Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category
The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.
At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.
To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.
A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)
With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”
How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.
This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)
The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.
Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.
Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.
Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.
This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.
Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.
The magnificent paragraphs below must surely rank among the best writings of the Anglo-American peace movement.
Their history is interesting. They come from a sermon delivered by the Rev. Richard Ramsden (1761–1831) of Cambridge on March 12, 1800, on the occasion of a General Fast associated with hostilities between Great Britain and Napoleon’s France. The sermon made a great impression on the renowned jurist, Basil Montagu (1770–1851), who by chance happened to be in attendance. Through Montagu they found their way into the annals of the British Parliament (London, 1814). Montagu later, describing the words as “abounding with deep thought,” quoted them in a letter to his friend, Sir James Mackintosh, which appeared in Mackintosh’s published Memoirs (Mackintosh, 1836). There they were read by the eminent statesman William Gladstone (1809–1898), who quoted them in his book, The State in Its Relations with the Church (1841), remarking of them: “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.” Possibly from the same source they also came to the attention of the American Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbot Livermore (1864–1934), who quoted them in his work, The War with Mexico Reviewed (1850, pp. 281), the prize-winning submission in an essay competition sponsored by the American Peace Society for the best review and analysis of the much hated Mexican-American war. Still later we find them reproduced in an installment of A Christian Treasury (Bonar, 1878); there the author is simply given as ‘Old Christian’, marking the passage of these profound and edifying words to the realm of cultural lore.
Gladstone would be heartened to know that the sermon was in fact published – once shortly after its delivery (Ramsden, 1800) and later in a collection (Ramsden, 1827).
Based on an exegesis of the vision of the four beasts in the Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel, Ramsden likens the nations of the earth to great beasts of prey that fight against and seek to devour one another. Nations are by nature amoral, just like lions and tigers: they have no innate law beyond that of self-interest. We today might describe them as operating in a purely Darwinistic framework, governed by the rule of survival of the fittest. This is the political universe of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and modern neoconservativism and realism.
Were this all to the story, it would be a bleak and nihilistic picture. But Ramsden sees something more, and points the way to a solution suggested by Daniel 7:3-4.
 And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.
 The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. (Dan 7:2-4; KJV)
Ramsden then proceeds explain how a “a man’s heart” may be given to nations, to soften and humanize them and mitigate their beastliness. First he describes how, in God’s mercy, a human heart may come to a nation:
“It comes by priests, by lawgivers, by philosophers, by schools, by education, by the nurse’s care, the mother’s anxiety, the father’s severe brow. It comes by letters, by science, by every art, by sculpture, painting, and poetry; by the song on war, on peace, on domestic virtue, on a beloved and magnanimous King; by the Iliad, by the Odyssey, by tragedy, by comedy. It comes by sympathy, by love, by the marriage union, by friendship, generosity, meekness, temperance; by every virtue and example of virtue. It comes by sentiments of chivalry, by romance, by music, by decorations, and magnificence of buildings; by the culture of the body, by comfortable clothing, by fashions in dress, by luxury and commerce. It comes by the severity, the melancholy, and benignity of the countenance; by rules of politeness, ceremonies, formalities, solemnities. It comes by the rites attendant on law and religion; by the oath of office, by the venerable assembly, by the judge’s procession and trumpets, by the disgrace and punishment of crimes; by public prayer, public fasts; by meditation, by the Bible, by the consecration of churches, by the sacred festival, by the cathedral’s gloom and choir; by catechizing, by confirmation, by the burial of the dead, by the observance of the sabbath, by the sacraments, by the preaching of the Gospel, by faith in the atonement of the cross, by the patience and martyrdom of the Saints, by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Ghost.”
He next describes what this heart does, or, in his words, “how its exercise, or affection appears,” and with particular attention to tempering the warlike tendency of a nation:
The exercise of a nation’s heart appears, in its imposing on its own ferocity restraints, in its submitting to checks on the levers and limbs of its strength, in its consenting to be one of the aggregate commonwealth of nations, in its conforming to a public, general law…. It appears in the sending and receiving of embassies, and in the forming of treaties of intercourse. It appears in allowing the soldier to judge of the pleas of humanity, in not putting to death the prisoner taken in battle, in alleviating the horrors of the prison, in healing the wounded enemy, in shewing the white banner, in signing of capitulations.
It deepens the lines of the impression, it has received. It goes to the temple before battle. It prays against the visitation of the sword, as a plague of God. It mourns over that, which it is about to take into its hands. It prays for forgiveness of the breaches of the public law, it has consented to be under, though not bound to such consent. In this sense it prays against its own ambition, injustice, and love of rapine. It appoints fasts before battle. It fasts against its own strength; it weakens itself, and then, so weakened, lies prostrate before the superior strength of God. It seeks in this humiliation and acknowledgment the anointing from above, before it descend on the plain to wrestle.
The human heart of a nation improves itself by promoting virtue:
Like the heart of a man, this heart of a nation inculcates on itself, what promotes the habit of its virtue. It brightens the polish, it has taken. It cherishes the science, law, and religion, by which its softness comes.
Finally, Ramsden describes whose responsibility is the moulding of this heart, or “from whom this heart takes its texture and shape”:
“Whence the heart of a nation comes, we have perhaps, sufficiently explained. And it must appear, to what most awful obligations and duty are held all those, from whom this heart takes its texture and shape, our King, our Princes, our Nobles, all, who wear the badge of office or honour; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law; all instructers of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness and polish to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle, as that a child may lead it….
“How ought they then to consider, what their temper and conduct are; how ought they to reflect, that by mistake, by folly, by rudeness, by bad example, by corrupt sentiment, by false philosophy, by heresy, by impenitence, by contempt of law and religion, by any sentiment or action, which is base, mean, or evil, they are fostering the brutishness of the nation, keeping up contention and strife throughout the world, encouraging war and shedding of blood, barring from God’s mercy their fellow men, the poor, their own dependants, their own sons and daughters, hindering the descent of the Holy Ghost upon earth, delaying the reign of him, who died to save and bless the world.
“How ought they to reflect on the guilt of such conduct, which is not confined to one little spot or corner, but reaches and touches by links, which go round the globe, the happiness, the refinement, the peace, the salvation of all mankind now living, and of all future generations. How ought they to reflect on the blessing and reward of a contrary conduct, which is ever contributing to banish to their own place, all malice, wrath, jealousy, envy, revenge, cruelty, which heaps coals of fire on every hard mass, and from iron brings out gold, from brass silver, from stones gems; the gold, the silver, and the gems, which form the walls, the gates, and the battlements of the last city to be built, the city of God and of his Christ.”
* * * *
Ed. Bonar, Horatius. The Christian Treasury. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter & Co., 1872. (see p. 395).
Gladstone, William. E. The State in Its Relations with the Church. Fourth edition. London: John Murray, 1841. Vol. 1. Section 3.2.23. (see pp. 169-171).
Ed. Hansard, T. C. The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time. Vol. 28 (June 7 to July 30, 1814). Appendix. London: 1814. (see pp. 137-140).
Livermore, Abiel A. The War with Mexico Reviewed. Boston: American Peace Society, 1850.
Ed. Mackintosh, Robert James. Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh. Vol. 1. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. (see pp. 158-161).
Ramsden, Richard. Reflections on War and the Final Cessation of All Hostility: A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge, on Wednesday, March 12, 1800, Being the Day Appointed for a General Fast. Cambridge: J. Burges, 1800.
Ramsden, Richard. War and the Final Cessation of all Hostility. In: Richard Ramsden, D. D., Twenty-Six Sermons, London: 1827, pp. 237-256.
AFTER the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1847), the American Peace Society sponsored an essay competition, with $500 (roughly equivalent to $15,000 today) to be awarded for the best “Review of the Mexican War on the principles of Christianity, and an enlightened statesmanship.” The competition was won by the Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbott Livermore (1811-1892).
The following paragraphs, taken from the closing pages of Livermore’s essay, apply as much today as then.
Source: Abiel A. Livermore, The War with Mexico Reviewed, Boston, American Peace Society, 1850, pp. 280-286.
[Note: the material below has been slightly re-arranged, viz. the powerful last two paragraphs come from the chapter preceding the Conclusion in Livermore’s essay.]
“I have been apt to think there never has been, nor ever will be, any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace.” — FRANKLIN.
“Then, at least shall it be seen, that there can be no peace that is not honorable, and there can be no war that is not dishonorable.” — CHARLES SUMNER.
AN able writer of the present day has said, that “the philosophical study of facts may be undertaken for three different purposes; the simple description of the facts; their explanation; or prediction, meaning by prediction, the determination of the conditions under which similar facts may be expected again to occur.” The Mexican War is now numbered among the things of the past. What has been done, is done; and what has been written, is written. Its consequences, however, will long remain, and will mingle with future events and influences materially to affect our national prospects. A treaty may stop the war, though some symptoms are unfavorable, but it cannot stop the war-results. The question then is, how can this great evil be turned to the best account. After narrating and explaining its events, so as to get a clear idea of its origin, causes, losses of life and treasure, and its social, political, and moral evils, the next step is to state the conditions on which we may predicate the recurrence of similar mischiefs; or draw such lessons of warning and encouragement, as will tend to prevent them. This end the American Peace Society propose to accomplish by publishing a Review of the War, and pointing out clearly and impressively to the citizens of our land, what measures should be taken to save us from plunging again into like calamities. Thus reviewed, and exposed, this darkest of all the passages in our country’s history, and most ominous of evil to come, in the judgment of wise statesmen, and sage moralists, may be converted into an unexpected blessing. The wars, consequent upon the French Revolution, aroused the friends of Peace on both sides of the ocean to more positive and combined action in behalf of this cause, and induced the formation of associations to work for the grand object of a universal and perpetual pacification of the world. Much has thus been effected to enlighten both rulers and people, and to impress upon both their solemn duties. Much has been done by the devoted and untiring laborers in this department of Christian philanthropy, over which angels must rejoice, and the King of kings extend his benediction.
But the great work has but just been commenced. We cannot suppose that so “splendid” a sin as war can at once be stripped of its false and fascinating garb, that the deeply-rooted and long-revered customs of nations can be torn up in a day, martial passions and habits be checked, and a public opinion, and a public conscience and heart too be formed on the subject, of sufficient potency to sheathe the sword for-ever. But the slowness of progress, the discouragements of efforts, the violent opposition with which a good cause and its advocates meet, do not release us from our duty to that cause, or furnish in reality a solitary reason why we should fold our arms in despair. The cause of Peace only suffers a like fate from opposition, misconstruction and misrepresentation, as the other glorious causes of philanthropy, and as that parent religion of which these causes are the legitimate and hopeful offspring. We may be sure that nothing is lost, that is done in a true spirit and a high aim for the furtherance of human good, and the divine glory. God forbid that we should ever fear that “His ear is heavy that it cannot hear, or His hand shortened, that it cannot save!”
In this faith, the Mexican war is a new weapon, put into the hands of peace, wherewith to win her bloodless victories. It teaches us, were lessons wanting, the folly of all war, its sin against God, and its subversion of His great plan. It teaches us by its gory fields of carnage, and the screaming hells of its hospitals, that a retributive God sits in the heavens, and that those “who take the sword, shall perish by the sword.” If rightly interpreted and faithfully laid to heart, it is capable of showing us the emptiness of military glory, the contentious and unchristian spirit which it cherishes among the officers and soldiers of the same side, the torrent of vices that is let loose in the path of armies, and the pro-fuse waste that is made of all that men hold dear, or labor most industriously to attain. It is a lesson at home, a republican, an American lesson. It has been brought nigh to many a heart, alas, and many a home, and burnt as with a red-hot branding-iron upon the memory of thousands, by bereavements and pains, such as God only can know, and eternity measure. And we believe that all the warnings and forebodings of the opponents to the annexation of Texas now stand vindicated in the light of a fearful and guilty history. Their prophecy is now fact. They predicted a war with Mexico, the extension of slavery and the slave-power, and infuriate lust of territory, the hatching of new schemes of war and plunder, and a headlong course of conquest and aggrandizement. We are deep in these evils and their results, or waver on the brink, apparently about to plunge in deeper than ever. If these things be so, then let the predictions and warnings of the friends of peace at this time not fall, Cassandra-like, on cold hearts and insensible con-sciences. But let every patriot and Christian, every lover of liberty and man, study what he can do to help stay the hour of his country’s danger, and, perhaps, ruin. It profits little to sit still and croak, like the ill-boding raven, of ills to come; but we must forth into the field of duty, action, and influence, and by voice and vote, by pen and purse, by example and precept, by a living and by a dying testimony, whether ours be the widow’s mite or the rich man’s offering, the influence of the high, or the word of the humble, strive, as for life, to arrest the downward tendency of things, recall the promise of our young republic, relight the torch of freedom, shame modern degeneracy with the early doctrines of our history, and set in vivid contrast the heathen nation we are in danger of becoming, with the glory of a true Christian commonwealth.
Let, therefore, these awful lapses in national virtue only serve to arouse to a more comprehensive and resolute course of action the disciples of the Prince of Peace. Let them thank God and take courage, that if they cannot wholly extinguish the wide-spread conflagration of war, they can yet rescue many victims from its fiery passions and its corrupting moral code. Let them bear their testimony against evils, still too powerful to be subdued at once. Let them see the hope and beauty of a brighter to-morrow symbolized in the rainbow that spans the departing thunder-cloud. War is but one section of the kingdom of Satan that is doomed to be overthrown by the kingdom of God. There is as much encouragement in laboring to remove this sin as any other of the gigantic evils that prey upon humanity. Faith, there-fore, faith is the word; faith vivified and illuminated by hope; faith made strong, and gentle, and patient by charity; faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, the spiritual Governor of men, in whose kingdom of liberty, righteousness, and love, all nations, races, colors, clans, and sects, will at last be harmonized, and God shall be all in all.
Yea, despite the late war, despite the belligerent symptoms of the day at home, despite the warlike aspect of Christendom abroad, though all Europe seems to be turned into barracks and camps, and every country to be resounding with the march of armies hastening to the combat, our just and reasonable confidence in the ultimate triumph of the Gospel of peace is not in the least shaken. The last thirty years of comparative pacification have not passed in vain. Darker clouds than now overhang our horizon, have in former times shut out the light of heaven and hope. If in the solid midnight of sin and superstition, when the whole world lay bound at the chariot wheels of a military despot-ism, Jesus and his apostles knew that a better day was coming, how undying should be our faith amid the breaking of the morning light! For the truth is great, and it will prevail. God is faithful, and his promise will be redeemed. The Gospel is from the Almighty, and it must prevail over man. It is light from heaven, and the darkness of earth must flee before it. Its power is infinite, and its obstacles only finite.
Though for a season then, or for ages its victory may be delayed, the final result is none the less certain, for it is guaranteed by Him who alone is True. Verily, though the world should again plunge into that gulf of horrors, called a general war; though Christian nations should apostatize, and the churches sink into corruption; though the mighty impulses of philanthropy should fail, and the missionaries of the cross should return home, and renounce the sublime hope of evangelizing the world; though our holy faith should retire from the city and the assembly of men, and hide itself from the gaze of the world, we would yet follow her in fear and darkness to her last holy retreat on earth, to the spot, where a mother was kneeling over her new-born infant, and offering up to the Father of spirits her thanks and supplications, and even there catch a new inspiration of faith and hope for the revival of Christianity. For we should remember the sacred scene, eighteen hundred years ago, when the mother of Bethlehem prayed over the babe in the manger, and blessed her Saviour-child; and angels from heaven sang the anthem of his birth; “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Pacification of the World
And if we would inquire, how the heart of the world can be calmed, and enlarged, and inspired with the life-breath of peace; we can only say that such a heart comes from the nurture of home, and the solemnity of the church, and the tomb of the loved and gone. It comes by the closet of prayer, and the communion of nature, and the table of the Lord. It comes by a sister’s love and a brother’s example, and the memory of “the good old place.” It comes in the distilling dew of Christian instruction and the infinite sanctions of death, judgment, and eternity. It comes by the sweetness of Fenelon, and the love of Scougal ; by the majesty of Luther, and the humanity of Penn. It comes by the horror of blood, and the courage to be [wrongly] called a coward…. It comes by the testimonies of the wise, and the heroism of the good. It comes by the Beatitudes of the New Testament, and the Lord’s Prayer, and Paul’s masterpiece of Charity, and John’s epistle of Love. It comes by him who was born in a manger and died on a cross, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour of sinners.
By these means the weaker spirit of war may be made to yield to the mightier spirit of peace. “And,” in the words of an English divine [Rev. Richard Ramsden of Cambridge (1761-1831)], suggestive of some of the foregoing remarks, “it must appear to what most awful obligation and duty we hold all those from whom this heart takes its nature and shape, our king, our princes, our nobles, all who wear the badge of office, or honor; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law, all instructors of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness, and polish, to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle as that a child may lead it.”*
* Of the sermon of Richard Ramsden from which this quote comes Gladstone wrote, “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.” Gladstone supplies a longer quote that rewards thoughtful reading. [Update: a later post on Satyagraha discusses this 1800 sermon of Richard Ramsden.]