pointed out that as we mature we often lose the sense of wonder towards the world that came to us naturally when young. Taking inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi, Chesterton believed that the spiritual life was an invitation to regain this elemental sense of wonder, to have our spiritual senses sharpened so that we can begin seeing the halo of sanctity in all natural things. “…the whole philosophy of St. Francis”, he reflected, “revolved around the idea of a new supernatural light on natural things, which meant the ultimate recovery not the ultimate refusal of natural things.”

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Ravi Zacharias on Wonder

From Ravi Zacharias’ book Recapture the Wonder:

Wonder is that possession of the mind that enchants the emotions while never surrendering reason. It is a grasp on reality that does not need constant high points in order to be maintained, nor is it made vulnerable by the low points of life’s struggle. It sees in the ordinary the extraordinary, and it finds in the extraordinary the reaffirmations for what it already knows. Wonder clasps the soul (the spiritual) and is felt in the body (the material). Wonder interprets life through the eyes of eternity while enjoying the moment, but never lets the momentary vision exhaust the eternal. Wonder makes life’s enchantment real and knows when and where enchantment must lie. Wonder knows how to read the shadows because it knows the nature of light. Wonder knows that while you cannot look at the light you cannot look at anything else without it. It is not exhausted by childhood but finds its key there. It is a journey like a walk through the woods, over the usual obstacles and around the common distractions, while the voice of direction leads, saying ‘This is the way, walk ye in it’ (Isaiah 30:21 KJV). It is not at all surprising that of the seventy usages of the word wonder in the Old testament, nearly half of them are by David, the sweet singer of Israel. Wonder and music go hand in hand. Wonder cannot help but sing. Even nature recognizes that.”

A Visit from G.K. Chesterton

The late afternoon August sun shone mercilessly into my face as I made my way across the parking lot of the call center where I had been working as a janitor.

Generally, I liked the hot days in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, especially when I could go swimming in the lake with my daughter Susanna after work. But on that particular afternoon in early August, I had five hours of office work to look forward to, as part of a second Master’s degree I had begun to pursue. If I was lucky, I could get the work done in order to be in bed by 10:00, before beginning another long day as a janitor.

I had taken this janitorial job earlier in the summer after my business as a freelance writer had slowed down. Although working as a janitor could be mind-numbing and monotonous, it did have some compensations. For one thing, I was able to spend about a third of my work time listening to audio books. As I dusted railings, cleaned toilets and emptied trash cans, my imagination was fired up with the novels of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, John Buchan, Elizabeth Gaskell, Evelyn Waugh and Alexandre Dumas. These novels lifted my spirits and transported me into far-away worlds of suspense, heroism and romance.

On that particular afternoon in early August, however, the novels I listened to seemed to produce a deleterious effect. I couldn’t help thinking that the characters in these stories inhabited worlds that were so fresh and vivid compared to the monotony of modern life. As I approached my truck, I thought, “Why can’t I have the type of adventures that John Buchan’s characters are always falling into?” The novels reminded me that in my youth I had been like the young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and dreamed of traveling the world. Instead I was going grey cleaning toilets.

Once situated in my truck, I knew that I didn’t have the energy to drive home. I was finding it difficult to keep my eyes open, having got up at 5:00 AM that morning to squeeze in three hours of writing before beginning my janitorial duties. To make matters worse, there was a heavy smell of smoke in the air from wildfires raging in neighboring Montana. The smoke made me feel light-headed and drowsy.

As hot as it was in my truck, I decided to climb into the back seat and have a nap before driving back. After situating myself comfortably with a pillow I kept for such a purpose, my mind continued to dwell on the disparity of my boring life with the adventures of people like Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s novels, or the Count of Monte Cristo in Alexandre Dumas’ story by the same name. “Man,” I thought, “I would give anything to visit some of the places in these stories!”

I was just surrendering to drowsiness when suddenly I saw a gentlemen sitting in the front seat of my truck. I had no idea where he came from, nor how long he had been sitting there. When he saw that I had become aware of his presence, he simply said, “Hello” in a thick British accent.

Normally I would have been startled to see a strange man in my truck. But this gentleman seemed to be treating the entire occasion as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Somehow, this sense of ordinariness rubbed off on me. I would have been tempted to treat him as an apparition or vision were it not for the strong smell of cigar smoke that clung to his tweed suit. As far as his looks were concerned, I can only describe him by saying that he was extremely fat and looked exactly like the pictures of G.K. Chesterton in his mid-life.

Dozens of questions suddenly occurred to me, but somehow, all I was able to do was to blurt out, “Gosh, you sure look a lot like G.K. Chesterton.”

He eyed me inquisitively through his old fashioned spectacles, and then slowly replied, “My friend, the reason I look like G.K. Chesterton is because I am G.K. Chesterton.”

“Oh,” I said in excitement. “I’m so glad you’ve come because I just love your books, especially your stories.”

He nodded appreciatively.

“I especially enjoy that scene from The Man Who is Thursday where the character Sunday is riding through London on an elephant,” I said enthusiastically. “Nothing like that has ever happened in our world.”

“Oh?” he said inquisitively, as if inviting further comment.

“Well, I mean,” I continued, “my life in this town is just so boring by comparison. Everything just seems so prosaic and commonplace compared to the adventures I’ve been reading about.”

“Ah,” he replied, and then he muttered as if to himself, “this is more serious than I was told.” Then, turning back to me, he asked, “Do you not see a sort of halo to the edges of all earthly things?”

“Um,” I stuttered, not quite comprehending the question. “I can’t say that I do.”

Chesterton paused for a moment, as if deciding to change his approach. Then he burst out, “Oddsfish my man, does not the sun still rise every morning?”

“Well, of course,” I answered.

“Does the moon still wax and wane?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Does the sea still bare her bosom to the moon?”, he asked.

“Sure I guess, if you want to call it that,” I said.

“Good!” he expostulated. “For a minute you had me worried. How glorious, how splendid, how perfectly romantic!”

“But, I don’t understand,” I said. “Didn’t the moon wax and wane when you were living? Didn’t the sun rise every day? The world is simply doing what it’s always done and following natural laws.”

“Ah,” he replied with a faint twinkle on the corners of his mouth, “but what you call ‘natural laws’ seemed always to me to be the portent of a wonderful magic hovering just behind the very structure of things. No doubt you have grown too weak to exult in the theatrical encore you call monotony. You have grown too stupid—forgive me for making so bold—to receive the golden sun and silver moon like a schoolboy who has one sovereign and one shilling in his pocket.”

I stared at Chesterton, not knowing what to say.

He continued: “No doubt you think it would be most grand to enter into the story of Jack climbing the magic beanstalk. But have you never stopped to fathom the magic of being able to live in a world where there are beanstalks? No doubt you think it would be quite a glorious thing to live in a world where a fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach. But have you ever stopped to consider the sheer adventure of being alive in a world where there are mothers and where there are pumpkins?”

“No,” I replied, “I can’t say that I have ever did consider things from that point of view.”

“Don’t you see,” he continued. “Strange, peculiar and glorious things happen all the time, but their sheer regularity blinds you to the magic. Your problem is not a want of wonders, but a want of wonder. The poet John Donne once remarked that there ‘There is nothing that God hath established in the constant course of Nature, and which therefore is done everyday, but would seem a miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once.’”

Chesterton paused, in an ecstasy of joyful reflection on the quotation he had just shared. Then he suddenly ejaculated, “even that which you consider inconvenient is simply an adventure wrongly considered.”

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” I stammered. “But still, I would like to have a real adventure like those in the books I am reading.”

“My friend,” he said reflectively, “you are living in an adventure! The imaginative fiction you are reading is good, but only if it succeeds in awakening within you the elemental sense of wonder you had when you were young. When you were young you did not need fairy tales because mere life was interesting enough. Golden apples in the stories should refresh the forgotten moment when you found they were green. In the tales rivers run with wine only to help you remember, for one wild moment, the extraordinary fact that they run with water.”

After a pause he exclaimed, “Read Alexander Schmemann. You’ll find everything you need to know in the there.”

I thought for a minute, supposing Chesterton was referring to Schmemann’s classic work on the sacramental imagination, For the Life of the World.

Then, suddenly, I realized that I had been having this entire conversation laying down in the back seat. How rude of me. I moved to sit up in order to face my guest properly, but as I did so it felt like I was waking from a dream. I blinked a few times and then saw that I was alone. Where had Chesterton gone?

I would have been tempted to dismiss this entire episode as a dream, were it not for the faint wisp of cigar smoke that still hung about my truck, a tangible reminder of my visitor. Or maybe it was just the smoke from the local wildfires.

 

The Problem With Having an “Attitude of Gratitude”

You’ve probably heard dozens of times about the need to have an “attitude of gratitude.” I have even talked about that on this blog. But I have come to believe that telling ourselves, “I need to have a grateful attitude” is about as helpful as telling ourselves to “have a dieting attitude” or to “have an exercise attitude.” As with dieting and exercise, so with gratitude: what counts is actually practicing it in a tangible way.

We often think that specific gratitude practices flow out of a prior attitude of gratitude. But usually it works the other way round. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown tells how she used to assume that the people who were naturally joyful were the grateful people. But after devoting countless hours to interviewing hundreds of people about joy and gratitude, a surprising pattern began to emerge. Brown’s research began showing that a conscious choice to engage in gratitude activities is the cause of joy, not the other way round. “Without exception,” Brown writes, “every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice…. When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice.”

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Self-Esteem, Self-Compassion, Self-Love and Self-Care: Towards a Biblical Appraisal

Self-esteem, self-compassion, self-love, self-care. These are all hot topics in modern culture. As Christians it is sometimes easy to dismiss all these concepts as stemming from our systemic “focus on self” instead of thinking carefully about what these concepts actually mean and how they relate to Biblical teaching.

Before jumping into this topic, it should be noted that the fact that a concept has to do with the self does not automatically make it suspect. As we grow from spiritual sickness to spiritual wholeness, sometimes we need to focus on the self, just as a person who has a weight problem sometimes needs to focus on his weight, or a person with a broken leg needs to focus on his leg.

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Beauty and Virtue

In my recent article “Listen to Your Feelings“, I discussed the often overlooked relationship between beauty and virtue:

…it is through an emotional attraction to beauty that we are motivated to make moral judgments and to order our lives according to transcendent realities. Through the sense of beauty we are moved out of indifference to become emotionally invested in pursuing one outcome rather than another. For example, when Eve succumbed to the temptation to disobey God (Gen. 3:6), it was because the beauty of the tree and its effects (“pleasant to the eyes… desirable to make one wise”) captured her imagination with greater force than the beauty of remaining faithful to the will of God. That example might lead us to disparage the role of beauty in moral decision-making, and yet the same principle also works in the other direction as the Holy Spirit sanctifies our feelings and imaginations. Through a sense of Christ’s beauty, we become emotionally invested in following Him. For example, when we observe character traits in Bible characters and saints that are worthy of emulation, when we identify certain things as honorable or shameful, when our praise of God is rooted in heart-felt admiration, or when we order our actions based on a longing for outcomes that lie outside the scope of the present life but which are attractive to our imagination—all these things partly arise from a sense of “the beauty of holiness.” (Ps. 96:9) A rightly-ordered sense of beauty is thus central to the moral imagination of the believer.

Neuroscience and the Reductionist Temptation

In C.S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a fascinating dialogue that happens after the company from Narnia voyage to an island at the beginning of the end of the world. The Narnians meet a star named Ramandu, who dwells on the island with his beautiful daughter.

When the company are told that Ramandu is “a retired star”, Edmund announces, “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

Ramandu replies: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

That’s an important distinction. What a thing is made of is not always the same as what a thing actually is.

The Brain-Plasticity Revolution

I thought of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader last week when I came across an intriguing article by Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the leading pioneers in the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity.

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Listen to Your Feelings – they might have something important to tell you

One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.

The main character of the film, John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.

The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed to believe that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, the citizens willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.
One day, when Preston accidently misses his dose of Prozium II, he gradually begins to be awakened to beauty through works of art he was hired to destroy. Gradually he begins questioning the disordered sense of morality that had previously motivated his actions. Using his skills in martial arts, Preston works to overthrow the leader of the police state and assist the rebels in restoring human emotion to society.

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The Virtue of Vulnerability in an Age of Sentimentalism, Stoicism and Cynicism

This post was originally published back in April, but I am reposting it after adding some more information on Stoicism and adding footnotes to the source material used in my research.

Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. In fact, once they were even featured on the cover a homeschool magazine. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their father would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making him upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of expression what she really felt.

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