Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dr Eric Mascall

A monumental Anglican of the last century. From The Christian Universe (Morehouse-Barlow, 1966, 174 pp.), 62-66.

And I want to stress that there is much in the world that suggests that it is a creation of a God of supreme loveliness and beauty. As I pointed out in the last lecture, life is not lived entirely in dust-bins, even symbolical ones, and chestnut-trees not only inspire feelings of disgust and resentment in French existentialists but manifest exquisite beauty to ordinary people.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree,

wrote Joyce Kilmer; and went on to add :

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Even on the level of brute experience, the world is not merely squalid, widespread as squalor undoubtedly is. It is a world in which exquisite beauty is to be found, beauty in the things of nature, beauty in the artefacts of man, beauty in human behaviour and human relationships. But this beauty is uniformly imperfect, impermanent and, on its own level, inexplicable. It is only understandable in terms of Creation and the Fall. St Augustine has the reputation of having been a somewhat austere Christian, but to him the most heart-rending feature of the world was the fact that so much beauty was fragile and fugitive; and it could only be understood at all as reflecting the visage of a Creator who was supremely beautiful and changelessly eternal. "All this fabric most fair, of things that are truly good, will pass away when its course has been completed; they have their morning -- and their evening." And so he turned to God with the cry: "Late, how late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old and ever new." And St John of the Cross, as we have seen, is exuberant in his application of imagery derived from the natural world to the God for whom he yearns:

My love is as the hills,
The lonely valleys clad with forest-trees ...

Or, again:

Rare gifts he scatterèd
As through these woods and groves he pass'd apace
Turning, as on he sped,
And clothing every place
With loveliest reflection of his face. ...

The creatures, all around,
Speak of thy graces as I pass them by.
Each deals a deeper wound
And something in their cry
Leaves me so raptur'd that I fain would die.

Has ever such haunting expression been given to the sense that the beauty of the natural world is both an effect and a reflection of the uncreated beauty of its Maker?

Nevertheless, the fact must be emphasised that our awareness of God in this life is, at any rate for the most part (for moments of mystical intuition may be commoner than has sometimes been supposed), very partial and fragmentary, and its full enjoyment lies beyond the grave. "Here we see in a mirror, dimly; but then face to face." And we shall not discern him if we restrict our gaze to the surface of things and make no attempt to become sensitive to the deeper realities. "The things of the Spirit ... are spiritually discerned." If we look only for the dust-bins, we shall see only them; for they are certainly there. And if we see only them, the absurdity of the world will seem to be ultimate, for the world does not explain itself. But if we look for the world's explanation beyond itself and find in it a God who is infinite and self-existent love, bliss and splendour, then we can look back on the world and see it bathed in his beauty and reflecting it from its myriads of facets. But even as we look at him, we shall be dazzled by him, and his splendour itself may appear to us as darkness. With the Apostle we may say "I could not see for the glory of that light", and shall seek someone to lead us by the hand. And the more we come to know him, the more we shall recognise how much there is of him we do not know. With the Psalmist we may exclaim: "He made darkness his secret place, his pavilion round about him : darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies." God is indeed mystery, but without him we have not mystery but absurdity. "The true alternative", it has been well said, "is not mystery or clarity, but mystery or absurdity." In Abbot Vonier's words: "It is an indispensable condition of all true and lasting admiration that its object should be greater than our knowledge of it; and the growth of knowledge, far from touching the limits of the marvellous, should convince us more and more of their inaccessibility."

God is infinite love, bliss and splendour; and, because he is infinite love, he wills that his bliss and splendour shall not be enjoyed by him in isolation but that there shall be other persons who shall share in it and enjoy it, if they will accept it as coming from him. The Christian God is not like the First Mover of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, totally absorbed in self-admiration and not even conscious that the world exists, as the world does its own poor, pathetic best, by its own feeble efforts, to imitate the perfection -- the cold and arid perfection -- which it beholds in him. The Christian God is a God who, while he is absolutely self-sufficient and perfect in his own life of love as Trinity, nevertheless pours out upon creatures the superabundance of that love. "Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands." "I have loved thee with an everlasting love."

This is the love that moves the sun and the other stars.