Echoes of Celestial Harmony

Jul 8, 2014

I'm suffering from an embarrasing problem. It boils down to this: I believe that Christ makes sense of the cosmos and of life, and that without Him life doesn't end up making sense. 

Only, I don't believe this in some heartfelt, sentimental way, as in, "I believe there's a reason for everything that happens," or some such vacuous avoidance of reality that is true but not meaningful in most contexts. I'm not talking about a feeling or a shortcut to consolation.

I believe that in actual fact Christ makes sense of everything. 

Since the mind is always seeking sense, this sets me free to think rather freely, because thought is always an exploration of how things make sense, which is to say, of how they fit together. I don't have to worry about squeezing Jesus in, because I'm quite confident He's always there anyway. 

Like everybody, I am inclined to two errors, which here I will call "secularism," when I try to think without a Logos, and "fundamentalism," when I impose the Logos on things so much that the things are victimized instead of blessed by it. 

Now, we live in a secular age in which even religous people try to make sense of life without religion. This is odd, because religion is Latin for "tie together" and it is rather obvious that you can't make a tapestry if the strings aren't tied or woven properly. 

The modern wants to believe that he can have his own little corner of sense in a world that doesn't make sense. 

The fundamentalist reaction goes to the opposite extreme and demands that the sense perceived by the fundamentalist be adopted by everybody precisely as he understands and expresses it. He loses his flexibility and is hesitant to welcome new facts into his system for fear that it will break down, which it probably will. 

But I believe that Christ makes sense of everything. Not just what my theology explains or what I understand. I think He even makes sense of, say, literature. 

Here's where my embarrasment comes in. Christ gives such an incredibly clear and helpful overview of the artistic experience that it is downright simplistic to say it. I mean, I want to be respected by smart peole, and how are they going to respect me if I say something so obviously not research based or discovered by me through reading super hard books. 

Christ is the word made flesh. That explains everything. How embarrasing. 

Of course, it doesn't end the discussion, it just gives a framework by which we can make a lot of progress and cover a lot of ground and maintain confidence that if we remain faithful to the principles implied we can sustain and realize the harmony found in Christ. 

How does the Incarnate Logos explain everything? I don't know, but I can give some particular instances if you like. 

For example, every work of art is the incarnation of a logos. Not the Logos, but a logos. Every lesson is effective only when the logos (point of the lesson, in this case) is effectively incarnated. 

The well-trained artist who develops this theory to its limits achieves extraordinary things. For example, here's something I read this morning about Edmund Spenser, undoubtedly one of the four or five greatest poets in the English language:

The fourteen-line arrangement [of a Sonnet] reflects directly the Augustinian aesthetic of number, weight, and measure. In its original state it comprised an octet and a sestet, which may be abstracted to the ratio 4/3. The sonnet expresses a relationship between what is represented by 4, the mundane number, and what is represented by 3, the holy number of the Trinity -- that is, it demonstrates how the earthly transmutes to the heavenly....

Perhaps you hear a reflection here of what Joshua Gibbs wrote in this blog. I hope so, because that means I don't have to unpack as much as I would otherwise have to. 

But I do want you to notice a thing or two about this paragraph. First, Spenser was devoutly Christian in his thinking, something that the modern typically assumes undercuts art.

Two, the sonnet "reflects directly the Augustinian aesthetic." In other words, it is part of a very, very long tradition. 

Third, implied in this statement is an argument. The fundamentalist reaction will be that Augustine was feeding on Platonic theories and that therefore what the sonneteer is doing is not Christian (which he typically limits to what he inaccurately calls "Biblical" or, more recently, "Christian worldview"), but neo-pagan. The secularist is only too happy to agree. 

Both are speaking nonsense of course. To suggest that Augustine could not understand and use Platonic theories is to suggest that A. Plato could not have got anything right, and B. Christ only makes sense of a few things here and there. 

Since both of those positions are manifestly untrue, I can't accept them. Of course, it is also false that Augustine was dependent on Plato for all of his thoughts. In short, the reaction is childish and defensive, whether it comes from the fundamentalist or the secularist. 

The truly embarrasing belief that Christians are encouraged to hold is that the Father has given everything to the Son and the Son has given everything to us. It is an insult to Christ to fear to take possession of the gifts He secured for us, even when those gifts include pain and death, physical or intellectual. 

Listen to this, if you want to be even more embarrassed with me:

So the mathematics of the sonnet moves faithfully heavenward. By its form, the sonnet affirms the existence of heaven and assures the reader that he, like the lover, may arrive at it, participate in it. The form is resolutely optimistic, signifying the persistence of this providential order. In consequence, regardless of the rhetorical division of the sonnet and regardless of its subject matter, the 4/3 ratio inherent in its form is a comforting reminder that a vast design is in place.... The formal design insists upon the concept of order and acts as a norm, while the content becomes meaningful only as a variation of or deviation from that norm. 

Now, one point that I need to emphasize so my reader (you know who you are!) can see the connection of all this to Christ the incarnate Logos, is that it is "the form" that is "resolutely optimistic," regardless of the content. 

One of the reasons for the incoherence of modern thought, secular or fundamentalist, is its de-emphasis or even dismissal of form, which is always in fact either a self-delusion or a pretence (Nobody is more formal than a teenager walking the halls of a high school or more liturgical than a fan (or whatever they are called nowadays) at a rock concert. Those forms are, however, arbitrary and will-based. They are not based on an assumption of coherence in the cosmos). 

God is never embarrassed by form. He creates in, through, and by it, and He assumed it, with all its limitations, when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was incarnated:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation. But took upon Himself the form of a slave...

You cannot make sense of things without showing their relationships to each other. Those relationships comprise their form. The incarnation of the Logos is a formal act. The fundamentalist and secularist diminishment of form ensures that whatever content they might offer will only flow into the swamplands or evaporate from the desert. 

Spenser modified the sonnet into three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet and he did so because the form has cosmological significance. His imagination and his reason worked to this common end because both were activated and energized by the idea of an all-sufficient Christ. 

Later he wrote a very earthy poem called Mother Hubberd's Tale. Here is my author's summary of his form:

For this poetic performance, Spenser devises no metrical scheme that echoes celestial harmony [blogger's interruption: does that phrase not give you the chills?!]; instead, he satisfies himself with rhymed pentameter couplets, the modest verse that Chaucer had relied upon for the prologue that set his Canterbury tales in motion.

This is not to say that "Mother Hubberds Tale" is artless. Quite the contrary. But it is primitivistic art, self-consciously simple, rather than the sophisticated poetics of making that we have seen heretofore in Spenser's poems. It is the art of Chaucer, rather than of Dante, and throughout we see evidence of Chaucer's with and irony, and hear the echo of his language. The poem displays a shrewd and humorous knowledge of the world....

Why does he do this? Because it is fitting. This form sustains a lower level of insight, a more material, shrewd, simple response to a fascinating but lower level of reality. Human society in its present form both arouses and sustains a sloppier and slipperier form of poetry. 

But even human society can be brought into Christ's harmony, made beautiful, and glorified. And it will. 

This is why we need to learn to observe and live in the form of a work of art (such as, say, the Bible) if we want to understand it every bit as much as the content. 

Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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