The Fashionable Outcry of Each Generation

Continuing my series on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:

“….The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.  We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic.  The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.  Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.  Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will.  It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful.  The Enemy loves platitudes.  Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible?  Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time?  Is it progressive or reactionary?  Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.  And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make.  As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.  And great work has already been done.  Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent.  We have largely removed this knowledge.  For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant.’  We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favored heroes attain—not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” —C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letter #25

Read More

The Ghost of Charles Hodge (Final thought on McCormack lectures)

One more point occurred to me, that I had meant to mention in my reflections on the Croall lectures, and I thought it was worth posting as a brief afterthought–this is much more impressionistic, so take it with a grain of salt.  

Perhaps my greatest misgiving about McCormack’s project is ultimately that it’s too logical.  Allow me to explain.  When McCormack says something like, “The Word is eternally predisposed to become man, and thus humility and finitude is proper, not alien, to him; the logos is always the logos incarnandus,” I’m like “Right on!  Preach it brother!”  But when he goes a step further, and says, “And therefore, the Word does not empty himself in time, but emptied himself in eternity; he has always been self-confined by these human limitations, acting not by the power native to him, but the power of the Spirit,” I’m like “Whoa, hold on there!”  Now, one might say that the second statement really isn’t a separate step, but simply a logical result of the first statement, combined with the principle of divine immutability, and the principle that God is pure actuality, with no potentiality.  These principles would seem to lead us inexorably to the conclusion that if the Son always was going to be self-emptyingly finite, he must always have been self-emptyingly finite, otherwise he is realizing an unrealized potentiality in time and undergoing change.  Perhaps there is no way around this–logic is a cruel taskmaster, and not to be trifled with.

But I’m wary, because it has been said (don’t ask me to say precisely where and by whom) that all the great ancient heresies, perhaps especially in Christology, erred by trying to follow out a certain logical principle to its conclusion; existing doctrines seemed to them too shrouded in mystery and incoherence, and so they tried to find a neat logical solution.  Hence Nestorianism.  In response to Nestorius, Cyril and the Alexandrians said all kinds of delightfully paradoxical things, such as “the immortal one died,” “the impassible one suffered.”  The Chalcedonian creed itself is a devilish bundle of paradoxes.  Now, my suspicions are aroused when such paradoxical formulations are pounced upon by McCormack as signs of inconsistency, incoherence, of a logical knot that needs to be unraveled, rather than as a mystery to be gloried in, as the Alexandrians apparently considered them.  I think Cyril knew full well that his formulations did not fit into a neat logical package, but I think he thought that was precisely the point–the Incarnation is all about God not fitting himself into a neat logical package, but doing things we never could have imagined.  

McCormack spoke repeatedly of the need for a “well-ordered” doctrine of Christ, by which he meant one that ties up the logical loose ends; he admitted that of course there must always be a place for mystery, but was suspicious that most invocations of mystery are simply cop-outs, and excuses for protecting our biases.  I would suggest that a similar concern for consistency and order partially underlies McCormack’s antipathy to what he sees as muddled, hybridizing forms of ecumenical theology.  It certainly partially underlay his antipathy to ontological soteriologies, which he tended to consider hopelessly vague and mysterious. 

There seems to be something perversely modernist in all this, in the single-minded pursuit of strict logical consistency in such questions, and I think heresy is never far off when you try to renounce paradox and make it all make good plain sense.  Call me po-mo, call me Kierkegaardian, call me Catholic if you like.  But I have to at least wonder whether McCormack, occupying the Charles Hodge Chair of Systematic Theology, hasn’t inherited something of Old Princeton’s analytical scholasticism, with its desiccating effect on theology, anti-sacramental trajectory, and so forth. But there, I’m on the threshold of rambling and blathering, or perhaps already crossed it, so I will leave it at that.  

Again, this is not so much an outright criticism (though it may have sounded like one) as it is a vague discomfort, which I have hopefully succeeded here in making somewhat less vague.