Losing Battles and Jack the Giant Killer

Not long ago,  I read another writer mocked for fighting what he was told was a losing battle.  The question concerned same-sex marriage, whether or not society, through coercive government power, ought to redefine marriage to include romantic relationships by members of the same sex. But, overall, it is not the specific question of same-sex marriage that concerns us, but the principle.  The writer opposed the redefinition, was told that society had already decided, that he was fighting a losing battle, and that he may as well give up.  This idea is sometimes expressed too in the claim that one shouldn’t be on the “wrong side of history.”  In brief, get on the bus or get crushed beneath it.

As a moral principle or motivation of human action, this is logically absurd- a simple case of bandwagoning at its ugliest.  Everyone else is doing this, supporting this, or thinking this way and, for that reason and that reason alone, we ought to as well.  It is simply a textbook case of the ad populum fallacy, that is, determining which side is right simply by appeal to the majority.  The question, however, is never if a man is on the winning or losing side, but if he is on the right or wrong one.

The “avoid the losing side,” principle, though, is even worse.  Not only logically fallacious, the principle represents sheer moral cowardice.   A man doesn’t fight because he is on the winning side, but because he is on the right side; and he fights to find out if the right side will be the winning side.  To fight on a side simply because it is stronger or winning is like a child on the schoolyard following a bully as a lackey just so he will win and be safe.  This is distasteful in a child, but contemptible in an adult.

One thinks of G.K. Chesterton’s remarks on Jack the Giant Killer (1).  The old fairy tales keep a truth forgotten by the modern world.  The giant probably considered himself on the right side of history; his was the direction history was moving in because he had power to make it so.  Certainly he would have laughed at any suggestion that he was not on the winning side.  And he probably saw Jack as a very small and backward person who was himself on the wrong side of history, which is to say, on the wrong side of the giant.  But, as Chesterton says, Jack didn’t care whether the giant was very large,  only whether or not he was very right or very wrong.  Modern nonsense stories sometimes praise a man for his courage in being on the right side of some progressive movement or other; but that is absurd.  What courage is possible if a man is simply on the side that history is moving in anyway?  What courage is there is being on the side of the giant?  But Jack was not on the winning side or the strong side.  He was on the weak side.  And so he was on the brave side.  Figuring out which side is going to be the winning side and then joining it, that is, being on the right side of history or avoiding a losing battle requires no courage at all.  As Chesterton remarked:

The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong… To be in the weakest camp is to be in the strongest school. Nor can I imagine anything that would do humanity more good than the advent of a race of Supermen, for them to fight like dragons. If the Superman is better than we, of course we need not fight him; but in that case, why not call him the Saint? But if he is merely stronger (whether physically, mentally, or morally stronger, I do not care a farthing), then he ought to have to reckon with us at least for all the strength we have. It we are weaker than he, that is no reason why we should be weaker than ourselves. If we are not tall enough to touch the giant’s knees, that is no reason why we should become shorter by falling on our own (1).

More historically, another boy once fought another giant.  And like Jack, that boy cared nothing for whether he was fighting a losing battle or if he was on the right side of history.  The giant laughed at him, ridiculed him, despised him, and held him in contempt.  But with only a slingshot and a small, round stone, the boy felled the giant and cut off his head (1 Samuel 17).  The losing battle turned into victory unforeseen, unless perhaps by a few who might have known their fairy tales.  It might be the same today.  Same-sex marriage might be supported by all the force of powerful lobbies, coercive government power, and the might of the modern media, but such a giant could hardly matter to Jack.

Finally, there is a special reason that a Christian need never be afraid of a losing battle.  Because according to their chief story, a certain peasant carpenter once also fought a losing battle against a corrupt and powerful empire.  He fought too against corrupt religious authorities whose task it was to defy the world, but had accommodated themselves to it.  As Fulton Sheen has remarked, his battle was fought not with five stones, but with 5 wounds, and when hung from a tree by his enemies, his losing battle seemed lost.  History was on the side of the powerful, the strong, the might and imperial eagle of Rome.  But his was another victory unforeseen, as His losing battle was won, crucifixion ending in Resurrection.  And centuries later, when the world’s greatest empire fell to the Germanic barbarians, His Church outlived the empire, as it has outlived kings and empires ever since.  Losing battles can be still worth fighting, Giants still need to be slain, and there is still a place in the modern world for Jack.

(1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/470/470-h/470-h.htm#chap05

Heretics, Chapter 5.

The Medieval Worldview: The Gothic Cathedral

One summer I was doing my dissertation research in Europe and ran into a young Norwegian woman in Bologna, Italy. She asked me how I liked my travels and I mentioned especially my love of the great Medieval Cathedrals. She dismissively waved a hand and replied, “eh, you’ve seen one old Church, you’ve seen them all.” I was able to resist the urge to call her a viking barbarian and tell her that this was why her ancestors had pillaged Europe for 150 years—but it was a near thing. At any rate, I’ve since come to realize more and more the dependence of architecture on one’s world-view. As I wrote in an earlier post, man in the Middle Ages looked out at the same universe that modern man does, but it meant something different to him. The Cathedrals reflected a certain world-view, a world-view that modern man does not share and hence may struggle to understand.

The Medieval Cathedrals, Gothic architecture, were enormously expensive. Henry III spent 45,000 pounds on one, nine times the annual income of his whole realm. They could take hundreds of year to complete, an architect who began one could have no expectation that he would live to see his work finished. Furthermore challenges of transporting material and other technical challenges were tremendous. It is hard to imagine anyone going through similar effort for a building today. Why do it then? How the Cathedrals were built and what they looked like is one question. The “skyscrapers of their day,” as one art historian called them, were committed to as much height as possible. Hence, they made use of flying buttresses (except the Italians, who considered the flying buttress ugly) and the pointed arch, to allow greater height. With greater height, taller stained glass windows could be built, sometimes costing as much at the rest of the cathedral combined. The purpose: to flood the Cathedral with as much light as possible. What was the point and what did it mean?


The point was that the Cathedral represented an image of heaven. The Cathedral had its meaning built in by its makers and that meaning was to stand as an image of heaven. Hence the height and the stained glass to let in as much light as possible. John has said that God was light, “in Him is no darkness,” and so light, while natural, was seen as the most noble of natural phenomena because it represented the divine light and grace of God. As one looked up in a Cathedral, God’s grace, in the form of sunlight, streamed down from heaven on those within (1), just as in the Eucharist, God’s grace descended on all the faithful and turned mere matter into God himself.

This was possible because of the medieval mindset: matter could symbolize the divine. The material world was not all there was; rather it was the sign of a higher, more real spiritual world. Just as the universe was an objectively meaningful place because it had its meaning built in by its maker, so too a cathedral, in a lesser way, had its meaning built it by its maker and matter, because made by God, could represent divinity, both in the Universe and in a cathedral. The theologian John Scotus Erigena, for instance, remarked that “we understand a piece of wood or a stone, only when we see God in it.” To a mindset where meaning permeated the universe, a meaning built into it by its maker, the great Cathedrals were almost inevitable..


This was the age of the great medieval cathedrals and the great universities, dedicated to the task of harmonizing faith and reason. The two, cathedral and university were twins- growing up together at the same time and even same place (1). The universities were dedicated to the work of reason, but reason was not enough. Not all men had the time or ability to be philosophers, but all men needed to be saved. Hence, the task of the cathedral was to make the faith clearer by an appeal to reason, but to make reason clearer by appeal to imagination, and finally, to make imagination clearer by appeal to the senses. In a world where matter had its meaning built in and could represent the divine, the Gothic Cathedrals were simply natural. For this reason G.K. Chesterton wrote of the Gothic enterprise:

Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such as now object to barrel-organs) objected to the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose a clamorous like chorus the facades of the medieval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.

In the modern world, whose materialism denies the existence of a spiritual world, the universe has no meaning built in and so matter cannot represent any higher, holier, or more interesting world. Beauty in art or architecture is a pointless exercise and so all that is left is the utilitarian or the weird. The universe might be larger, but the world is smaller, a dimension dropped as modernity lives in the flatland of the materialist.

(1). Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

(2). Further reading on Cathedrals see Scott’s, The Gothic Enterprise. An imperfect book in its history, but one that still captures well the meaning of the Gothic Cathedral.

Suicide in History and the Question of Dignity

As an undergraduate, I once attended a lecture by a visiting classicist who made the interesting remark that he considered classical antiquity to be the first modern age and the period from roughly 1700 to present as the second modern age. Over the course of my own studies of the Middle Ages, I have come to find his suggestion more and more plausible. On too many issues modernity and antiquity agree, while the Middle Ages differ with both. One wonders how modernists would feel to be told that they are even more backward than the Middle Ages on matters of religion, reason, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and suicide.

The last of these concerns us here as the push for normalizing suicide, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” continues to gain traction in the modern world. In classical antiquity, suicide as a dignified death was accepted as a given. Often it was seen as the only dignified or honorable response to personal failure or tragedy. Hence Nero committed suicide (though he needed help) when the proximity of his overthrow became clear. Socrates committed suicide rather than flee or accept a lesser sentence when he was found guilty. Suicide for no reason at all was typically looked down on but, in general, suicide was seen as a noble and dignified response when the occasion called for it.

The Middle Ages rejected this. That backward writer Dante placed suicides in the 6th circle of his Inferno, a sin more serious than heresy and violence against others, bordering (literally) on blasphemy, but less serious than the sins of deception (since they involved greater malice). Suicide rates were far lower in the Middle Ages than today (1) (antiquity being difficult to measure). The reasons for this probably vary and are many, but several possibilities stand out.

First, suicide typically implies a negative view of the word. In pagan Antiquity most world-views tended to be fairly pessimistic. To Plato, the material world was a lesser shadow of the better, truer world of forms, and the body the mere prison of the soul. Philosophies like Epicureanism or Skepticism rested on the view that life was painful; at best, one could get by either by minimizing discomfort or taking no strong position on anything.Suicide itself rests on a strong hatred of the world. In the end, it is the refusal to see anything in the world worth living for, a refusal to love anything in the world enough to live for its sake. In a pessimistic world-view like pagan antiquity this was possible; in the Middle Ages, much less so.

Second, suicide differed in the pagan and medieval world because of how those societies dealt with suffering. In the ancient world the best to hope for was to get by minimizing pain, but nothing more. In the Middle Ages, the world was a meaningful place, the product of a divine mindand more, a place where that divine mind had actually shared in human suffering.Hence the explanation of one Franciscan preacher that this was why images of Christ were placed in Churches: that as people saw how their Captain and Lord had suffered for them, they would not hesitate to suffer for him as well. In the ancient world, no one would have thought of Zeus as having loved mankind enough to suffer for them.

Finally, the medieval world was convinced of the intrinsic moral worth of the human individual, made in the image and likeness of God. To say that his worth was intrinsic was to say that a man’s moral worth was not dependent on accidentals like his station in life, wealth, political success or failure. Hence, if he failed, he need not kill himself to maintain his dignity, nor would this be expected of him. His dignity was his not by his own merits, but by gift of his nature. Maybe this was why Dante put suicides as bordering on blasphemy– it was the ultimate denial of the goodness of the world, the command to love self and neighbor, and the rejection of the intrinsic dignity and value of human life.

In a pagan world, whether ancient or modern, when dignity depends on a human action, when a person must invent their own meaning in an objectively meaningless life, and especially when one has no basis for finding meaning in the midst of suffering, then suicide begins to look like a realistic option. And so suicide is increasingly looked at today not only as a realistic option, but even one to celebrate. It could scarce be otherwise to a modern world that cannot find meaning in the world or in suffering and that rejects the intrinsic dignity of every human being. In this sense, at least, the modern world is even more backward than the medieval.

(1) For a more strictly scholarly look on suicide in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray has written extensively on the subject. For a brief article by him see, http://psychiatry.queensu.ca/assets/synergyfall12.pdf

The Medieval Worldview I: The Universe

I have commented before, and am not the first to have done so, that the great fun of studying the past is not the mere memorization of facts, but history as a work of imagination and sympathy. It is about getting at how a past people saw the world differently than we do. What I mean is possibly best expressed by the English essayist G.K. Chesterton when he spoke of the need to get “inside history.” We need, he wrote:

“consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man… We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art.”

A lot goes into establishing a people’s mindset, how they saw the world and what it meant to them, but a fair place to begin is with the medieval model of the universe, discussed most accessibly in C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image. One of Lewis’s points is that while medieval man looked out onto the universe, and saw the same facts that modern man does, the meaning was different. The facts were the same, but they did not mean the same thing, and they did not mean the same thing because medieval man saw the world differently. The model itself is simple enough and well enough known and so requires little time. It is simply the view of the universe he inherited from the classical ancestors.

The Universe in the Medieval Model.  Borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

The Universe in the Medieval Model. Borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

But while this is well-known, it is rather too little appreciated. Most are simply inclined to focus on the rather uninteresting fact that medieval man believed, as the ancient scientists told him, that the earth was at the center of the universe. More interesting is the medieval belief that the universe was enormous, but finite in size; modern man has recently come to believe the same thing.

More interesting still, however, was the medieval belief that the universe was a place of order and organization. It was a place of order and organization because it was the product of a divine mind. When modern man looks out on the universe, he looks out on something huge, strange, unknown, and alien. Something with no order, rather, in some theories, he looks on a universe moving toward ever greater disorder. He looks out, in Lewis’s words, on a shore-less sea or a vast, dark forest. Yet, Medieval man did not see that universe. To him (again according to Lewis) the universe was more like a vast Cathedral. Huge and finite, but ordered, with an order written into it by its maker.

Hence, the universe was not only a place of order, but a meaningful place. The universe had its meaning built in by its maker- just like a Cathedral would. Earth was built on the pattern of the heavens, and the heavens on the pattern of God. And so the universe represented the wisdom and goodness that made it. Not so today when modern man looks out on a meaningless universe forced either to soldier on in the midst of meaninglessness or to create a subjective meaning of his own. In the Middle Ages, there was no need to create meaning- it was already there.

Finally, like a Cathedral, because the universe was the produce of a divine mind, built on the pattern of that mind, and earth built on the pattern of the heavens, matter also had meaning built into it. Matter could thus have a higher meaning. Modern man sees the same facts as medieval man, but they do not mean the same thing. For medieval man, matter could represent divinity. Hence the Cathedrals, marriage symbolism, and Francis of Assisi’s love of nature. In a sense, it was like a three dimensional world compared to flat land- a smaller universe, but a larger world.

New Job Ad: New San Francisco Archbishop Wanted

Recently, 100 wealthy, “prominent,” “catholics” in San Francisco took out an expensive ad in a local paper to write an open letter to Pope Francis. They protested against their current bishop’s attempt to keep Catholic schools Catholic by ensuring that faculty not contradict Church teaching. These very important “catholics” asked the Pope to remove Archbishop Cordileone and to send them a new bishop who was more in keeping with their values. As a helpful move for them, I have drawn up the following job ad that they can use to find a new archbishop “in keeping with [their values].”

Wanted: The catholic, pseudo-catholic, non-catholic, secular, and free-thought community of San Francisco seeks a dynamic individual who can fill the soon to be vacant office of Archbishop of San Francisco. Expecting the current faithful bishop to be removed any day by Pope Francis, we seek a candidate who can begin employment almost immediately. At San Francisco, the new archbishop will find a community that is welcoming, open-minded, diverse, and tolerant of everyone who agrees with its positions.

Position Duties and Responsibility: The new bishop will be required to lead San Francisco into the twenty-first century. He will best be able to do this by strictly following the advice of the hiring committee of 100 prominent “catholics.” He will consult with them and other progressive elements within and without the Church on all important decisions, deferring to their judgment like a good shepherd ought. He should not be too rigid on Church doctrine, instead being merciful and evincing a willingness to bend with the times, tailoring Catholic teachings to the desires and wishes of those he will be leading from behind. He will not attempt to teach faithful Catholic teaching on any matters of doctrine or morality and especially on matters of sexual morality. He shall never preach Christ as God, crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins.  He should never mention the word “sin.” After all, who is he to judge. Above all, he should never, never try to challenge Catholics spiritually, for as Jesus said: “my teachings are just vague guidelines, give them up when it becomes convenient to do so, and change with the times.” (#thingsjesusneversaid.)

Minimum Qualifications:

– Candidate should be pretty sure that he was baptized in some Christian denomination as a child or adult.

– evince a willingness to be faithless to the Church’s tradition and Magisterium.

– have read at least one article and skimmed one blog post about religion in Huffington Post or Salon. Or at least looked at the title and posted a comment on it.

Preferred Qualifications:

– Makes a sincere effort to attend mass on Christmas and Easter at least some of the time as long as nothing better comes up.

– be a member in good standing of at least one pro-abortion lobbying group and one pro-homosexuality lobbying group.

– preferably not be catholic. An episcopalian, woman priest, married to another woman would be strongly preferred.

Application Procedures:

Please submit the following documents via twitter, facebook, or email to importantpseudocatholics@gmail.com:

cover letter: explaining candidates willingness to defy Church teaching and bend to the whims of modern society.

statement of dissent: explaining when the candidate first began to dissent from Church teaching and detailing his journey of faithlessness.

CV: detailing past jobs and experience that show candidate’s faithlessness to Church teaching and highlight his willingness to disobey papal authority.

Three letters of recommendation from an approved source, including: Huffpo, ACLU, Barack Obama, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Rainbow Coalition, Jon Stewart or other late night comic.

History, Imagination, and Sympathy

In the early thirteenth century, Francesco Petrarch, the “Father of the Renaissance,” was a man with a problem. His father, wanting his son to be successful and secure, had sent Petrarch off to school to study law. Petrarch, however, wanted nothing to do with law and began instead to read Greek and Roman classics. Martin Luther had the same issue. Hence students today considering study of the humanities in the face of parental wishes face a very old problem. My own father, before sending me off to college, advised that I study either law, medicine, or engineering. He was, perhaps understandably, concerned when, at the end of my first semester, I proudly announced that I would become of history major. Overall, he took it rather well.

Me: Dad, I’ve decided to become a history major.

Dad: You’re going to be living in a cardboard box.

Me: I don’t care, I’ll be doing what I love!

Dad: That won’t pay the bills.

Me: I will inspire students with a love of learning.

Dad: You’ll have no retirement savings.

Me: Social security will be there for me!

Dad: (descends into hysterical laughter forcing conversation to end).

My memory may have embellished this slightly (or maybe more than slightly) over the years, but certainly parents are more comfortable with their children as doctors or lawyers than history students. One of my challenges as a history teacher is to make clear the value of history to skeptical students and sometimes more skeptical parents. A first move is to point out that history teaches critical thinking. History is, in a sense, a science. The historian considers a range of evidence, assessing what hypothesis it best supports, and what further material may be deduced from what is currently known.

But history goes beyond that. History, at least good history, as I tell my students is not just about learning a series of facts about the past. If it were, they would justly consider it a waste of time. History, however, is not just a science or a work of reason and deduction. It is also a work of imagination and still more, of sympathy. It attempts to get past the bare facts into the mindset of past people, looking at how they saw the world, what things meant to them: the task that Chesterton called the subjective side of history or “the inside of history.” And so, history is a work, not only of imagination, but of sympathy. To try to to see the world as past people saw it.  There is nothing more painful than reading a history book by a writer who hates his subject.  As Foucault put it, “there are times in one’s life when the question of knowing whether one can think differently than one thinks and see differently than one sees, is absolutely essential, if we are to go on thinking at all.” Or again, Peter Brown’s remark that “understanding is no substitute for compassion.” Hence, history is not only a work of reason, but of imagination and sympathy in a way that science is not.

These are skills badly needed today when it sometimes seems that both reason and sympathy are on the decline. Arguments that take place in the public sphere seem often to make little use of reason and much use of insults and cheap slogans. It is, as Chesterton said, the man who is least willing to argue (according to the rules of logic) who is most willing to sneer: hence recently there has been so little argument and so much sneering. Nor is there much sympathy today or attempt to get behind the mere facts of what an opponent thinks and see the world, for a moment, as he sees it. The skills of a good historian, reason, imagination, and sympathy are too little used and too much needed in the modern world.