Extract from Dear Susanna
Letter 15: Christian Stoics
I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to get at you at all! Of course I knew you’d taught for years before Michael was born, but I didn’t know you taught RE. No I don’t mean to say that all teachers are no more than Christian Stoics; that would be a travesty of the truth. However, what I can only call a Greco-Roman stoicism or moralism crept back into Christian Spirituality at the time of the Renaissance and it has effected us all to a greater or lesser degree ever since. Let me explain myself. Shortly after the end of the Dark Ages when Europe was no more than an adolescent, she was married to Christianity. All marriages have their ups and downs but by and large it was a happy marriage for many years. Then as she was moving towards middle age she fell in love with another.
Divorce was all but unheard of in those days so Europe remained wedded to Christianity while flirting and finally committing adultery with a young and youthful pagan philosophy that was reborn at the Renaissance. It was a philosophy that was born of Socrates, who begot Plato, who begot Aristotle, all of whom begot the Stoics and their followers in subsequent centuries down to the present day.
Socrates and those who followed him were great men with great minds but sadly little faith. Although they could reason their way to the existence of a God they couldn’t reason their way to a God who had any interest in human beings. This meant therefore that there couldn’t be any relationship with him.
No relationship, no religion, for that’s what the word religion means, – having a two-way relationship with the One who created us. If human beings really wanted to have any relationship with God it would have to be one-way traffic and it would involve tremendous human endeavour because God, contrary to Christian teaching, couldn’t give any help to make it easier.
They reasoned that the only way to be united with a perfect God would be to make oneself into a perfect human being by acquiring all the necessary virtues. The man of virtue would then be in such control of himself that he would be able to free his spirit from all material things. This included his own body, which imprisoned it, so that it could be united with God who is pure spirit. These ideas, which are pagan not Christian, were subtly re-introduced into Christian spirituality, with the best will in the world, by Christian humanists at the time of the Renaissance. They wanted to try to reform an ailing church and rescue it from laxity and superstition before the reformers did it for them. No one was more successful at doing this in England than John Colet.
He was a traditional English catholic of the old school until he studied classics, firstly in his own country and then in Italy at the end of the fifteenth century. There he flirted, not just with the glories of the Renaissance in general, but with the teachings of Socrates and his followers in particular. He, with his fellow humanists thought that the church could be saved from what threatened it by the sort of clear reasoning and virtuous living that they so admired in their classical mentors. He came back to England full of enthusiasm to share his ideas. He didn’t only want to share them with his peers but with the younger generation for whom he founded St. Paul’s school in London. The perfect product of this school would be embodied in a true English gentleman in whom the teachings of Socrates of Athens and Jesus of Nazareth would be perfectly harmonised. The other eight major public schools modelled themselves on St Paul’s. Later public schools that arose to accommodate the sons of the ‘nouveau riche’ who were born of the industrial revolution and the exploitations of empire modelled themselves in their turn on the ‘big nine’. The same aims and ideals could be found in more diluted forms in the grammar schools, the secondary and comprehensive schools, and sadly even in the seminaries.
I was recently amused to hear of the story of a young Jamaican boy on the radio. He’d won a scholarship to an English public school where he said he was taught to embody the morality of a fourth century Athenian stoic and the manners of a twentieth century English gentleman. Catholic schools, public or otherwise followed similar aims and ideals to their non-Catholic counterparts without even realising it, albeit with a strong diet of strictly catholic doctrines that have never successfully affected the divorce that must separate pagan philosophy from authentic Christianity.
Just as the Greco-Roman intellectual culture cannot be successfully fused with the Judeo-Christian, neither can their moral teaching without causing considerable confusion. No one has ever conceived a moral teaching as lofty or as sublime as that which Jesus first lived and then preached. Nor can anybody possibly live it without being empowered to do so by the same power that empowered him. Now before leaving this subject please don’t get me wrong. Far from having any prejudice against classical Greek culture or the renaissance that re-introduced it into European Civilisation, I revelled in it as a schoolboy. It was the beginning of my love affair with the ancient world of Greece that has continued throughout my life. It was the first time I had a genuine interest in the arts and sciences and then later in philosophy, in Plato and in Socrates, who became my heroes.
When we studied the Renaissance in the sixth form I was delighted to see just how much our European culture depended on the culture that I had already revelled in. I am proud of that cultural heritage, of its literary, architectural and artistic masterpieces. I am proud too of all that has been achieved and all we have gained through the rise of the natural sciences and of the technology that followed in its wake. It’s quite evident to me that all this would not have been possible without the endeavour of human beings who received their inspiration from the classical world of Greece and Rome. However not even the greatest geniuses who have achieved so much that we admire have ever achieved the impossible.
This is precisely what is asked of us by the gospels. They don’t just ask us to achieve what is humanly possible but what is morally impossible, what has only been perfectly achieved by a man who was born by, and penetrated through and through with the divine. Only by being penetrated by this self-same life can any human being ever hope to do what can never be done without it.
In their enthusiasm to renew the church with the same principles that had enabled them to renew secular culture many of the first humanists did irreparable damage to orthodox Christian Spirituality, and their legacy is still with us. As I’ve said before, people who have had the benefit of a classical education read the gospels with Greek-tinted spectacles and so misread them as I had done. Like so many others I’d substituted Jesus for Socrates assuming that he too was primarily a great moral teacher. He had come like Socrates to educate peoples’ moral sensibilities and to teach them the true moral principles and the virtues on which to base their lives. I was wrong, Jesus was not firstly a philosopher or a great moral teacher but a mystic whose experience of the divine life enabled him to live a perfect human life.
Those who follow him would only be able to do the same if they opened themselves to receive and experience the same divine life that he had experienced. This is why he said, “I have come that you may have life and that you may have it ever more fully. “(Jn 10: 10) In other words he came as a mystic, not as a moralist. He came firstly, not so much to detail the way in which we should love God and serve our neighbours but to give us the power to do it. Whoever chooses to receive this power that radiates from him now will also be made into a perfect human being, and then perfect human behaviour will follow as a matter of course.
Yet again I say to you, Christianity is a Mysticism not a Moralism. Jesus is firstly a Mystic not a moral philosopher. When we understand this not just with our minds and hearts but with our whole being and begin to do something about it we will have put aside the Christian humanism with which all too many of us were brought up. Then at last we will be on our way back to living the Gospel that was lived and preached by the first Christians in imitation of the man they lived and died for.
If we have been brought up as “bastard Christians”, then through no fault of our own, it’s time to make ourselves legitimate once more, by returning to the unalloyed Christian spirituality that inspired the first Christians immediately after the Resurrection. We’ve had a classical renaissance in the middle of the last millennium now I believe its time for a Christian renaissance to restore Christianity to what it should be. What better enterprise with which to celebrate the third millennium!
Reviews for Wisdom from Dear Susanna
David Torkington uses the format of a series of letters to lay before Susanna, and the reader, what he considers to be the crucial element of deep Christian living. The Catholic Church comes under scrutiny, as does the movement in Christian thought away from faith as an experience, towards faith as a moral belief system. This change, originating in ideas born of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, culminated in the heresy of Pelagias, who maintained that man could achieve perfection by his own efforts. In spite of the Church’s rejection of this notion, Torkington argues that the idea that we can achieve closeness to God by our own striving and efforts remains endemic. His advice to Susanna, and to the reader, is to accept once again the mystical nature of God, and to enter into this mystery. By committing regular time to silent prayer, through which God is enabled to suffuse our beings with his love, our own capacity to love and live in a Christ-like way will be dramatically enhanced. This is an extremely readable book, and the author writes with considerable authority and intimate knowledge of the material covered.
Every book David Torkington writes is about prayer, the true deep prayer of the heart that surrenders us to the Father of Jesus. Put in another way, all his books are about holiness, but so simply expressed, so colloquial, that we understand the total love of God as the essential act of being human. His latest book, Dear Susanna, is perhaps his best, refining the gentleness of unpretentiousness to a captivating ease. Torkington speaks to us from his own weakness and failures: he does not expound, he reveals, taking us with him on our own blundering search for faith. He writes about real faith, transforming and wholly non-judgmental, clear as spring water and as refreshing. It is this very simplicity that makes him so challenging. Remember how the professionally virtuous, the Pharisees, disdained Jesus because of his accepted humanity? He ate, he drank, he associated happily with sinners. The Pharisees expected a man of God to have an abnormal and striking life-style. So, today, serious seekers for God, students of contemplation, will warm to a book with a complex title and an impressive cover. They tend to think that Torkington’s books, so easy to read, so attractive, so interesting, are therefore less serious. But their seriousness is that of Jesus himself, a matter of the inner spirit and not that of the outer casing. This book grounds itself in the condition of the contemporary church. It discusses frankly and humbly its failings and blindnesses, not to condemn but to call on us to respond with hope in a ‘Christian Renaissance’, the book’s subtitle. The young married Susanna to whom these letters were written, received a treasure, and it is one she graciously shares with us. This is a book that would delight both St Teresa and St John of the Cross.