Action and Evil: the Fall Reading Group
St George’s Round Church, 2018
Jane Austen, Graham Greene, Dorothy Day
Conscience, whether or not formed by religion, moves us to action for the good and against evils, but, again and again, we are confronted by evils which our good deeds seem to require as means, or implicate as effects. Our ancient Greek ancestors, both in religion and philosophy, faced this reality without self-deception. They saw that all doing requires choosing between goods. To do or to love one good is at best not to do or love another, and, at its extreme in tragedy, is to reject, oppose, and even hate another. Therefore the best life is not practical but contemplative. In contemplation all the goods divided by practical choice are known and enjoyed together; the life of God is shared and we become God’s friends. Religious life is for most of us the primary sphere of contemplation.
Christianity brought from Judaism friendship with God, neighbour, and the cosmos, of which Genesis made us the crowning part, by love. All Christ demands is summed up in two commandments to love, and this is love, not in words only, but also in deeds. Practice became necessary to the good. However, the same great theologian of love, whose symbol is a heart enflamed by love, taught also that, in our present state, humans cannot not sin. Hell is made by love. Charles Williams articulated the Augustinianism which underlies Western Christianity, the Christianity of all our authors. It is fundamental to his doctrine of Co-inherence.
We inhere in one another in sin and guilt as well as in redemption. “ ‘Fuimus ille unus’ Augustine said; ‘we were in the one when we were the one.’ Whatever ages of time lay between us and Adam, yet we were in him and we were him; more, we sinned in him and his guilt is in us. And, if indeed all mankind is held together by its web of existence, then ages cannot separate one from another. Exchange, substitution, co-inherence are a natural fact, as well as a supernatural truth. ‘Another is in me,’ said Felicitas; ‘we were in another,’ said Augustine. The co-inherence reaches back to the beginning as it stretches on to the end, and the anthropos is present everywhere. ‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’; co-inherence did not begin with Christianity; all that happened then was that co-inherence itself was redeemed and revealed by that very redemption as a supernatural principle as well as a natural. We were made sin in Adam but Christ was made sin for us and we in him were taken out of sin. To refuse the ancient heritage of guilt is to cut ourselves off from mankind as certainly as to refuse the new principle. It is necessary to submit to the one as freely as to the other. The new principle had been introduced into the web, and only that principle could separate one soul from another or any soul from the multitude. The principle was not only in the spirit but in the flesh of man.” (The Descent of the Dove, 69-70)
Williams repeats this Augustinian teaching in the Epilogue to The Descent of the Dove, adding how the good knowing good as evil (Adam) is our destruction, and the good knowing evil as good (the Adam of whom Adam is an image, Christ) is our salvation: “In that natural co-inherence, the Christian Church has understood another; the about-to-be-born already co-inheres in an ancestral and contemporary guilt. It is shapen in wickedness, and in sin has its mother conceived it. The fundamental fact of itself is already opposed to the principle of the universe; it knows that good as evil, and therefore it derives and desires its own good disorderly.” (p. 234)
The consequence, drawn by Augustine, and unavoidable, is that freedom is given to humans from outside, that freedom depends on grace. This, in Christendom, from Constantine until it lost the power to do so, seemed to require what Williams labels, “the Imposition of Belief.” If the Church, as the community and means of the grace given from outside is the condition of freedom, then its imposition of belief, with all the evils that entailed and entails, is necessary to the good. This is why, for Williams, liberal toleration has been forced as a practical necessity contrary to a theological one. “A man, it is felt, cannot be expected to keep faith with something which contradicts and destroys the whole nature of faith and of life. ‘No faith with heretics’ is not an ecclesiastical rule; it is a natural and inevitable human emotion. … [Heresy destroys the human] and with the inhuman there can be no treaty. This is the difficulty of toleration; it is also the objection to toleration. ” (Descent, pp. 178-9) “Compromise was unthinkable, and toleration had to be a necessity before it could be a virtue. In fact, as a virtue it does not yet exist, though we once thought it did. For our fathers became bored and miserable and decadent through their incessant killing, and we, the children of that killing, supposed ourselves to be convinced of charity, when, in truth, we only shuddered still at the memory of blood.” (Descent, p. 182) “Messias and his Apostles had not spent a great deal of time talking about freedom and personal independence and individualism and a man’s right to his own opinions. … But, what with one thing and another, the idea that everyone ought to be as free as possible had spread widely during the nineteenth century. Even then (and even now) that farther development of liberty which has been nobly defined to be ‘the protection and not the persecution of the Opposition’ had not spread far. It was not easy for it to spread in Christendom, for, by definition, Christendom cannot fundamentally admit the right of an Opposition (to its dogmas) to exist; to refuse the Co-inherence is to separate oneself from the nature of things.” (Descent, pp. 216-7)
The Augustinian crushing of natural practical freedom has the consequence that its assertion comes to us as a heresy, Pelagianism. Dame Rebecca West, in a closely argued analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in terms of the Calvinist Augustinianism of the Renaissance, defines that Pelagianism. “Shakespeare’s work gives impressive testimony against a heresy which had been revived by the Renaissance and was steadily to gain adherents till it triumphed in the nineteenth century: against Pelagianism. It was an array of evidence against the theory that man is free equally to choose between good and evil, and that, should he choose good, his own natural ability will enable him to reach moral perfection, and that our race could be changed and made innocent without search for a higher authority and submission to it.” (The Court and the Castle, 1975, pp. 70-71).
She goes on to write: “The pessimism of Hamlet is indeed extreme. It is Calvinist in its allegation of total depravity, and indeed there are echoes of Calvin’s voice all through this play, never more strongly than in the ‘What a piece of work is man’ speech. For Calvin had the same sense as Shakespeare that man is an “extraordinarily beautiful creature ‘So hath God marvellously garnished the heaven and the earth with so absolutely perfect plenty, variety and beauty of all things as possibly might be, as it were a large and gorgeous house furnished and stored with abundance of most finely chosen stuff, last of all how in framing man and adorning him with so goodly beauty, and with so many and so great gifts he had shewed in him the most excellent example of all his work.’ (lnstitutes of the Christian Religion, I, 14, par 20 ) Again and again he extols man as a token of God’s glory, replenished with infinite miracles. There was much divergence between Shakespeare and Calvin when they came to examine the flimsiness of this pretty toy of creation. The quintessence of dust, Shakespeare cal1ed him, and Calvin spoke of a cottage of clay. But Calvin promised that some of this clay would be translated to predestined glory, while Shakespeare is silent and leaves his damned world damned forever on his page.” (The Court and the Castle, pp. 75-76).
In the framework of the Hellenic and Christian opposition of practice and freedom and of natural co-inherence in sin and supernatural co-inherence in grace giving freedom, I propose that we read three short books over the course of September, October and November in this order: Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818), Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955), Dorothy Day, From Union Square to Rome (1938). We shall meet in St. George’s Round Church for an hour and a half on eleven Monday evenings beginning September 10 at 7 p.m.
Evidently the three books and their circumstances are very different, but I hope we shall find important places where they bear on the problems of acting here and now. Jane Austen comes just before the Church of England breaks into the opposition of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical. The Church seems completely absorbed into the moral life of society, the opinion of “the world” is decisive. However, no one discerns more exactly the human incapacity not to sin than does this daughter of the Rectory, and no one builds more subtly and completely the Prayer Book pattern of moral life, repentance and forgiveness into the fall and reconciliation the characters in her novels enact. Here is one solution: the necessity of error and the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. Augustine seemed to think that this practice was what Christianity gave the world.
Graham Greene is also a British author, but, with this semi-biographical novel set in Viet Nam, we move, as with Dorothy Day, to a Roman Catholic writer, and to questioning of the capitalist American imperium from both the Marxist and the Catholic alternatives. In this problematic there is much common to Charles Williams, and especially to Fr Robert Crouse, who introduced some of us to Williams, Augustine, Dorothy Day, and Das Kapital. The quiet American (Pyle) of the title is the Pelagian, whose principles and modes of action are those the Americans employed in Viet Nam in the 1960s and subsequently in the Middle East. The novel is prophetic. Fowler, the British journalist, its central character, gives up, in a shocking way, his “I am not involved,” being only an observer. The interplay forcing this move to deadly action is with Pyle, the Communist guerrillas, and the French colonial administration, seen as Catholic and European, and Augustinian vis-à-vis the quiet American. God may compel us to enact his own justice against our wills. This is another solution. (By the way do NOT watch either of the film versions. They banalize as well as deceive).
Dorothy Day, a New York American, writes of her conversion from Communist journalist to the Roman Catholicism of the Catholic Worker Movement in dialogue with Marxism—the situation with which the last Chapter of the Descent of the Dove, “the Return of the Manhood” leaves us. Although this autobiography in the form of a letter to her brother was written 80 years ago, it has much for those seeking a Christian inner life and forms of ministry in North End Halifax now. She and her co-workers inspired a form of activism which remains surprisingly present in transformative Christianity in North America. Here, as with the old Hellenes, but differently, action is suffering, participation in, and bearing with and for, others, The Passion. Greene venerates this mode as well. This is another solution. There is an official “cause” for her beatification and Dorothy Day has the title “Servant of God.”
The three books are in the public domain and we will be able to post .doc and pdf versions of them on the St G’s website. I shall post materials on my Academia.edu site. Persuasion was read this year in the Foundation Year Programme, so there are lots of copies available in Halifax. From the second meeting on we will assume that everyone has read the whole of Persuasion, so make it part of your Summer reading. Those wishing to prepare cannot do better than think about the confession of sin and absolution before Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, the Exhortation at the beginning of Baptism, and “The Commandments” in the Prayer Book Catechism.
This series was conceived in conversation with the Drew – Sperry House, with Patrick Graham, and with his library, and is dedicated to them.
St Joan of Arc, 2018