And I Learned to Love These People

The Life of Leo Tolstoy

I was repelled by the fact that these people’s lives were like my own, with only this difference—that such a life did not correspond to the principles they expounded in their teachings. I clearly felt that they deceived themselves and that they, like myself, found no other meaning in life than to live while life lasts, taking all one’s hands can seize. I saw this because if they had had a meaning which destroyed the fear of loss, suffering, and death, they would not have feared these things. But they, these believers of our circle, just like myself, living in sufficiency and superfluity, tried to increase or preserve them, feared privations, suffering, and death, and just like myself and all of us unbelievers, lived to satisfy their desires, and lived just as badly, if not worse, than the unbelievers.

No arguments could convince me of the truth of their faith. Only deeds which showed that they saw a meaning in life making what was so dreadful to me—poverty, sickness, and death—not dreadful to them, could convince me. And such deeds I did not see among the various believers in our circle. On the contrary, I saw such deeds done by people of our circle who were the most unbelieving, but never by our so-called believers.

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

What then?

And I began to draw near to the believers among the poor, simple, unlettered folk: pilgrims, monks, sectarians, and peasants. The faith of these common people was the same Christian faith as was professed by the pseudo-believers of our circle. Among them, too, I found a great deal of superstition mixed with the Christian truths; but the difference was that … the whole life of the working-folk believers was a confirmation of the meaning of life which their faith gave them. And I began to look well into the life and faith of these people, and the more I considered it the more I became convinced that they have a real faith which is a necessity to them and alone gives their life a meaning and makes it possible for them to live. In contrast with what I had seen in our circle—where life without faith is possible and where hardly one in a thousand acknowledges himself to be a believer—among them there is hardly one unbeliever in a thousand. In contrast with what I had seen in our circle, where the whole of life is passed in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction, I saw that the whole life of these people was passed in heavy labor, and that they were content with life. In contradistinction to the way in which people of our circle oppose fate and complain of it on account of deprivations and sufferings, these people accepted illness and sorrow without any perplexity or opposition, and with a quiet and firm conviction that all is good. In contradistinction to us, who the wiser we are the less we understand the meaning of life, and see some evil irony in the fact that we suffer and die, these folk live and suffer, and they approach death and suffering with tranquility and in most cases gladly. In contrast to the fact that a tranquil death, a death without horror and despair, is a very rare exception in our circle, a troubled, rebellious, and unhappy death is the rarest exception among the people. And such people, lacking all that for us and for Solomon is the only good of life and yet experiencing the greatest happiness, are a great multitude. I looked more widely around me. I considered the life of the enormous mass of the people in the past and the present. And of such people, understanding the meaning of life and able to live and to die, I saw not two or three, or tens, but hundreds, thousands, and millions. And they all—endlessly different in their manners, minds, education, and position, as they were—all alike, in complete contrast to my ignorance, knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good.

And I learned to love these people. The more I came to know their life, the life of those who are living and of others who are dead of whom I read and heard, the more I loved them and the easier it became for me to live. So I went on for about two years, and a change took place in me which had long been preparing and the promise of which had always been in me. It came about that the life of our circle, the rich and learned, not merely became distasteful to me, but lost all meaning in my eyes. All our actions, discussions, science and art, presented itself to me in a new light. I understood that it is all merely self-indulgence, and that to find a meaning in it is impossible; while the life of the whole laboring people, the whole of mankind who produce life, appeared to me in its true significance. I understood that that is life itself, and that the meaning given to that life is true: and I accepted it.

What Christianity Offered

HOSPITAL; MIDDLE AGES; CHRISTIAN; LEPROSY

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis of solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries

Wish Me Luck

Cecco del Caravaggio, Cacciata dei mercanti dal tempio (Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple)

[S]uppose I, a hobbit-like American writer sitting in my armchair, became suddenly curious about the geography around and under 1980-something Piccadilly Circus, which in the intervening decades has been completely remapped. It’s not as easy as you might think to recover even this recent piece of history, even in 2021. Now imagine instead that I am a Greek writer in the late first or early second century, hoping to fabricate a convincing memoir of the pre-70 A.D. life and times of an itinerant Jewish peasant. Wish me luck in this hypothetical, because I’ll need it.

Esther O’Reilly, “What’s the truth about John’s Gospel?”

Do the Work

Yes, You Can Trust the Four Gospels. Even When They Conflict.

There is nothing more “humble” about saying that the evidence is insufficient to determine historicity than about saying that the evidence is sufficient. There is an epistemically objective fact of the matter. If you assert that the evidence is insufficient to tell, you should be prepared to defend that just as much as if you said that we can be confident that the event happened or that it didn’t. Downgrading the probability of the proposition that Jesus historically said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” to .5 is just as much a mistake if the evidence is strong for its historicity than upgrading its probability to something high if the evidence is weak. … Agnosticism needs to be proportionate to the evidence just as much as affirmation or denial. Do the work to decide what the evidence itself really says.

Lydia McGrew

Full quote here.

When it comes to religion, saying “I don’t know” sounds wise and refined, because agnosticism about matters of faith is fashionable. And after all: There are so many different religions, so many arguments for and against each of them, so many (legitimate!) reasons to be skeptical of religious authorities—who are we to say one path is right and the others all wrong?

But notice: Agnosticism about many other matters is decidedly unfashionable. Expressing skepticism about climate change, the 2020 presidential election, “systemic racism,” etc. doesn’t make you sound refined; it makes you sound ignorant—or even hateful. And yet there are so many different views on political and scientific matters, so many arguments for and against each one, so many (legitimate!) reasons to be skeptical of political and scientific authorities…

So: The air of sophistication which surrounds (religious) agnosticism is no more than a mirage—a contingent cultural artifice. It is not, in the main, the product of honest reflection. It is much oftener the product of a deeply solipsistic fear.

Of course, sometimes agnosticism is called for. And sometimes it is not. How can we tell when it is and when it isn’t?

McGrew has the answer: “Do the work to decide what the evidence itself really says.”

Where There Is a Gift, There Is a Gift-giver

Mac Galaxy Wallpaper (76+ images)

Gratitude is a social emotion, the response we feel when we’ve been given a gift. And where there is a gift, there is a gift-giver. As I say in the book, you can’t feel grateful for life and creation and be an atheist, not emotionally. Being awed at the cosmic odds is different from saying “Thank you.”

Richard Beck, “Pascal’s Pensées: Week 17, At Home in the Universe?”

Back Behind and Underneath

The Tree of Life: a note |

[B]ack behind and underneath Job’s calculus of guilt and innocence; deeper than tit-for-tat human schemes that would supposedly sort out all the rational, moral reasons for why things happen in the world the way they do; beyond all this, at the heart of everything there is an unending, un-endable generosity, a light that can never be extinguished, an unfathomable source of life and goodness and wisdom. This isn’t merely some impersonal source of inspiration or fortitude that will get you safely through grief and out the other side; this ceaseless gift comes from the presence of the LORD Himself, the God who addresses Job, who speaks with Job, who seeks Job out precisely in his pain and loneliness. Beyond all deserving or undeserving, the LORD comes to Job. The LORD reveals Himself. Job is not given a platitude; he encounters a Person. The LORD is there—in majesty and mercy. And ultimately, in repentance and trust and hope, Job says to God, “I had heard You with my ear, but now my eye perceives You. Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:5-6, NJPS). Job has not had his questions answered, but he has met the One who made him—the One who will open a future for him beyond all deserving or comprehending, the One who asks not for comprehension but for humility and trust.

Wesley Hill, “The Voice from the Whirlwind”

Read the whole thing.

Lewis on Glory

Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one. I do not see how the “fear” of God could have ever meant to me anything but the lowest prudential efforts to be safe, if I had never seen certain ominous ravines and unapproachable crags. And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by the “love” of God would never, so far as I can see, have existed. … And not, on the Christian premises, by accident. The created glory may be expected to give us hints of the uncreated; for the one is derived from the other and in some fashion reflects it.

CS Lewis, The Four Loves

Evil Is an Invasion

G. K. Chesterton - Wikipedia

It is easy enough to make a plan of life of which the background is black, as the pessimists do; and then admit a speck or two of star-dust more or less accidental, or at least in the literal sense insignificant. And it is easy enough to make another plan on white paper, as the Christian Scientists do, and explain or explain away somehow such dots or smudges as may be difficult to deny. Lastly it is easiest of all perhaps, to say as the dualists do, that life is like a chess-board in which the two are equal, and can as truly be said to consist of white squares on a black board or of black squares on a white board. But every man feels in his heart that none of these three paper plans is like life; that none of these worlds is one in which he can live. Something tells him that the ultimate idea of a world is not bad or even neutral; staring at the sky or the grass or the truths of mathematics or even a new-laid egg, he has a vague feeling like the shadow of that saying of the great Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Every existence, as such, is good.’ On the other hand, something else tells him that it is unmanly and debased and even diseased to minimise evil to a dot or even a blot. He realises that optimism is morbid. It is if possible even more morbid than pessimism. These vague but healthy feelings, if he followed them out, would result in the idea that evil is in some way an exception but an enormous exception; and ultimately that evil is an invasion or yet more truly a rebellion. He does not think that everything is right or that every thing is wrong, or that everything is equally right and wrong. But he does think that right has a right to be right and therefore a right to be there, and wrong has no right to be wrong and therefore no right to be there. It is the prince of the world; but it is also a usurper. So he will apprehend vaguely what the vision will give to him vividly; no less than all that strange story of treason in heaven and the great desertion by which evil damaged and tried to destroy a cosmos that it could not create. It is a very strange story and its proportions and its lines and colours are as arbitrary and absolute as the artistic composition of a picture. It is a vision which we do in fact symbolise in pictures by titanic limbs and passionate tints of plumage; all that abysmal vision of falling stars and the peacock panoplies of the night. But that strange story has one small advantage over the diagrams. It is like life.

GK Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

The Understanding Set Free

David Hume Ramsay

What I would say about the arguments that I have given is that, first, these arguments do lend rational support to Christian belief … and, secondly, I require God’s help to find them convincing—indeed, even to find them faintly plausible. Hume has said, “Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its [the Christian religion’s] veracity: and whoever is moved by faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” The Christian who ignores Hume’s ironic intent and examines this statement seriously will find that it is very close to the truth in one way and very far from it in another. God’s subversive miracle is indeed required for Christian belief, but what this miracle subverts is not the understanding but the flesh, the old Adam, our continued acquiescence in our inborn tendency to worship at an altar on which we have set ourselves. (For this is what Hume, although he does not know it, really means by “custom and experience.”) And by this miracle the understanding is set free.

Peter van Inwagen, “Quam dilecta”

Which Is It, Then?

Becoming Mrs. Lewis' explores the turbulent life of the woman C. S. Lewis  called 'my whole world' - The San Diego Union-Tribune

If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. … But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.
Either way, we’re for it.
What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ Have they never even been to a dentist?

CS Lewis, A Grief Observed

Which is it, then?

“No God” must be ruled out. Our contingent, finite, spatiotemporally bound universe exists. Ex nihilo nihil fit: Our universe must therefore have a cause which is necessary, infinite, and unbound by space or time. Things are slightly more complicated than that—but not by much.

Which is it, then? A good God, or a bad one?

What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?

We set Christ against it. But how if He were mistaken? … The trap, so long and carefully prepared and so subtly baited, was at last sprung, on the cross. The vile practical joke had succeeded. … Is it rational to believe in a bad God? Anyway, in a God so bad as all that? The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile?

I think it is, if nothing else, too anthropomorphic. When you come to think of it, it is far more anthropomorphic than picturing Him as a grave old king with a long beard. That image is a Jungian archetype. … It preserves mystery. Therefore room for hope. Therefore room for a dread or awe that needn’t be mere fear of mischief from a spiteful potentate. But the picture I was building up last night is simply the picture of a man like S.C.—who used to sit next to me at dinner and tell me what he’d been doing to the cats that afternoon. Now a being like S.C., however magnified, couldn’t invent or create or govern anything. He would set traps and try to bait them. But he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend.

A bad God (or a bad man) could perhaps ape goodness and beauty to some degree. He could not create them out of nothing without examples of each to imitate (and eventually pervert). Have your pick of all the archvillains of history and fiction: Could any of them have composed not just your favorite poems but poetry itself? Could any of them have fashioned not just your favorite flowers but color and light and life themselves? Could Sauron, Hitler, Stalin, the Joker, or the Wicked Witch of the West not just have faked love but invented it?

But then every daffodil and peal of laughter and act of love is a singular proof of the existence of a good God.

Why, then, the tortures?

One answer is that faith only becomes serious when it becomes a latter of life and death—that only torture can awaken us from our madness:

Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game ‘or else people won’t take it seriously’. Apparently it’s like that. Your bid—for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity—will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high; until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man … out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.
And I must surely admit … that, if my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better. And only suffering could do it. But then the Cosmic Sadist and Eternal Vivisector becomes an unnecessary hypothesis. … God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. … He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.

But another answer, in some respects the only answer, is that we simply do not know: do not know why Joy Davidman rather than CS Lewis, why the apostle James rather than his brother John, why this tragedy rather than another—or no tragedies at all.

And all the while the tortures continue apace. What, then?

Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind. One is that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forbode. But the other, that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.