‘In Principio,’ Not in Principle

Scripture gives an account of all things that can interest a human being, from the beginning of the creation; there was nothing before that could be explained (and could inspire a valid curiosity). “In principio” is where we begin, in the great distant, but suddenly immediate, apprehension of God; and in a focus that is sharpened upon Christ Jesus.

A human mind can grasp an intelligible story, which the Bible tells. It gets lost in the world of theory, where principles are at stake. It can understand the Trinity – three Persons, abstract except to serious contemplation. This one “Godhead,” of three, and the three in one, are manifest in prayer as they are through the universe. Over a lifetime, they become familiar to him who sincerely prays, notwithstanding he is lost when he turns away. A lifetime seems necessary to grasp them.

But principles, in English and cognate languages, do not work in that way. When something is true “in principle,” it is abstractly true, not actual. The ancient view of the cosmos was “principled” like this. It could never have begun, and would never have an ending. It was unreal.

A principle is like a theory – that most modern of things – and the truth about theories was captured by Marcel Proust:

Une oeuvre où il y a des théories est comme un objet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix. (“A work encumbered with theories is like an object with its price-tag still attached.”)

It is the same throughout science and modernity, as opposed to classics and religion. Everything is an object with a price tag, and nothing has being in itself. Everything can be analyzed “in principle” because everything is in necessary relation with everything else – is relative and continuous, forever. In principle, nothing can be isolated; nothing stands alone.

Christ, being God, comes to break up this system. He is non-comparable. He is not a product of the mechanisms of this world. He is, at the least, a Person; a unique source of action.

By extension, in the Christian view, men are also Persons, and by nature they must therefore be radically free. Their intelligence is not “artificial.” He (so she) is not a game, nor the product of technology, but a creature, created by God, who when he withdraws is alone.

In principle, the world has every reason to reject Christianity. It insists on breaking the continuity of the world: of everything more or less like every other thing. We prize the oriental art that depicts men in harmony with nature; indeed as part of nature; of nature itself as self-generating. We dream of a world from which conflict may be thus removed.

Non-Christian conceptions of personhood are different in kind from the Christian, or “Judeo-Christian.” There is a complaint from many visitors about our culture, that amounts to this: our habit of individualism is jangling and offensive; it makes too much noise.

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Often they have a point. “Individualism,” as the late Pope Benedict XVI would insist, is no part of the Christian teaching. The relation between Christ and a man, between men, can be as much negated by individualism as by any selfish act. Solitude itself is otherwise defined than by the height of individualism. Humility is necessary to the perception of order; to a view of man’s place in the world.

Christ presents humility in His very descent into our world. But this is not to say that He denies himself.

The Christian philosophy is, perhaps in principle, superficially like other systems of philosophy. It is trying to make some abstract sense of the world – in words, or, however. But it varies from other philosophies because, of course, it accepts the Christian revelation.

As all Western philosophy (from the beginning of the West, in old Greece), it is personal. Plato expressed this, centuries before the Gospels. A philosophy is not a consistent (or even inconsistent) set of rules or insights; it is not even a set of rules for life. It is a life itself. “Philosophy is personal.”

The philosopher commits himself not to abstract study, only, but to living in a certain way. To say that one is a philosopher is to say that one has abandoned the non-philosophical life. It is, and ought to be, a thrilling declaration, though made humbly in the knowledge of the witness of God. It has consequences, even unto death as, for instance, Socrates displayed.

And it is in the nature of a Christian life that one becomes a philosopher, in this Western, personal sense. One puts one’s life on the line, and for a Person; for that Person who put his life on the line, for us.

That, in my understanding, is what Faith is about; and why it is rare. It begins in the knowledge that we each owe a death. It is to live our lives as gift.

I should go as far as to say, there is no principle I would die for. For principles, like theories, have price tags still attached, and the most one can agree is to pay the market price, if the object seems adequately pretty. But no such material or intellectual object can be worth more than money. If the seller demands more, the buyer should walk away.

He should not risk his life, for a principle. Yet he should gladly risk his life for a person. Not for love, I should mention, as we are taught by our romantic mentors, in Hollywood or Bollywood; but for a person. For love, like faith, is not a feeling; nor a notion that will pass like “puppy love.”

It does not even involve obligations. These might be theorized, and copied out as a checklist on paper, like an invoice. But the hero does not recite his obligations. He acts, I might almost say, unphilosophically. He knows the call, and answers.

 

*Image: The Crucifixion by Giambattista Tiepolo, c. 1745-50 [St. Louis Museum of Art, St. Louis, MO]

You may also enjoy:

Bevil Bramwell, OMI’s Worried Laypeople and Spiritual Sacrifice

Michael Pakaluk’s Redeeming the Time the Christian Way

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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