Great Landscapes: Bruce Pennington

There is a subtle, and possibly snobbish distinction between mere illustrators and painters. The former often have more of a career than the latter, but they all started out the same way.

Some illustrators, like Robert McGinnis – still with us at 94 – are extraordinarily gifted artists, displaying not just the essential technical chops, but also a vivid imagination and scene setting. McGinnis’ brooding and often sexy men and women are instantly recognisable, oozing style and iconicism. He could paint landscapes too. His status is also assured, the combination of Americana and ineffable cool gives him a cachet that some of his peers lack. By way of contrast, the demographic that everyone looks down on is probably the scifi/geek set, exhibit ‘A’ being the Simpsons’ Comic Book Store Guy. They’re all losers, right?

Yet lurking within the genre are some extraordinary works of art – posters, book covers, LP covers, illustrated exegeses and more. The British artist Bruce Pennington (a mere 76 years old) is one of the masters. I had a few of his book covers in the 70’s, and they always had a dark, authentic imagination working away, clearly above the herd. His otherworldiness actually reminds me of Goya (at times), Bruegel and Vereshchagin. An unusually diverse peer group.

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…. a Pennington classic…

By coincidence, the daily Office of Readings in the Catholic Lectio Divina, is, in this Eastertide period, excerpting heavily from the Apocalypse of St John, or the Book of Revelation. It’s quite a read. An essential read I’d suggest. Interpreting it is another matter.

The scripture teems with arresting and still terrifying imagery. A lot of it is hard to form as a coherent mental picture. The New Jerusalem is one example. How many jewels in the walls? What are the pearls as gates? There are endless examples.

But the two key protagonists, apart from God, are the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”, and the “great, fiery red dragon”, although you also have numerous angels, the Four Horsemen, the other Beast and many many more. Oddly, given the scriptural roots of much of the canon of Western art, there are very few major depictions of all this going back into the centuries. It is definitely a subject for the modern amateur and numerous contemporary evangelical Christian artists, but rarely of any aesthetic merit. Which brings us to Bruce Pennington, who may be contemporary but is in neither of those two categories.

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The rise of the antichrist

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me the detail, the lighting and the sweeping imagination melding the Mediterranean and the Piazza San Pietro is quite brilliant. The emerging dragon fulfils the requisite threat and enormity superbly. It is indeed a landscape, but of a very strange kind, which fits with the subject matter. The restless sweep, colour and energy remind me of Dali’s late masterpiece, Tuna Fishing. That is quite a compliment.

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…magnificent

The weirdest triduum of my lifetime: #EasterSunday

The event of Christianity, yet although there are many paintings of the Resurrection, they kind of elude the sense of mystery and surprise. They tend to emphasise – reasonably enough – the power and the glory – to borrow a phrase.

I like the ones (1, 2) that show the hitherto despondent apostles rushing around, unable to fully grasp what’s happened. Human, as we are.

In keeping with the earlier posts (here and here) showing events after the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion, here is the classic noli me tangere where Jesus, already risen, speaks to Mary Magdalene. Lots of painters portrayed this moment, most famously Titian, but here is one of the younger Brueghels (Jan the younger). It’s interesting that it is very common in Netherlandish biblical art to portray the scenes with many characters in contemporary clothing and settings (like Brueghel’s grandfather Pieter, in his Massacre of the Innocents). It is the equivalent of us setting biblical scenes with everyone dressed in high street clothing, and Calvary, say, as the local park. Sounds radical but it always works well for me.

Easter, in any event, is about as radical as one can get.

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Noli me tangere, Jan Brueghel the younger, 17th century. Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Helsinki

 

The weirdest triduum of my lifetime: interlude – #HolySaturday

Apart from the gospels and related scripture from the time of Christ, there are loads of scraps of writing from the first few centuries Anno Domini, which form part of the repository of Christian faith and have the seal of approval from the church, without actually forming scripture. They are mostly sermons, letters and analyses of what’s gone before, trying to form a coherent philosophical, theological and practical framework. This went on for centuries of course (see Aquinas), and much of the time was spent battling the numerous heresies that arose.

We don’t read this stuff much – mostly in the Lectio Divina, I’d say – though many of the authors are big names such as St John Chrystostom,  and some is remarkably poetic, which leads to today’s author, probably Melito of Sardis**. He definitely existed, and was less definitely the author of the piece which is always quoted for today, mainly because it’s hushed poetry is unimprovable. The whole sermon/prayer is worth reading, but it’s the opening that sticks in the mind:

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear…

Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ – one of the most technically daring paintings of all time given it’s use of extreme perspective – is appropriate. The face is not one of the broken failure of the cross, but rather nobility and strength in repose, waiting.

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The Lamentation of Christ, Mantegna, 1478. Pinacoteca Brera, Milan

 

** the authorship is uncertain, here @EduardHabsburg (yup, those Habsburgs) is suggesting a St Epiphanus, two centuries later

The weirdest triduum of my lifetime: #GoodFriday

Yesterday I highlighted the scene on Holy Thursday after the Last Supper. On this Good Friday, it is the scene after the crucifixion itself – the descent from the cross. This is the 13th Station of the Cross in the Catholic church. Look on the walls of pretty much every single Catholic church or chapel at the 14 stations.

Rembrandt was along with Turner, possibly the best example of almost insane prolificity and technical brilliance. He’s famous for a reason. His use of dramatic lighting  rivalled Caravaggio. Here is his best version of the Descent from the Cross – a painful scene of degradation and failure, performed by a cast of toiling Dutchmen overseen by the elegant, conscientious Joseph of Arimathea (or is it Nicodemus)

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Rembrandt, The descent from the cross. 1634. The Hermitage, St Petersburg

 

Good Friday has produced striking poetry. Try the 8th century poem “Dream of the Rood” .

The Rood (cross of Christ) speaks:

“It was long past – I still remember it –
That I was cut down at the copse’s end,
Moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
Told me to hold aloft their criminals,
Made me a spectacle. Men carried me
Upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.

“And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
Upon me. I durst not against God’s word
Bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
The surface of the earth. Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.

“Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.

“A rood I was raised up; and I held high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
The scars can still be clearly seen on me,

The open wounds of malice. Yet might I
Not harm them. They reviled us both together.
I was made wet all over with the blood
Which poured out from his side, after He had
Sent forth His spirit. And I underwent
Full many a dire experience on that hill.
I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.
Darkness covered the Ruler’s corpse with clouds
His shining beauty; shadows passed across,
Black in the darkness. All creation wept,
Bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross….

“Now you may understand, dear warrior,
That I have suffered deeds of wicked men
And grievous sorrows. Now the time has come
That far and wide on earth men honor me,
And all this great and glorious creation,
And to this beacon offers prayers. On me
The Son of God once suffered; therefore now
I tower mighty underneath the heavens,
And I may heal all those in awe of me.
Once I became the cruelest of tortures,
Most hateful to all nations, till the time
I opened the right way of life for men.”

Pretty remarkable. Even more unexpectedly, Roxy Music summed up much of this shocking day…

The weirdest triduum of my lifetime: #MaundyThursday

Is the most vivid image of Maundy Thursday the liturgically key Last Supper, or the brutal betrayal and heightened emotions in Gethsemane. This year I will go with the latter…

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The taking of Christ, Caravaggio,1602. National Gallery, Dublin

A painting with a strange tale behind it, and an extraordinary image. Judas as the most wretched of men. If you are a believer, then Judas may not be in hell – one of those fascinating recurring questions in Christianity. One of the greatest intellects of Christendom (great word), Benedict XVI, reflects a little on it here.

But, wherever he ended up, Repin’s masterpiece will strike a chord in anyone who has ever suffered guilt, from a knowing misdeed…

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Judas, by Repin, 1885. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Palm Sunday – a very strange one

Churches locked, empty(ish) streets, a sombre mood gripping the nation – but the usual Palm Sunday good weather. Those of a religious mind may – as I do – wonder about the Coronavirus crisis coinciding with Lent.

In any event, Palm Sunday is intrinsically a precursor of the most joyful period, Easter, which we can all get behind, one would like to think, when it comes.

Three pieces demonstrating the aesthetics/poetics of this day, two of them old favourites. James Ensor (one of the greatest Belgians), the Jerry Garcia Band (God rest his soul), and one of the great Englishmen, GK Chesterton…..

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Christ’s entry into Brussels, James Ensor, 1889. Getty Museum, California

 

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*

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday

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Finis Gloriae Mundi, Juan Valdes Leal, 1672. Hospital de la Caridad, Seville.

The Knife (me) found himself wandering round Seville 37 years ago, (I’ll drop the third person) on my own, for various reasons. I had no money, very limited tourist information given that the internet hadn’t been invented, and plenty of time. Accordingly I visited a lot of places that I probably wouldn’t have managed had I been with my temporarily absent pals. The Gothic choirstalls and treasury of the mighty cathedral (at one time the biggest building in the world, it was claimed), various back alleys in the old town, the hot exposed walk along the Guadalquivir, and the Hospital de la Caridad, specifically its chapel.

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Quite benign from the outside

There are at least two Spains. The coastal tourist one, which is fine, but is a relatively recent invention in its modernity, trashiness and the ubiquity of non-Spaniards, and the slightly out of the way Spain, mostly in the interior. It is steeped in isolation, blazing heat,  dark interiors, Catholicism, silence and emptiness. That’s the one embodied the Chapel of the Hospital de la Caridad, at least it was 37 years ago, when it wasn’t a Top 5 attraction – it is now.

Prominent in its attractions are two large and intentionally disturbing paintings by Juan de Valdés Leal. There is In Ictu Oculi (In the blink of an eye), with Death cockily lording it over his latest prize, and its neighbour, Finis Gloriae Mundi. They are classic memento mori**. Valdés Leal was a real Spanish gothic master of gloom, and his dramatically horrific corpses are on a par with the Italian wax anatomical models of La Specola and Gaetano Zumbo. This eMaze is  a pretty impressive introduction to him.

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…above the door

Since standing there in the nearly empty chapel all those years ago, these two paintings have been hanging in a corner of my brain. Finis Gloriae Mundi is basically a take ‘on all flesh is grass’, and of course, sic transit gloria mundi. The two bodies are those of a bishop, and a knight. Then (and still now, perhaps) they embodied the wealthy and the worldly. So why write about it now? Well, Ash Wednesday, as the start of Lent, is a doorway into reflections on life, death, and how we’re often kidding ourselves about what matters, what the future holds, and what it is to truly live rationally.

Ecclesiastes, which apart from the religious element for the Abrahamic faiths, is an astounding work of literature, can usefully be quoted in this sphere, almost at random. It’s notably prominent in the Divine Office at this time of year. Here’s Chapter 2, 11-20:

And when I turned myself to all the works which my hands had wrought, and to the labours wherein I had laboured in vain, I saw in all things vanity, and vexation of mind, and that nothing was lasting under the sun. I passed further to behold wisdom, and errors and folly, (What is man, said I, that he can follow the King his maker?) And I saw that wisdom excelled folly, as much as light differeth from darkness.  The eyes of a wise man are in his head: the fool walketh in darkness: and I learned that they were to die both alike.  And I said in my heart: If the death of the fool and mine shall be one, what doth it avail me, that I have applied myself more to the study of wisdom? And speaking with my own mind, I perceived that this also was vanity.

For there shall be no remembrance of the wise no more than of the fool for ever, and the times to come shall cover all things together with oblivion: the learned dieth in like manner as the unlearned.  And therefore I was weary of my life, when I saw that all things under the sun are evil, and all vanity and vexation of spirit.  Again I hated all my application wherewith I had earnestly laboured under the sun, being like to have an heir after me,  Whom I know not whether he will be a wise man or a fool, and he shall have rule over all my labours with which I have laboured and been solicitous: and is there any thing so vain?  Wherefore I left off and my heart renounced labouring any more under the sun.

As Valdés Leal knew, as we all know, we’re all heading for the same (earthly) fate.

Act wisely, and act now

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** the memento mori is still with us. Here’s a beautiful, subtle contemporary example from photographer Erlich Lowi

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Merry Christmas, 2019

This has been a tumultuous year, with lots of political anger and anxiety, and yet it seems in the UK with a very happy ending, even if the Remainer fraternity haven’t grasped that yet. As JFK said: a rising tide lifts all boats.

To celebrate what I hope will be a very happy Christmas, try reading this celebration of winter in art (in this case the truly great Peter Brueghel the Elder), and here’s a Northern Renaissance nativity from underappreciated Albrecht Altdorfer:

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Albrecht Altdorfer, The Birth of Christ, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, 1513.

…and may I offer a few Christmas musical favourites, all a little out of the ordinary…..

Merry Christmas!!

A practical #philosophy – Andrew Klavan

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Karl Schinkel, A medieval town by water, 1830, Neue Pinakothek, Munich

I only very rarely lift whole articles, really only when it’s something that expresses a profound and important concept, in a way that demands the argument be cited in full, as opposed to breaking off choice fragments. 

This is one such piece, on the whole issue of Western civilization, and the perceived threats to it, along with its complex and undeniable intertwining with religious – specifically Christian – belief.

This stuff isn’t boring, and it will never be irrelevant. The author is the immensely gifted and bullshit-free Andrew Klavan, whose own personal story (1, 2, 3) is  fascinating. My apologies to him (and the excellent City Journal) for this blatant theft:

The West is falling. Quietly, politically, without a violent upheaval, the Islamists are taking control of France. A dissolute literature professor named François retires to a monastery near Poitiers, the place where Charles Martel stopped the last advance of Islam in 732. A man at once mesmerized and dejected by the sensual pleasures of cultural decadence, François is seeking to reconnect with the Christian religion that formed the great French culture of the past.

But faith in that religion will not come to him. “I no longer knew the meaning of my presence in this place,” he says of the monastery. “For a moment, it would appear to me, weakly, then just as soon it would disappear.” He leaves the monastery, ready to convert to Islam and submit to the new order.

“I’d be given another chance; and it would be the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one,” he says. “I would have nothing to mourn.”

This sequence from Michel Houellebecq’s controversial 2015 novel Submission is a near-perfect fictional representation of a phenomenon I’ve noticed in many intellectuals since the latest rise of radical Islam. These thinkers see the great days of the West ending, while a violent, intolerant form of Islam infests its ruins. They believe that Europe has lost the will to live and that the loss is linked to a loss of faith in Christianity. But while they yearn to see the West revived—and while they may even support Christianity as a social good or a metaphorical vehicle for truth—they cannot themselves believe.

By chance, Houellebecq’s novel was published on the very day of the Islamist massacre of workers at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as this essay is being published shortly after the slaughter of peaceful Muslims by a white supremacist in New Zealand. But such upsurges of hateful violence should not be allowed to silence the underlying debate among people of goodwill.

Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, a 2008 book by Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera, is the clearest example of the phenomenon I’m describing. Written in response to 9/11, it depicts a Europe paralyzed by self-hating lassitude, willing to pay homage to any culture but its own. “The West today is undergoing a profound moral and spiritual crisis, due to a loss of faith in its own worth, exacerbated by the apostasy of Christianity now rife within Western culture,” Pera writes. He makes clear that by Christianity, he means the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, and he goes on to say, “Without faith in the equality, dignity, liberty, and responsibility of all men—that is to say, without a religion of man as the son and image of God—liberalism cannot defend the fundamental and universal rights of human beings or hope that human beings can coexist in a liberal society. Basic human rights must be seen as a gift of God . . . and hence pre-political and non-negotiable.”

This sounds like the cri de coeur of a passionate believer, the sort of thing we used to hear from Europhile Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote the essay’s introduction. But not so. The book’s title gives the game away. Pera could have called it Why We Should Be Christians. But he is an atheist. He accepts Immanuel Kant’s famous argument that God is necessary to the existence of morality. But from this, he reasons not that we must have faith but that “we must live . . . as if God existed.”

Urgently needed as Christianity may be, he cannot believe.

In 2017’s The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray finds the death spiral of Islamist aggression and Western self-hatred still more advanced. Witness, just for one example, the “grooming” gangs of men of Pakistani, Iranian, Turkish, and other Muslim-immigrant backgrounds, which abused thousands of local girls in Rotherham and elsewhere while authorities turned a blind eye, for fear of being called racist. Like Pera, Murray understands that the loss of Christian faith is a powerful contributor to “the problem in Europe of an existential tiredness and a feeling that perhaps for Europe the story has run out and a new story must be allowed to begin.”

“Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through,” Murray writes. “After all, though people may try, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be able to invent an entirely new set of beliefs.” But Murray, too, is a nonbeliever, as he told me explicitly during a conversation on my podcast. Again, he knows that faith is needed, but he cannot believe.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson has become a popular sensation by riding the horns of this dilemma. His videos, speeches, and best-selling self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos all argue for imbuing life with the meaning and morality that Kant maintained must be logically attached to the existence of God. But when it comes to declaring his actual beliefs, he is evasive. “I act as if God exists,” he says in one video, echoing Pera. “Now you can decide for yourself whether that means that I believe in Him.”

If I must decide for myself, I think that Peterson is a Jungian. Beneath his abstruse verbiage, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung essentially reimagined spirituality as an emanation of the deepest truths of human experience. “We cannot tell,” he wrote, “whether God and the unconscious are two different entities.” In practice, this means that the Jungian god is ultimately a metaphor, a means of externalizing our collective unconscious and its “archetype of wholeness.” No amount of evasive verbalization can disguise the weakness of a metaphorical god. He is the signifier of human meaning as opposed to a living objective Presence who is the source of that meaning.

So even while attempting to address the Western crisis of will brought on by our loss of faith, Peterson, too, I suspect, cannot truly believe.

What stands between these minds and faith? Peterson, for one, rebels against the question “Do you believe in God?” because, he says, “It’s an attempt to box me in. . . . The question is asked so that I can be firmly placed on one side of a binary argument.”

But this strikes me as unsound. All statements of belief box a thinker in. If the world is round, it cannot also be flat. And if there is objective morality and meaning in that world, it must have an ultimate objective source. To live “as if there were a God” is essentially to insist on the conclusions of a syllogism the premises of which you reject. Pera and Peterson notwithstanding, this makes no sense, and arguments that make no sense eventually collapse.

Murray’s objection to faith, however, is more coherent. He believes that science and historical criticism have done “most likely irreversible damage . . . to the literal-truth claims of religion.” If he is right, it makes no difference whether faith is required; faith is impossible. You can’t ask a society to pretend to believe in what isn’t so.

But is Murray right? Have science and criticism truly undermined Christianity? Or is it simply that disbelief has become the intellectual’s default conviction? It seems highly possible that faith is being thwarted by a powerful social narrative that insists that Christianity can’t thrive in the modern world as we know it.

This narrative—let’s call it the Enlightenment Narrative—has been with us now for centuries. It goes something like this: the fall of Rome in the fifth century plunged the West from Classical civilization into cultural darkness. For the next 1,000 years, the Church encouraged superstition, stifled intellectual freedom, and repressed scientific inquiry. With the Renaissance of Classical learning, reason was set free, science was discovered, and faith was left behind as we marched into a world of wonders.

The Enlightenment Narrative had its beginnings as a sort of humanist propaganda campaign. Terms like Dark Ages and Middle Ages were created at the dawn of the Renaissance (a loaded term in itself). They were meant to solidify the new generation’s self-congratulatory idea that they had relit the fire of knowledge after a dark “middle” period.

The campaign worked. The Enlightenment Narrative has dominated the Western mind. It is the context in which Don Quixote went mad trying to imitate old chivalric values out of keeping with the new reality. It is why Shakespeare imagined a Hamlet stranded without certainty in the sudden absence of clear moral truth. It is why Hegel declared that “trust in the eternal laws . . . has vanished” and Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead.” And while many mighty minds—such as Coleridge, Dostoyevsky, C. S. Lewis, and Pope Benedict XVI—have protested that no, even in the enlightened world, God still lives, the prevailing sense among thinking elites was expressed by Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”: the Sea of Faith, once at full tide, is inexorably receding with a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”

The latest proclaimers of this narrative reject even the melancholy. Their vision stands in direct opposition to the morbid predictions of observers like Houellebecq, Pera, and Murray. For them, the West and the world are doing great—better than ever—and the death of Christianity is a big part of the reason.

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now makes this case with gusto. These are the best of times, he says. We live, quite suddenly, in a world of “newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.” Reason and science—which “led most of the Enlightenment thinkers to repudiate a belief in an anthropomorphic God who took an interest in human affairs”—are not the cause of our dissolution but the founders of our feast.

Indeed, Pinker believes that reports of the death of Western civilization are greatly exaggerated. He dismisses such pessimism as a fashionable intellectual pose fueled by negative biases in human cognition. “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” he argues, and that progress is likely to continue as long as we live out the Enlightenment Narrative and leave religion behind.

Pinker’s optimism is appealing but not entirely convincing. I have questions about his assessment of the present. Is increasingly atheistic Europe—especially Scandinavia—really the “gold standard” of happiness, peace, and human rights, as he maintains? Or is it, rather, a moribund client culture, wholly dependent on the military might, scientific inventiveness, and financial strength of the far more religious United States? Without the Bible-thumping U.S., wouldn’t enlightened Europe quickly find itself overrun, at least geopolitically, by Russian or Chinese authoritarians? The way pessimists like Murray see it, it is being overrun right now in a more literal sense, by a slow-motion Islamist invasion, which could end with our enlightened optimists silenced mid-hurrah.

As for the future: all throughout the triumphant strains of Enlightenment Now, I kept thinking of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional,” written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. At that moment in 1897, England specifically, and Europe in general, were, like the West today, celebrating cultural and scientific achievements unmatched in the history of humankind. And yet Kipling, no devout believer himself, marked the occasion by warning his countrymen against atheistic pride, praying:

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Lest we forget that not all intellectual misgivings are as baseless as Pinker says, just 17 years after the poem was penned, Europe was engulfed in the three-decade cataclysm of world war that brought its cultural dominance to an end—war brought on by the anti-Christian philosophy of Nazism and followed by an era of unimaginable mass murders in the name of the atheistic philosophy of Communism.

Pinker comes across as liberal in the best sense of the word. But there are hints in his philosophy that Pera is correct and that human rights need something more than Pinker’s hyper-rationalism to sustain them. Enlightenment Now’s materialistic defense of democracy is weak. Overall and over time, freedom can make us happy and rich, it’s true. But what if, for a while, it doesn’t? What if it needs to be defended through war or economic collapse? Once the sacred status of liberty is lost, will mothers send their sons to die for a generally upward trend on a statistical graph?

Then there’s Pinker’s frequent praise for “moral realist” philosopher Peter Singer, whose utilitarian defense of infanticidal euthanasia is both poorly reasoned and morally barbaric. The ugly truth is that we can live quite happily in a world of scientific miracles even as we transform ourselves into moral monsters.

But for a glimpse of how the Enlightenment Narrative’s embrace of pure reason can undermine the very foundations of the Western civilization that created it, you have to turn to Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Though full of quirky insights and fascinating information, it is a textbook example of how materialistic logic can lead to philosophical pathology.

Harari’s central contention is that the “ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.” He goes on to say that “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively,” by creating what he calls an “inter-subjective reality,” or “inter-subjective order existing in the shared imagination of . . . millions of people” and thus allowing them to work together in ways other animals can’t. “Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades,” he writes. “They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous.”

Among the fictions that create these intersubjective phenomena are religion, nationhood, money, law, and human rights. “None of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Here is an area where I can speak with some expertise. I am a lifelong maker of fiction, and I am here to tell you that this is not what fiction is; this is not how fiction works. Good fiction does not create phenomena; it describes them. Like all art, fiction is a language for communicating a type of reality that can’t be communicated in any other way: the interplay of human consciousness with itself and the world. That experience can be delusional, as when we hear voices, mistake infatuation for love, or convince ourselves that slavery is moral. But the very fact that it can be delusional points to the fact that it can be healthy and accurate as well. When it is healthy, the “common imagination of human beings” can be regarded as an organ of perception, like the eye. Fiction merely describes the world of morality and meaning that that organ perceives.

Because Harari does not believe that this world of moral meaning exists, he thinks that it is created by the fiction, rather than the other way around. For example, he refers to women as sapiens “possessing wombs” and declares that only “the myths of her society assign her unique feminine roles,” such as raising children. No one who has ever met a woman outside the planet Vulcan can imagine this to be the actual case. Harari himself speaks quite tenderly of the maternal feelings of sheep. What myths have the rams been telling the ewes? Different male and female roles are a human universal because womanhood is a complete inner reality. Myths describe it truly or falsely; they don’t make it what it is.

Harari can imagine the “complex emotional worlds” of cows. He believes that the existence of these worlds creates an obligation in us to treat cows more kindly than we currently do. Fair enough. But why, then, can he not deduce the reality of human rights, natural law, economic value, and femininity from the far more complex inner experience of humans? “Human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven,” he told an interviewer. “They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights.”

This language may not necessarily be malign. It may not suggest that Harari has no visceral respect for human rights. But it does not inspire confidence in his ultimate commitment to those rights, either. It is not exactly “Give me liberty or give me death!” In fact, Harari has argued that increasing information may require increasing centralization of power, the old progressive canard that the world has become too complex for individual freedom and must now be run by experts. This sort of thing makes one suspicious that Harari and other reason-worshiping thinkers are living justifications for Marcello Pera’s fears that freedom cannot defend itself without specifically Judeo-Christian faith.

It is the Enlightenment Narrative that creates this worship of reason, not reason itself. In fact, most of the scientific arguments against the existence of God are circular and self-proving. They pit advanced scientific thinkers against simple, literalist religious believers. They dismiss error and mischief committed in the name of science—the Holocaust, atom bombs, climate change—but amberize error and mischief committed in the name of faith—“the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, the European wars of religion,” as Pinker has it.

By assuming that the spiritual realm is a fantasy, they irrationally dismiss our experience of it. Our brains perceive the smell of coffee, yet no one argues that coffee isn’t real. But when the same brain perceives the immaterial—morality, the self, or God—it is presumed to be spinning fantasies. Coming from those who worship reason, this is lousy reasoning.

The point of this essay is not to argue the truth of Christianity. I argue only this: the modern intellectual’s difficulty in believing is largely an effect created by the overwhelming dominance of the Enlightenment Narrative, and that narrative is simplistic and incomplete.

Did we, for example, escape Christianity into science? From Roger Bacon to Galileo to Newton, the men who sparked the scientific revolution were all believing Christians. Doesn’t this make it seem plausible that—despite the church’s occasional interference—modern science was actually an outgrowth of Christian thought?

And is science still moving away from that Christian outlook, or has its trajectory begun to change? It may have once seemed reasonable to assume that the clockwork world uncovered by Isaac Newton would inexorably lead us to atheism, but those clockwork certainties have themselves dissolved as science advanced. Quantum physics has raised mind-boggling questions about the role of consciousness in the creation of reality. And the virtual impossibility of an accidental universe precisely fine-tuned to the maintenance of life has scientists scrambling for “reasonable” explanations.

Like Pinker, some try to explain these mysteries away. For example, they’ve concocted a wholly unprovable theory that we are in a multiverse. There are infinite universes, they say, and this one just happens to be the one that acts as if it were spoken into being by a gigantic invisible Jew! Others bruit about the idea that we live in a computer simulation—a tacit admission of faith, though it may be faith in a god who looks like the nerd you beat up in high school.

In any case, scientists used to accuse religious people of inventing a “God of the Gaps”—that is, using religion to explain away what science had not yet uncovered. But multiverses and simulations seem very much like a Science of the Gaps, jerry-rigged nothings designed to circumvent the simplest explanation for the reality we know.

Pinker credits Kant with naming the Enlightenment Age, but ironically, it is Kant who provided a plausible foundation for the faith that he believed was the only guarantor of morality. His Critique of Pure Reason proposed an update of Plato’s form theory, suggesting that the phenomenal world we see and understand is but the emanation of a noumenal world of things-as-they-are, an immaterial plane we cannot fully know.

In this scenario, we can think of all material being as a sort of language that imperfectly expresses an idea. Every aspect of language is physical: the brain sparks, the tongue speaks, the air is stirred, the ear hears. But the idea expressed by that language has no physical existence whatsoever. It simply is. And whether the idea is “two plus two equal four” or “I love you” or “slavery is wrong,” it is true or false, regardless of whether we perceive the truth or falsehood of it.

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…the man himself

This, as I see it, is the very essence of Christianity. It is the religion of the Word. For Christians, the model, of course, is Jesus, the perfect Word that is the thing itself. But each of us is made in that image, continually expressing in flesh some aspect of the maker’s mind. This is why Jesus speaks in parables—not just to communicate their meaning but also to assert the validity of their mechanism. In the act of understanding a parable, we are forced to acknowledge that physical interactions—the welcoming home of a prodigal son, say—speak to us about immaterial things like love and forgiveness.

To acknowledge that our lives are parables for spiritual truths may entail a belief in the extraordinary, but it is how we all live, whether we confess that belief or not. We all know that the words “two plus two” express the human version of a truth both immaterial and universal. We likewise know that we are not just flesh-bags of chemicals but that our bodies imperfectly express the idea of ourselves. We know that whether we strangle a child or give a beggar bread, we take physical actions that convey moral meaning. We know that this morality does not change when we don’t perceive it. In ancient civilizations, where everyone, including slaves, considered slavery moral, it was immoral still. They simply hadn’t discovered that truth yet, just as they hadn’t figured out how to make an automobile, though all the materials and principles were there.

We live in this world of morality and meaning—right up until the moment it causes us pain or guilt or shame or gets in the way of our ambitions or happiness. Then, suddenly, we look at the only logical source of the meaning we perceive and say, “I do not know Him.”

Understood in this way, there is no barrier of ignorance between Christian faith and science. Rather, the faith that made the West can still defend it from the dual threat of regressive religion and barbaric scientism. In fact, it may be the only thing that can.

West whose ethicists coolly contemplate infantile euthanasia, whose nations roll back their magnificent jurisprudence to make room for the atrocity of sharia, whose historians argue themselves out of the objective reality of human rights because they have lost faith in the numinous basis of those rights—such a West may not be heading for disaster as much as it is living in the midst of one, a comfortable and prosperous disaster to which our default atheism makes us blind, a dystopia in which we are increasingly happy and increasingly savage at the same time.

It need not be so. Outside the Enlightenment Narrative, there is absolutely no reason to abandon the faith that created our civilization. The flowering of the Western mind took place under the Christian sun. The light that led us here can lead us on.

Magnificent.

 

Easter Sunday

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Mikhail Nesterov, The empty tomb, 1889.

….a great Russian symbolist

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Sebastiano Ricci, The resurrection, 1715. Dulwich Picture Gallery

Ricci was a success in his lifetime, and died in 1734. He’s one of those painters about whom there is probably little current enthusiasm, but the man had style. He was also quite an innovator. Here’s a brief summary, for interest:

“Ricci, leaning at first on the example of splendid art of the Veronese, made a new ideal prevail, one of clear and rich coloristic beauty: in this he paved the way for Tiepolo. The painting of figures of the Roccoco to Venice remains incomprehensible in its evolution without Ricci… Tiepolo germinated the work started by Ricci to such a richness and splendor that it leaves Ricci in the shadows… although Sebastiano is recognized in the combative role of forerunner “(Derschau).

“He is the master of a resurrected-fifteenth century style, whose painterly features are enriched with nervous express and, typically 17th century” (Rudolf Wittkower). Wittkower in his Anthology, contrasts the facile luminous style of Ricci with the darker, more emotional intense painting of Piazzetta. Like Tiepolo, Ricci was an international artist; Piazzetta was local.

“We perceive in him that synthesis of the baroque decorativeness and individualized and substantial painting, that we will see later again in Tiepolo. On one side the influence of Cortona, directed and indirect, and on the other the observant painting of the hermit Magnasco; more intense, substantial and freed academic impulses, the airy, shining influences become, to the open air, magical coves, as well as gloomy corners. A new synthesis that opened wide new painting horizons, even if the scene is not that of a ballet, it is felt like bing in the wonders of the color, in more vibrating, acute, agile accents “(Moschini).

“At the start of the Baroque..Venetians remained isolated from the outside…from the great ideas of the baroque painting… The Ricci are the first traveling Venetian painters… and succeed to inaugurate the so-called roccoco rooms of Pitti and Marucelli palaces.”(Roberto Longhi).

Ricci “brought back in the Venetian tradition a wealth of chromatic expression resolved in a new vibrating brilliance brightness…by means of the intelligent interpretation of the Veronese chromatics and of the brushstrokes of a Magnasco-like touch, from the 16th century impediments, he takes unfashionable positions against “tenebrous styles”, is against the new Piazzetta – Federico Bencovich. He supplied a valid painterly idiom for … Tiepolo to use after his defection from the Piazzettism “(Pallucchini).

“Venice, still more than Naples, collects the Ricci inheritance of the prodigioso trade of Luca Giordano… Sebastiano throws again it, widens he then, refines it for the school of Sebastiano Mazzoni “(Argan)