Tuesday, May 29

Chesterton's Birthday

English author, essayist, novelist, poet, artist, philosopher, humorist, and journalist Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London on this day in 1874.  His witty style and mastery of the paradox made him an apt defender of the Christian faith by warmly engaging readers and then turning their world upside down--or rather, right side up.  Although popularly known for his Father Brown detective stories, Chesterton's most influential writings continue to be works such as Orthodoxy, What's Wrong With the World, and The Everlasting Man.

Monday, May 28

The Renaissance Relapse

Dante Alighieri’s world was fraught with dissention, confusion, and disarray.  Caught between two worldviews—the glorious worldview of fading Christendom and the deleterious worldview of emerging Renaissance—Dante (1265-1290) was in a very real sense a man out of time.

The remarkable explosion of wealth, knowledge, and technology that occurred during the late Medieval period leading up to the Renaissance completely reshaped human society.  No institution was left untouched.  Families were transformed from mere digits within the larger baronial or communal clan into nuclear societies in and of themselves.  Local communities were shaken from their sleepy timidity and thrust into the hustle bustle of mercantilism and urbanization.  The church was rocked by the convulsions of ecclesiastical scandal.  Kingdoms, fiefs, baronies, and principalities began to take the torturous path toward becoming modern nation states.

Such revolutionary changes were not without cost.  Ultimately, the cost to Christian civilization—both East and West—was devastating.  Immorality and corruption ran rampant.  Disparity between rich and poor became endemic.  Ruthless and petty wars multiplied beyond number.

Despite its many advances in art, music, medicine, science, and technology, the days leading up to the Renaissance were essentially marked by nostalgic revivals of ancient pagan ideals and values.  The dominating ideas of the times were classical humanism and antinomian individualism.  Taking their cues primarily from ancient Greece and Rome, the most prominent leaders of the epoch were not so much interested in the Christian notion of progress as they were in the heathen ideal of innocence.  Thus, they dispatched the Christian consensus it had wrought with enervating aplomb.  They threw the baby out with the bath.  Nothing was sacred any longer.  Everything—every thought, word, and deed, every tradition, institution and relationship—was redefined.

No society can long stand without some ruling set of principles, some overriding values, or some ethical standard.  Thus, when the men and women of high Medievalism gradually began to throw off Christian mores, they necessarily went casting about for a suitable alternative.  And so, Greek and Roman thought was exhumed from the ancient sarcophagus of paganism.  Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras were dusted off, dressed up, and rehabilitated as the newly tenured voices of wisdom.  Cicero, Seneca, and Herodotus were raised from the philosophical crypt and made to march to the tune of a new era. 

Every forum, every arena, and every aspect of life began to reflect this newfound fascination with the pre-Christian past.  Art, architecture, music, drama, literature, and every other form of popular culture began to portray the themes of classical humanism, pregnable naturalism, and antinomian individualism.  A complete reversion took place.  Virtually all the great Christian advances that the Medieval era brought were lost in just a few short decades.

It was in that sort of atmosphere that Dante began writing his masterpiece, Inferno, the first volume of The Divine Comedy, on this day in 1302.

Friday, May 25

An Engine of Freedom

On this day in 1787 a constitutional convention convened in Philadelphia with representatives from seven states.  Though the meeting was not authorized by Congress, they were among the most eminent men in the young American republic—and several were actually members of Congress.  Their purpose was to draft amendments to the Articles of Confederation.  Under other circumstances, the meeting might have been considered a coup d’├ętat. 

Eventually the conferees determined that in order to achieve their ends they would have to create an entirely new document.  After several compromise plans had been proposed by the larger and the smaller states, on September 17, 1787, twelve state delegations had contributed to an acceptable draft of the new document. 

Requiring the ratification of only nine states to take effect, the document met stiff opposition.  Anti-federalists charged that the document afforded too much power to the central government and predicted that if the document was actually ratified, a gargantuan bureaucracy, high taxes, and invasive intrusions into personal freedoms would result.  It was only after supporters of the document amended the document ten times—in a series of postscripts known as the Bill of Rights—was the new constitution made official on June 21, 1788.  But would take until May 29, 1790 before all of the thirteen original states would actually ratify.

The soaring rhetoric of the opening words offered a glimpse of the document’s essential genius, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Though it was a document greatly influenced by such Christian ideas as checks and balances, separation of powers, and magistratal interpositionalism, its closing words offered the only explicit only nod to Christianity, “Done in convention by the unanimous consent of the states present the seventeenth day of September in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the twelfth.  In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names.”

In the years since, despite the fact that the fears of the Anti-federalists have been realized to a great extent, the much emulated, often copied Constitution has proven to be one of the most remarkable engines of freedom that the world has ever known.

Sunday, May 20

The Nicene Council

The first Ecumenical Council was convened in the Byzantine city of Nicea on this day in 325 by the recently converted Roman emperor, Constantine.  It was a momentous occasion—the first time the church had convened a universal synodical meeting since the time of Peter, James, John, Barnabas, and Paul at Jerusalem to discuss the initial outreach of the largely Jewish church to the Gentiles.

Three hundred and twelve bishops gathered.  In the center of the room, on a throne, lay the four gospels.  The emperor himself, dressed in a purple gown and with a silver diadem, opened the council saying, "I rejoice to see you here, yet I should be more pleased to see unity and affection among you."  The next few days would be devoted to achieve that purpose, if at all possible, by finding an agreeable way to describe precisely who Jesus was.

The problem was that a prominent Eastern bishop, Arius had been preaching that Christ was actually a creation of God—the first of all his creatures, of course, but a creation nonetheless.  He was not of the substance or nature of God.  "There was a time when the Son was not," he and his followers insisted.  They even made up Unitarian songs, slogans, and jingles with catchy tunes to propagandize their ideas among the masses.

Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was horrified.  Jesus, the Word, had co-existed eternally with God the Father he argued.  If Christ were not God, then man could not be saved, for only the infinite and holy God could forgive sin.  He deposed Arius.  Arius did not go quietly.  He gathered followers and continued to teach his pernicious doctrine.  The factions rioted.  The unity of the empire was shaken.  Constantine was alarmed.  And that was why he called the council in the first place.

As the council progressed, the bishop of Nicomedia defended Arius' views, attempting to prove logically that Jesus, the Son of God, was a created being.  Opposition bishops snatched his speech from his hand and flung it in shreds to the floor.  They had suffered for Christ, some of them greatly, in the persecutions of Diocletian.  They weren't about to stand by and hear their Lord blasphemed.  Otherwise, to what purpose had they borne their gouged eyes, scourged backs, hamstrung legs and scorched hands?

The issues of Nicea boiled down to this.  If Christ is not God, how can He overcome the infinite gap between God and man?  If a created being could do it, there were angels aplenty with the power.  Indeed, why could not any good man himself bridge the gap?  On the other hand, Jesus had to be truly man, otherwise how could He represent mankind?

The orthodox bishops ultimately prevailed.  Arius was condemned.  At that point the council decided to write a creed that clarified the Bible’s teaching on the nature of Christ’s person and incarnation.  The Nicene Creed became a document of fundamental importance to the church and gave clarity to the issues of orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

Wednesday, May 16

Penman of the Revolution

Widely known as the “Penman of the Revolution,” John Dickinson (1732-1808), wrote many of the most influential documents of the period—from the Declaration of Rights in 1765 and the Articles of Confederation in 1776 to the Fabius Letter in 1787 which helped win over the first States to ratify the Constitution: Delaware and Pennsylvania. 

Having studied law in England, Dickinson was devoted to the English common law system, and his writings before 1776 aimed to correct the misuse of power and preserve the union of the colonies and Britain.  His most famous works included the eloquent Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which condemned the Townshend Acts and were widely read throughout the colonies.  He also penned Petition to the King which was a statement of grievances and an appeal for justice, with a pledge of loyalty adopted by Congress.  But perhaps his greatest manifesto was Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms—which Congress adopted as its own official statement on the matter—defended the colonies’ use of arms for “the preservation of our liberties,” and stated that the colonists were simply fighting to regain the liberty that was theirs as Englishmen. 

In the Continental Congress Dickinson opposed the idea of declaring independence at first, but, once it was done, he supported the cause and prepared a draft of the Articles of Confederation.  Although over forty, Dickinson enlisted in the militia and saw action in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  He returned to Congress in on this day in 1779, in time to sign the Articles of Confederation.

Because Delaware and Pennsylvania were under a single legal proprietor in those early days of independence, a citizen could hold office in either one, and Dickinson served as President of first Delaware and then Pennsylvania.  He played the important role of conciliator at the Constitutional Convention.  He saw the need for a stable national government, and so he joined Roger Sherman of Connecticut in supporting the idea of two legislative bodies—one with proportional, one with equal representation.  This became known as the Great Compromise which ultimately broke the deadlock between the large and small States. 

After the Constitution was sent to the States, Dickinson published a series of letters, which explained and defended the Constitution, and which helped win the first ratifications.  The penman had done his work well: Jefferson called him “one of the great worthies of the Revolution.” 

Monday, May 14

Birth of a Nation

The independent state of Israel was proclaimed in Tel Aviv as British rule in Palestine came to an end on this day in 1948.  Immediately, all of its Arab neighbors declared war and vowed to destroy the nation altogether.  Arab troops greatly outnumbered the entire Jewish population, but of the 85,000 Jews in Palestine, 30,000 took up arms to defend their fledgling nation.  When overt hostilities ceased, the Arabs managed only to retain possession of the old quarter of Jerusalem and the West Bank territories and Israel had a nation again—after 1,878 years of exile.

Friday, May 4

The Panama Canal

President Theodore Roosevelt authorized the start of construction on the Panama Canal on this day in 1904.  The fifty mile canal crossed the Isthmus of Panama and enabled ships to travel from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans without having to undertake the long voyage around South America.  The construction--which continued for just over a decade--involved many innovative engineering and medical advances, employed tens of thousands of workers, and cost an estimated $350 million.