Arthur to John, June 12, 1944
(written on hotel stationary -- "The Necho Allen, Pottsville, Pa. Southern Gateway to the Anthracite Coal Fields")
532 Arbor Rd
June 12, 1944
Here we go again! Your last letter had some elements that were strangely reminiscent of one of yours a couple of years ago, so my answer may to you have a familiar ring. Being a unsystematic sort of a brute, I have not kept a complete file of this correspondence. Not that it is worth keeping, but a review of it might relieve us of the danger of repeating ourselves too often.
F'rinstance, once before you called your big brother a hypocrite. To this provocative apellation I responded magnificently to the tune of some reams of paper and several quarts of ink. Now you use the term again. If the purpose is to get a rise out of me, I assure you I know of no better method. Not that it makes me sore, it just makes me search the harder for terms with which to describe my position. I'll admit that it is of no great importance whether or not such description be forthcoming, or for that matter, whether or not I have a position worth describing. What matters (a little) is that I was bemoaning the lost art of letter writing, and here comes a corn-fed correspondent who offers a subject we can kick around, and the least I can do is to cooperate to the end that in our case at least letter writing shall be re-discovered. Its kind o' fun, and cheaper than the movies.
I think that if we want to get together we will have to arrive at some agreement as to the Nature of Truth (note capital letters). Inasmuch as philosophers have had 3000 years to work on this august subject, it is high time we settled it. When Pontius Pilate asked the famous question, "what is truth?', he was scarcely to be considered its originator, nor have the intervening centuries brought the answer. So let's you and I dust that one off, so the world's great thinkers can turn their attention to something else, like how does Tom Dewey stand on the renegotiating of war contracts, or anything else, for the matter.
My brilliant answer to this age old conundrum is that I dunno. Do not misunderstand, I do not mean to word my question with a definite article and a small t. Not "what is the truth", but what is Truth? If we preserve a certain disciplined skepticism and exercise a high degree of candor, I am inclined to thing that occasionally the truth is there for us to apprehend, to an extremely limited degree and in comparatively rare instances. To be able to grasp the binomial theorem or even some of the rare beauties of the multiplication table is no mean feat. I like to think that when we do so, we lay our hands momentarily on the hem of His garment. That is not a good metaphor, it implies perhaps too great a degree of intimacy with the Ultimate. Let us say, rather, that the laws of mathematics, at the present stage of our knowledge of them, are tiny flashes of the Glory that is within the Veil of the Holy of Holies. As such we prize them dearly, but it is arrogance to the Nth degree to suppose that these tiny flashes are a measure of what goes on behind the Screen. Presumptuous theologians of course are guilty of this arrogance to an extent that makes one wonder why they are not struck down with Jove's thunderbolts whenever they open their big mouths. Fortunately for them, but to the grevious misfortune of the so-called human race, Jove does not seem to be too interested in their yawpings. He just sits up on Olympus and lets the theologs drive their poor victims nuts. When you come to think of it, the spectacle of any human being laying out the Lord God Omnipotent on a dissecting table, and attempting to carve Him open, and announcing that they know what makes Him tick, is not an edifying one.
As you so brutally point out, talk like that makes me a heretic. But you used a qualifying adjective. You said I was a hypocritical heretic. With that I take issue.
Some years ago an aggressive and exceedingly well informed Roman Catholic tried very hard to make a convert out of me. We discussed his thesis by the hour, and bogged down finally on this matter of the nature of Truth, and of mankind's ability to apprehend It when confronted with It. (again note capital letters). In his exasparation, he said that my difficulty lay in the fact that I was suffering from "pride of intellect masquerading under the guise of an almost disgusting humility." Aint that a grand indictment? From his point of view he was perfectly right.
Yet, what am I supposed to do? In my poor sinful way, I am, at least some of the time, a man of good will. So I am led, or driven, to re-examine orthodoxy, to try to find some kernel, some essence, some inner core of meaning, which will give expression to the spiritual forces that I can sense about me. Of the existance and the potency of these forces I am well aware. Their precise nature, their magnitude, the laws they follow, are very largely beyond my ken. Must I therefor deny that they exist? Must I be deprived of, say, the use of the magnetic compass, simply because I do not know all the laws of terrestrial magnetism? Let me go further. Let me concede the fact that mankind's propensity to play-acting and make-believe is so inborn and inveterate that of itself it is undoubtedly a phenomenon indicating the presence and operation of some one or more of these spiritual forces. James Branch Cabell insists that mankind's perpetually renewed claims to be that which he manifestly is not, and his eternal hope that what is, is not really so, is the principal manifestation of the operation of the Holy Ghost in human lives. If you have not read Cabell's "Beyond Life", do so by all means. I used the term "eternal hope". It is more than a hope. It is as though some daemon, some demiurge, were driving us to the conviction. We are poor fleeing rabbits or foxes being pursued by the Hound of Heaven.
All this looks screwy to me even as I write it. This raises the question, is it the idea that is screwy, or is it merely that the medium of expression is inadequate? My halting pen is no instrument to say what Cabell has set forth in his matchless prose. Why not then worship God according to the formularies as set forth by St. James Branch Cabell? It would be an interesting experiment, but the idea gives me pause. We are back again to the matter of techniques. I wish to embark on a course of extreme difficulty. I wish to give expression to a category of human impulses and motives whose very nature is one of delicacy and more akin to the esthetic, the artistic, the poetic, than are the sober paths of history or jurisprudence. Note my choice of comparables. History and jurisprudence are respectable subjects, but many of their "facts" cannot be classed with the "facts" in the multiplication table. So, in order to give expression to these motives and impulses, I emply the structure of orthodox religion. I choose among several such, the doctrine dicipline and worship of the Anglican communion, as being most available and temperamentally suited to one of my background and proclivities. And I insist that I am no more to be classed as a hypocrite than is Beethoven for not having painted the Mona Lisa, or Keats for not having composed the Emperor Concerto. Each chose the medium of expression and the technique best suited to give effect to his peculiar genius.
I grant, willingly and freely, that I have to treat (intellectually) some of the material presented by the Episcopal Church to the same process that a literal sober historian would have to treat some of Shakspeare's historical material in, say, Hamlet or Julius Caesar. But need the literal sober historian never be allowed to enjoy Shakspearian drama because the Bard of Avon was weak on some details of Danish or Roman history? No, my boy, "the play's the thing."
I say, once and for all, I cannot go along with a childish, factual, literal, hum-drum type of theology that essays the impossible task of sorting out the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost into neat little pigeon holes and excommunicates him who cannot understand Anselm's Theory of the Atonement, and who wouldn't agree with it if he did understand it. At the same time, a man with a proper bump of curiosity can well engage himself in reading Anselm and will wind up with the feeling that the old boy had something, even if it was too much for him to express.
I am reminded of the story of the Irish parish priest who led a flock of his parishioners on a pilgrimage to Rome. The party reached the church upon whose walls was displayed Michael Angelo's great painting of the "Last Judgement." God, a big man in a white robe and a beard, seated upon the Throne, surrounded by the cherubim and seraphim, is judging the nations. An old Irish woman gazed in awe at the tremendous work of art. She plucked the priest by the sleeve and whispered, "Father, is that the way it is going to be?" The priest, better educated, with perhaps a more refined and elevated concept of the subject, hesitated a moment, and then answered her, "yes, Bridget -- something like that." Did he lie to her? I say no.
The way you classify me as a hypocrite, you would have to condemn Michael Angelo's great masterpiece as worthless, misleading, and not in accordance with the facts. As for me, and you, and all the human race, I think, we are better off to use the means at our disposal. We can answer as did the priest -- "Yes, Bridget, something like that." What though our approximations are inadequate, or downright inaccurate? Never forget, "the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life." The hell of it is, we cannot express the spirit except by means of the letter. So I say, employ the letter with a good concience, in order to extract therefrom the spiritual content we need so urgently and so continuously.
After all, we are dealing with the category of ideas. If the medium of expression of the idea is outmoded, legendary, or mere fiction or fable, that does not vitiate the idea. Used thus, the beautiful and time hallowed formularies of orthodoxy are valid, proper, seemly, and freighted with merchandise too precious to be tossed aside by some adjectieval damnation like "hypocritical."
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