Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Not nice but (therefore?) wise

One of my favorite short essays from a terrifically funny curmudgeon of the last century.

Holy Writ

by H. L. Mencken (from the Smart Set, October 1923)

Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life wherever English is spoken. They did their work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics. They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was deliberately artificial even when it was new. They thus dispersed the mob by appealing to its emotions, as a mother quiets a baby by crooning to it. The Bible that they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds upon the ideas in it. To this day it has enchanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally. Paine has assaulted them, Darwin and Huxley have assaulted them, and a multitude of other merchants of facts have assaulted them, but they still remember the twenty-third Psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, they are still moved beyond compare (though not, alas, to acts!) by the Sermon on the Mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unashamed in the story of the manger. It is not much, but it is something. I do not admire the general run of American Bible-searchers -- Methodists, United Brethren, Baptists, and such vermin. But try to imagine what the average low-browed Methodist would be if he were not a Methodist but an atheist!

The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. It is accused by Protestant dervishes of withholding the Bible from the people. To some extent this is true; to the same extent the church is wise; again to the same extent it is prosperous. Its toying with ideas, in the main, have been confined to its clergy, and they have commonly reduced the business to a harmless play of technicalities—the awful concepts of Heaven and Hell brought down to the level of a dispute of doctors in long gowns, eager only to dazzle other doctors. Its greatest theologians remain unknown to 99% of its adherents. Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry—for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.

Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was very little employed in the early church, and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal. In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope. This folly the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the mass, is a dignified spectacle, even though he may sweat freely; the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon-keeper in South Bend, Ind. Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.


Anonymous said...

All very accurate but really why should we trust the cleverness of an atheistic semi-Nietzschean who offers what he purports is good advice to Christians on how to rescue Christianity? We're to accept that Mencken loves the Beatitudes? (sc especially if they had not been transfer'd to the God on the Cross and the "acts" sc of the Apostles had not imposed these meanings onto the kingdoms of the oikoumene? Mencken translated into "American" Nietzsche's Anti-Christ in which these things are reveal'd).

Yes, the "general run" of "Bible searchers" should have their foundations shaken. But also the oh I don't know what to call them ... the atheistic edifying "aestheticians" (in Kierkegaard's sense of "aesthetic") who would for the sake of those with "genuine religious sense" defend the "overwhelming beauty" and "impressiveness" of the Mass from "theological blather." These aestheticians would rescue semi-Nietzscheanized aesthetics, whether in fancy European or plain American form, from theological blather à la the Summa theologiae and the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

We aren't to mind Darwin so much because his results aren't evident (he's a social darwinist in his books, but never mind!), yet I wonder how Mencken's remarks would sound had Christian clerics used Aquinas to "bawl against anti-semitic racism" or Calvin to "bawl against dialectical materialism" and thus defeated National and Communist Socialism.

Mencken would have us accept that doctrine must be "a dispute of doctors in long gowns, eager only to dazzle other doctors," and the religious preference should be for "poetry" sc fine-sounding yet un"sentimental" wordings, rhetoric. ... As though Hoelderlin had said "Rhetorically man dwells."

Mencken neglects to read in Deuteronomy 8:3 that man does not live by liturgy alone, not even in a "solemn high mass" version, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of Jehovah. Yes, evidently man lives in part by bread, but not only by bread.

If Jehovah wanted Christianity to be "a dignified spectacle" (for bread and dignified circuses?) the holy family would have fled Herod to Egypt and remain'd in Egypt.

The American bible argufier, e.g. Creationist, prevented Christianity from decaying wholly into cultural edification. ... Maybe American Christianity remains alive only in those versions whose adherents Charlie Rose would never invite to be interview'd. ...

Anglicans and Catholics who try to protect the older more beautiful versions of their liturgies would perhaps be invited by Mr Rose if only they didn't connect the old liturgies with odious ideas about gender, authority, etc.

Leah said...

Excellent, goes a long way in explaining the French.
Being a complete outsider, the hatred of the Protestant to that degree is very interesting.

Anonymous said...

My guess is Nietzsche here mocks what German clergy did with Luther's bible:

in Germany (right up until very recent times, when a sort of platform eloquence started flapping its young wings timidly and crudely enough) there was really only one form of public speaking which came close to being artistic: what came from the pulpit. In Germany only the preacher understood what a syllable or what a word weighs, how a sentence strikes, leaps, falls, runs, and ends; only he had a conscience in his ears, often enough a bad conscience. For there is no shortage of reasons why it’s precisely the German who rarely, and almost always too late, achieves a proficiency in speaking. It is appropriate therefore that the masterwork of German prose is the masterwork of its greatest preacher: up to this point, the Bible has been the best German book. In comparison with Luther’s Bible, almost everything else is mere “literature”— something that did not grow in Germany and hence also did not grow and does not grow into German hearts, as the Bible has.« Beyond Good and Evil ¶247

That is, anything but letting the Bible grow in German spirits.

I make this guess with a view to Nietzsche's previous remarks about "enjoyment" in the great era of classical speaking:
»At that time the principles of writing style were the same as those for the speaking style, and these principles depended in part on the astonishing development and the sophisticated needs of the ear and larynx and in part on the strength, endurance, and power of the ancient lungs. A syntactic period is, as the ancients understood it, above all a physiological totality, insofar as it is held together by a single breath. Such periods, as they manifest themselves in Demosthenes and Cicero, swelling up twice and sinking down twice, all within the single breath — that’s what ancient men _enjoyed_ [Genüsse]. From their own schooling they knew how to value the virtue in such periods — how rare and difficult it was to deliver them.«

The ancient men taught themselves how to make value judgements of the virtue in wind delivery. This aesthetic compares most unfavourably with Greek tragedy and Old Testament man and the Jews of Christendom — and the value judgements of virtue vis-a-vis Life.

Anonymous said...

This surely clinches the matter: Harvey Cox wants Mencken's version of Christian revelation:

»...a striking statement of the late Cardinal Suhard of Paris. This spiritual father of the French Worker-Priest Movement once said that it is not the task of Christians to advocate a program or ideology [sc or a sacred doctrine]. Rather their task is to create a mystery that cannot be explained by any human system of thinking and can finally only be understood as the grace of God.« (On Not Leaving It to the Snake, p. 50)

Instead of the "theological blather" that Mencken the semi-Nietzschean advises Christians to abandon, the new "Servant Church" will be characterized by _Christian presence_: »This word presence comes from the French Roman Catholic personalist tradition in theology. It designates the determination of the church to share in the suffering[Ham], sacrifice[Canaan], pain[payin' Shem?], and conflict[Japheth in the tents] th atma ark the Society [sc Jesuits].« (Cox, op cit p. 137)

»Second, a certain amount of _verbal reticence_ will certainly characterize the future style of Christians.« ibid.

Why? Obscurantism? Surely not! Christians must do reticence in their style because »Church people are thought of as those who are fully equipped with quick and easy answers to questions no one is asking.«

Therefore, rather than raising the right questions and providing correlate answers, Christians should concentrate on correcting perceived uselessness in gab by doing reticence in their characterizing style. (BTW, by "reticence" Cox presumably doesn't mean as show of reluctance, as 'reticence' today now curiously means even among the educated class.)

»By verbal reticence, I do not mean some kind of Zen Buddhist esoteric aphorisms [which obviously are verbal]. The Christian gospel is inextricably related to the _Word_, and it is not possible to communicate it fully in mere silent action of living testimony. However, the Word comes only in situationbs of authentic human communication [sc if any].« (op cit p. 138)

So if somehow no properly authentic [Sartrean bon foi; Heidegger, ingenuine authentic, existence as if without essence] communication occurs in the world, say in presentday France, well, then Christians must be silent, eh? I mean, the situation or the cultural hegemony of the capitalist class prevents a would-be authentic Christian cleric from stating the truth, as found in the Bible or the Summa theologiae or the City of God.

Besides, »The New Testament uses "world" to refer not to the stage, but to the actors in the drama of history« (ibid p. 93). If those actors can't be discover'd, then no world occurs, I guess, neither "the world" or olam nor "this world" or cheled (fleeing hegira). »The church must find its Lord in the secular world« (ibid), the worldly world, the secular seculum -- the invisibly divided "changed" world proposed by Marx in his final thesis on Feuerbach?

Anonymous said...

In this book (1967) Cox focuses on East Germany for paradigms and so forth of "dialogue." Marxism seems to be reduced to that one can learn truth only in "experience" (p. 83) -- rather simpler than all that dialectical materialism.

Rather flagrantly, I think, in finding fault with West Germany's inadequate response to an contrition for Nazi War Crimes, he doesn't mention East German Communists' fine response and vindication that those particular war crimes were caused by "capitalism" and accordingly are karma inherited by the West, more or less comparable with white Americans' karma inheritance or "collective guilt," as for slavery and continuing mistreatment of Negroes (the term used in this book). ... really, maybe the most important chapter in the book is »The "New Breed" in American Churches" which veers insanely close to politics, if only to "concrete" political activity (p. 132, cf Titus 1:12).

In conclusion, in order to reject unwanted karma in the world, one may become a communist or another sort of anti-Western Westerner in the drama -- e.g. in a prestigious academic career calling for social change and a new servant Christian presence in reticence/reluctance. It's so easy I marvel that the Pharisees didn't devise it.

Anonymous said...

Re Marxism transmogrify'd from dialectical or scientific materialism into learning in "experience" only, I offer this quotation from Catholic Traditionalist Louis-Eugène-Marie Bautain (d.1867):

»But this observation, so laborious and so difficult—what does it reveal to us? Judgements, notions, opinions of our mind, natural prejudices whereby we are compelled to believe in the existence of that which we cannot see. I certainly know that I exist. But who am I? What is my nature? ... For what purpose was I born? Whence came I; where am I; whither am I being whirled away? Experience has _no_ answers to these questions, which nevertheless incessantly tempt and trouble the human mind.«

"Experience" for the Cartesian ego within convenient formalist (bohu) time horizons but without Descartes' discourse on the ideas that are greater than the ego (and thus provide the ego with the ego ideal that the ego must at least implicitly accept -- or reject).

About "whirling," Lenin would ask "Who? What? Whom?" The "Me" of the ego is whirl'd, but who does the whirling? Time. Ninurta, Chronos, Saturn.

Bautain continues: »... Strange indeed is the condition of men, who forever seek to know what it is not given to them to know, and who have the firmest faith in those things of which they are necessarily ignorant.«

But this Necessity obtains only in the condition of men who reject sacred doctrine. We do well to remember that Thomas Aquinas was named a doctor of the Church only in 1567, when the Church was under the stress of Protestant insurgency, and then was eclipsed -- to have his authority renew'd by Leo XIII in 1879 when the Church was under stress of post-Hegelian aftermath.

It's bad all over: Gustav Aulen notes that the Protestant divines began trying to remove Luther's doctrine of the Atonement as soon as Luther proclaim'd it.

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