Page 1

Fall 2011, Volume 6, Issue 1

also inside featuring

The Nature of Infinity: God and Mathematics

Faith and Paradox ‘Christian’ Nihilism and Symbolic Renewal

Why I Am Not a Christian A Book Review

A Letter from the Editor


s Christians, we naturally equate faith with a certain amount of epistemic certainty. We judge our faith in part by how well it holds up to tests, whether they come in the form of a personal struggle or a discovery in quantum mechanics. Challenges to our faith tend to make us even firmer in our beliefs, and this is not without reason; faith is a necessary component of Christian life and, in the various senses of the word, human life in general. Yet all of us, Christian and non-Christian, must remember that faith is not the same thing as stubborn resoluteness. One of the messages most apparent in Scripture is that our personal notion of faith is often very far from true faith. Peter stands ready to defend his faith with the sword, yet is told by Christ to put it back in its sheath; we expect a Messiah who will lead God’s people to temporal victory, and we are given a Savior who associates with Gentiles, lives a life of poverty, and gives himself up to die on a cross. Faith is a virtue, but we should be wary when our human idea of faith leads us to believe that our presumptions will always represent the truth. This issue of Apologia has a special emphasis on the humility that must guide both our spiritual and intellectual lives. In it, Hayden Kvamme ’14 shows how an awe of mathematics and an even greater awe for God led Georg Cantor to discover a new category of infinite numbers. In his review of Bertrand Russell’s famous polemic Why I Am Not a Christian, Peter Blair ’12 points out how intellectual overconfidence and refusal to admit one’s logical errors can lead to dangerous and faulty conclusions. Just as we cannot always trust our own faculties, we also cannot always rely on received wisdom. As this issue’s interview piece and Steffi Ostrowski ‘14’s article both show, contemporary assumptions about everything from happiness to astronomy can, at various points in history, be radically incorrect. What, then, are we left with? We at Apologia find motivation in this uncertainty. Our desire to apply reason to life’s big questions has led us to embrace the Christian worldview, but it does not mean that we think we can find all the answers. Instead, we wholeheartedly agree with these words of Kierkegaard: “In relation to God we are always in the wrong— this thought puts an end to doubt and calms the cares; it animates and inspires to action.” We at Apologia seek to examine the proposition of Christianity as fact. This issue represents the latest step in our quest to merge faith with reason and humility with pursuit of the true. We invite you to join us in this pursuit.

Brendan Woods



Letters to the Editor

We welcome the submission of any article, essay, or artwork for publication in The Dartmouth Apologia. Submissions should seek to promote respectful, thoughtful discussion in the community. We will consider submissions from any member of the community but reserve the right to publish only those that align with our mission statement and quality rubric. Email:

We value your opinions and encourage thoughtful submissions expressing support, dissent, or other views. We will gladly consider any letter that is consistent with our mission statement’s focus on promoting intellectual discourse in the Dartmouth community.

Front cover image by Peter Osorio ‘12

Fall 2011, Volume 6, Issue 1

Editor-in-Chief Brendan Woods ‘13 Managing Editor Emily DeBaun ‘12 Editorial Board Peter Blair ‘12 Lee Farnsworth ‘12 Business Manager Brady Kelly ‘12 Production Edward Talmage ‘12 Elli Kim ‘13 Jessica Yu ‘14 Minae Seog ‘14 Michael Choi ‘14 Photography Kelsey Carter ‘12 Peter Osorio ‘12 Contributors Blake Neff ‘13 Aaron Colston ‘14 Chris Hauser ‘14 Hayden Kvamme ‘14 Steffi Ostrowski ‘14 Paul Christesen James Murphy Faculty Advisory Board Gregg Fairbrothers, Tuck Richard Denton, Physics Eric Hansen, Thayer Eric Johnson, Tuck James Murphy, Government Leo Zacharski, DMS Special thanks to Council on Student Organizations The Eleazar Wheelock Society Chrles Clark ‘11

Apologia Online Subscription information is available on our website at The Dartmouth Apologia also publishes a weekly blog called Tolle Lege on issues related to faith and reason. Email us to subscribe, or access the blog at

The opinions expressed in The Dartmouth Apologia are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the journal, its editors, or Dartmouth College. Copyright © 2011 The Dartmouth Apologia.


James Murphy & Paul Christesen Dartmouth College


Cantor and Augustine on the Nature of Infinity Hayden Kvamme ‘14


“Christian” Nihilism and Symbolic Renewal in A Good Man is Hard to Find Aaron Colston ‘14


G.K. Chesterton’s Philosophy of Christian Paradox Chris Hauser ‘14


Exploring the Intersection of Christianity and Scientific Discovery Steffi Ostrowski ‘14

HISTORICITY AND HOLY WAR: 25 Putting the Crusades in Context Blake Neff ‘13


St. Augustine’s Confessions 30 Emily DeBaun ‘12

Bertrand Russell’s Why I 32 Am Not a Christian Peter Blair ‘12


he Dartmouth Apologia exists to articulate Christian perspectives in the academic community.

An interview with

Conducted by Brendan Woods


Courtesy of the Dartmouth Faculty Directory

For this issue’s interview, Apologia talked to two Dartmouth professors about their thoughts on happiness. Religious and philosophical perspectives run the gamut on the topic, ranging from Kant, who sharply separated our moral lives from our pleasure-seeking pursuits, to Aristotle, who saw virtue and happiness as the unified goal toward which we must direct our lives. Christian thought usually lies somewhere in between those extremes; many Christian thinkers say that we should look forward to an eternal happiness and try to be happy in this world, but do not think that worldly pleasure and eternal happiness are always the same. James Murphy is Professor of Government at Dartmouth College with a specialty in jurisprudence and political philosophy. He is Roman Catholic. Paul Christesen ’88 is Associate Professor of Classics and specializes in Greek history with a focus on athletics in ancient Greece. He responded from a Humanist perspective.

2 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


Brendan Woods, Dartmouth Apologia: What is happiness?

James Murphy, Government Department: Happiness is the name we give to the final goal of human choosing. It is the only good that is sought only for itself and never for any more remote end. Paul Christesen, Classics Department: Happiness, for me at least, is feeling a deepseated sense of contentment. In a sense it’s a little bit like being in love or having faith. It’s easy to understand what it is if you have it, and much more complicated if you don’t. Augustine talks about time, saying time is easy to experience and difficult to define. I’d put happiness under the same heading; a deep-seated sense of contentment that one intuitively feels without too much further explanation. BW: Can we really speak of “one” type of happiness? Is happiness one objective state or goal?

JM: There are many diverse aspects to happiness but they are unified by their status as a final end. PC: I think happiness is happiness, but I think there are an infinite number of different ways to be happy. The number of routes that would make you happy, or the number of kinds of things that could make you happy, seems to me to be pretty close to infinite, but the end result appears to be the same. BW: How is it that human beings achieve happiness? Is there one way, or perhaps one method, that works most of the time?

JM: By not treating intrinsic goods only as instrumental and not treating instrumental goods as intrinsic. PC: I would say there are no universals, because universals with human beings are very hard to achieve. But on the other hand, I would say there are some things that are likely. One of the things that consis-

Photo by Kelsey Carter ‘12

other point which seems to me to merit emphasis is that there is an implicit assumption in a lot of modernday American culture that a sort of radical individualism, which is to say a pursuit of what one would narrowly define as your self-interest without any concern for others’ wellbeing, is what will make you happy. That seems to me to be disastrously wrong. BW: To what extent do our everyday actions affect our happiness? To put it another way, what is the relationship between happiness and morality?

JM: Morality helps us to distinguish intrinsic from merely instrumental goods. PC: Daily actions are a huge part of this. The social psychologists who talk about this, one of the fascinat-

Happiness is the name we give to the final goal of human choosing. tently makes people happy is having interdependent relationships where they have responsibilities toward other people which they carry out, and these involve being concerned about and responsible for other people’s wellbeing and happiness to some extent. And the

ing things they’ve found is that people imagine that big catastrophic events like losing their job or the death of a loved one will be emotionally devastating for long periods of time, but it turns out that the human being is actually very resilient and tends to bounce back from these things over the course of time. And the


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


things that make people unhappy fundamentally tend to be everyday irritants. This goes back to relationships too—if you’re surrounded by a whole series of people with whom you have very antagonistic relationships, it doesn’t seem like that would be a big problem, but it’s a constant irritant because they’re always rubbing up against you in an unhappy way, and that creates a constant tension and unhappiness. So I think some of

PC: I’m a huge believer that there’s a positive that can be taken from suffering, in part because people who live in the Dartmouth community, for the most part, live extraordinarily fortunate lives. Suffering can be an invaluable reminder for us to think not just about ourselves but also about what’s really important, and to concentrate on the blessings and not on the minute lacks there are in our life.

This shared concern for each other’s well-being is, for me, the crux of the moral life and is a part of happiness. The two go together, and one cannot have one without the other. it relates to big decisions, like how you’re going to run your life—if you have a job you hate, a screen door that sticks is not going to matter much—but a lot of it, maybe most of it, is how you’re going to live your life on an everyday basis, and arranging your life in a way that is productive for you personally. BW: What is the role of suffering in happiness? Do pain and suffering always detract from an individual’s happiness?

JM: Suffering is an inescapable dimension of any long-term commitment, and those commitments lead us to the deepest sources of fulfillment. But avoid needless suffering!

BW: Where does happiness stand on the hierarchy of goods? Is it the most desirable emotional/ spiritual state, or are there other goods that should be placed above it?

JM: I think it is the final good by definition. PC: I would say that it is the most desirable good with the major caveat that this is in part because my sense is that, as we talked about earlier, it’s impossible to be happy without being involved in other people’s wellbeing, so that happiness has an inherent moral component to it. This shared concern for each other’s wellbeing is, for me, the crux of the moral life and is a part of happiness. The two go together, and one cannot have one without the other.

Photo by Peter Osorio ‘12

4 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


THE MIND OF Cantor & Augustine on the Nature of Infinity GOD by Hayden Kvamme


he Jews said to him, ‘You are not fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’”1 Evident throughout the Bible are notions of God’s infinite being, infinite goodness, infinite power, infinite grace, infinite justice, infinite mercy, infinite knowledge, and infinite love.2 Christians describe these characteristics as infinite because they surpass all understanding. Mathematical notions of infinity, by contrast, appear to be different. The mathematician’s infinity does not seem to surpass all understanding, as evidenced by its regular use in calculus, number theory,

set theory, and other areas of mathematics. These two notions of infinity appear to be firmly separate; they refer to distinct concepts, and neither has much to say about the other. Nevertheless, it is possible for Christians to unify these two concepts by recognizing that mathematical infinity can, by way of analogy, give us a glimpse of the absolute infinity of God. Christian thinkers have been seeking this unification since Augustine in the fourth century. Augustine was one of the first philosopher-theologians to propose that these two “infinites” should not be thought of separately; rather, he thought, the infinity of God and the infinity of mathematics should inform one another.3 About 1500 years after Augustine, the


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


19th century mathematician Georg Cantor again thought about these two infinities together.4 In accord with Augustine, Cantor ultimately distinguished between what he called an “Infinitum aeternum increatum sive Absolutum”—the uncreated, absolute infinity of God—and an “Infinitum creatum sive Transfinitum”5 —the created, yet still actual, infinity of mathematics.6 The content of Cantor’s research forced him to grapple with philosophical as well as theological issues relating to mathematics, leading him to publish explanatory works on these issues, to engage the work of philosophers who had come before him, and to communicate with leaders of the Catholic Church. With these steps Cantor’s work demonstrates a model approach to interdisciplinary study that allows for productive dialogue without intellectual compromise, serving as a guide to Christians interested in reconciling Christian beliefs with scientific findings. When Cantor began studying mathematical infinity, he quickly discovered the concept of the actual, rather than potential, infinite. In order to understand Cantor’s work on infinity one must first understand this distinction between potential infinity and actual infinity, a difference first recognized and explained by Aristotle.7 Potential infinity, according to Aristotle, was best understood in terms of endless approximations or endless actions.8 In today’s mathematics, this type of infinity usually takes the form of a limit, as in calculus. Potential infinity is always increasing but never actualized—it is always becoming.9 On the other hand, actual infinity exists in its completed form—it is “being,” rather than becoming. For Aristotle, the idea of actual infinity was self-contradictory because he thought that infinity should always be increasing and therefore could not exist in its completed form. Cantor would come to disagree with Arisotle, but when he began his research, the vast majority of mathematicians and scientists still agreed that “actual” infinities did not exist.10

St. Augustine by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480

theory. In essence, transfinite numbers express sizes of infinite sets.11 Another way to understand these transfinite numbers is to think of an irrational number, say √2. By definition, this number cannot be represented by a fraction or a decimal. Decimal approximations of √2 can get as close to the actual value as desired; but they can never be exact. However, the symbol “√2” is understood by mathematicians today to express the value exactly. This requires that such a value exists. For

With these steps Cantor’s work demonstrates a model approach to interdisciplinary study that allows for productive dialogue without intellectual compromise, serving as a guide to Christians interested in reconciling Christian beliefs with scientific findings. Thus, by introducing the actual infinite as an object of study in his mathematical research, Cantor was breaking away from mainstream mathematics. Cantor did this mainly in his introduction of transfinite numbers, an idea he developed while he was working on set

6 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


Cantor, the expression of irrational numbers requires an understanding of transfinite numbers because it requires the concept of completed or actual infinites (in this case, an infinite sequence) existing and being expressed.12

Such a controversial understanding of numbers and infinity required Cantor to provide both philosophical and theological justification for his claims. Theologically, most Christians had long believed that only God could be actually infinite. In this light, Cantor’s view that numbers or sets could also be infinite began to look like Pantheism, inclusive of the

Augustine, Cantor soon adopted the idea that numbers had an eternal existence in the “mind of God.”13 Augustine argued that for humans to even have knowledge of mathematical objects, they needed God’s help because, “no one is able to grasp with the senses all numbers, since they are uncountable, but with the inner light it is possible.”14 He considered numbers to be

This conflict resembled many of the faith and reason conflicts we see today, where a new scientific finding or current philosophical concept appears to undermine traditional Christian beliefs. idea that actual infinities equal to God’s could exist on earth or in creation. This conflict resembled many of the faith and reason conflicts we see today, where a new scientific finding or current philosophical concept appears to undermine traditional Christian beliefs. Cantor was not discouraged and remained determined to achieve a resolution, and so he dug deeper into both his faith and his mathematical research. For help in this he went to the writings of Augustine and eventually to the Catholic Church. From

Pope Leo XIII

reflections of so-called “eternal, divine numbers which are in God whereby the absolute is present in us.”15 Augustine appeals here to the idea that we are created in God’s image, saying that God provides us with the “signs and tools analogous to divine characteristics that help us understand.”16 For Augustine, these divine characteristics were at the heart of God’s essence along with God’s supremacy and immutability.17 Thus, even if infinities existed in creation, “God’s infinity” would be of a higher magnitude. Put another way, all infinity is somehow “made finite to God.” God’s magnitude is the infinity of infinities and can only “be dimly imagined by means of mathematical infinity.”18 Even to say that God was infinite would be unjustified for Augustine since, “infinity is not one of God’s attributes… God transcends even the infinite.”19 Yet, Augustine believed, we can “use [mathematical infinity] to glimpse at the nature of [God’s infinity].”20 Augustine undoubtedly influenced Cantor with these ideas, a debt which Cantor recognized, quoting him at length in some of his later publications.21 Cantor would similarly describe the natural numbers as existing “at the highest level of reality as eternal ideas in the Divine Intellect.”22 As far as Cantor was concerned, the absolute infinity of God was necessary for any of the lesser transfinite infinites to exist at all.23 Sets and numbers had to exist all at once in totality and completeness in the mind of God, who created and housed these numbers.24 Here we see glimpses of Cantor’s distinction between the absolute infinity of God and the actual infinity of numbers and sets: although sets of numbers can be actual and realized infinities, they will never reach the absolute infinity of God, which exists in a sphere over and above actual and potential infinity. This three-fold distinction of the infinite was not fully understood by Cantor or others until his ideas were honed through communication with leaders in the Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII was


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


in office while Cantor did his mathematical research and played a key role in this communication process, having expressed his passion for science, education, and academic study from the beginning of his papacy. Among his first actions was the issuing of the encyclical Aeterni Patris, which sought “a renewal of philosophical thought along the lines of a new Thomism,” referring to the rationalist tradition of St. Thomas

and made strong.’”27 He recognized, too, that reason alone might lead to an abundance of “truth,” yet he asserted, “it must assuredly become more prolific after the grace of the Savior has renewed and added to the native faculties of the human mind.”28 He goes on to say that this points to the absolute truth of God, who is truth and who “[excels] in the height of all perfections, especially in infinite wisdom before which noth-

He recognized, too, that reason alone might lead to an abundance of “truth,” yet he asserted, “it must assuredly become more prolific after the grace of the Savior has renewed and added to the native faculties of the human mind.” Aquinas.25 We can see the Pope’s commitment to education and philosophy more clearly by reviewing the Pope’s Aeterni Patris directly. This commitment did not result from a sheer fascination with the mind and its abilities but rather from a careful review and interpretation of the historical impact philosophy had on the Christian faith.26 Like Cantor, Pope Leo frequently looked to Augustine as an intellectual guide, writing that the prominence of reason within the Church was “summed up by the great Augustine when he attributes to this science [reason] ‘that by which the most wholesome faith is begotten…is nourished, defended,

ing lies hidden…”29 In finishing his discussion of philosophy’s positive effects on theology, Pope Leo again quotes Augustine: “as Augustine testifies, ‘if reason is turned against the authority of sacred Scripture, no matter how specious it may seem, it errs in the likeness of truth; for truth it cannot be.’”30 Cantor certainly found a kindred spirit in Leo, a man who shared both his affinity for the writing of Augustine and a commitment to integrating science and reason with the Christian faith. Because Pope Leo XIII held learning in high regard, when Cantor began to engage the Church in dialogue

Georg Cantor

Thomas von Aquin by Sandro Botticelli

8 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


regarding the infinite, the Church was ready to listen. The key to the Church’s acceptance of Cantor’s views was his distinction between the actual infinite, including the transfinite numbers, and the absolute infinite, reserved for God and His attributes.31 Cardinal Johann Baptist Franzelin of the Roman Catholic Church, to whom Cantor sent a letter articulating his distinction, had initially felt that Cantor’s position was dangerous to hold, because it would, “in a certain sense involve the error of Pantheism.”32 Yet Cardinal Franzelin’s fear helped lead to Cantor’s clarification. A fuller explanation of some of Cantor’s work in set theory sheds light on Cantor’s distinction between the actual infinite and the absolute infinite. Cantor’s con-

Wolfgang Achtner describes Cantor’s realization of this contradiction: How can one conceive of the set of all transfinite sets? [Cantor] called this set [aleph], or absolute infinity…He showed that the set of all cardinal numbers results in a contradiction, which violates the logical consistency of all his mathematics, and which brings disastrous effects upon the logical foundation of mathematics.34

Rather than explaining how Cantor evaded this contradiction directly, I will offer an analogous problem with its solution.35 Imagine trying to contain all the balloons of the world in one balloon. Apart from

The only analog in Cantor’s system... was God: the so-called set of all transfinite sets was not a formal set but rather what Cantor called an “inconsistent plurality,” which he logically differentiated from sets and ultimately identified with God, the “creative source of all quantities existing in the world.” ception of transfinite numbers allowed him to uniquely describe the “size” of infinite sets.33 However, as Cantor constructed his system of transfinite numbers, he encountered what appeared to be a contradiction.

the physical difficulty of this, one would have the obvious problem of containing the balloon being used as a container: the container-balloon would be short one of the world’s balloons, namely itself. The only way to solve this problem without giving up would be to


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


The Adoration of God the Father by Joseph Ignatz Sadler

find a balloon characteristically different from the rest, perhaps to the point of not appropriately being called a “balloon.” If one could then contain all of the world’s balloons in this Balloon, the problem would essentially be solved. For Cantor, the equivalent to “giving up” in the situation above would have been abandoning his entire mathematical system; yet he was quite certain of its usefulness and consistency with the rest of mathematics, conditions he deemed sufficient for acceptance of the system’s validity, as would most mathematicians today.36 The only analog in Cantor’s system to the Balloon above was God: the so-called set of all transfinite sets was not a formal set but rather what Cantor called an “inconsistent plurality,” which he logically differentiated from sets and ultimately identified with God, the “creative source of all quantities existing in the world.”37 Thus, Cantor mathematically came to Augustine’s “house” of transfinite numbers, the

10 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


“infinity of infinities,” which transcended infinity itself and could only be found by “intuitive insight” rather than a complete “rational account.”38 Furthermore, implicit in this understanding was Cantor’s distinction between the infinity of God and the infinity of mathematics, the key to success in his correspondence with the Catholic Church; for as long as Cantor made an ontological distinction between the uncreated infinity of God and the created infinity of mathematics, he was not in the error of Pantheism. In light of this distinction, Cardinal Franzelin came to accept Cantor’s theory: Thus the two concepts of the Absolute-Infinite and the Actual-Infinite in the created world or in the Transfinitum are essentially different, so that in comparing the two one must only describe the former as properly infinite, the latter as improperly and equivocally infinite.

When conceived in this way, so far as I can see at present, there is no danger to religious truths in your concept of the Transfinitum.39

size of this set as well as signify the first number directly following the natural numbers. Implicit in this understanding of sets and numbers was the idea of the actual infinite (as described by Aristotle), since only by imagining the natural numbers in their completed state could transfinite numbers such as w or w+1 be conceived. 13 Stephen G. Henry, “A Conversation on Divine Infinity and Cantorian Set Theory,” The Boston Theological Institute (2000), 377. 14 Drozdek 129. 15 Ibid. 129. 16 Henry 377. 17 Drozdek 131. 18 Ibid. 131. 19 Ibid. 127. 20 Henry 377. 21 Dauben 94. 22 Cantor qtd. in Dauben 94. 23 Dauben 100. 24 Ibid. 100. 25 Ibid. 96-98. 26 Pope Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy, (1879), 3.* 27 Ibid. 3. 28 Ibid. 4. 29 Ibid. 5. 30 Ibid. 7. 31 Dauben 103. 32 Ibid. 102. 33 See endnote 12. 34 Achtner 407. 35 For “Cantor’s” explanation, see Achtner 407409. Also see Drozdek 136-139. 36 Cantor qtd. in Ignasi Jané, “Idealist and Realist Elements in Cantor’s Approach to Set Theory,” Philosophia Mathematica 3.18 (2010), 194-195. 37 Achtner 408. 38 Henry 377. 39 Franzelin qtd. in Dauben 103. 40 Drozdek 132. *Numbers in citations of Leo correspond to paragraph numbers.

Ultimately, many of Cantor’s ideas corresponded with those of Augustine: ideas that God could “count without succession of thought” and that “the infinite is made finite to God.”40 Furthermore, this connection seems to have had a direct effect on the Catholic Church’s response to Cantor. Once Cardinal Franzelin and other Christians had accepted Cantor’s philosophy and theology of the infinite as non-heretical, little was left regarding infinity or the rest of mathematics that could conflict with Christian theology. Numbers, understood post-Cantor, could not exceed God in magnitude nor could they exist without God. While Cantor’s legacy deservedly lies in his invention of set theory, Christians and others throughout the world can both appreciate his contributions to philosophy and theology and learn from his humility and dedication when faced with difficult interdisciplinary study. By engaging ancient Christian sources as well as his contemporary Christian community in discussion during his mathematical research, Cantor fostered fruitful dialogue with other Christians without compromising his mathematical discoveries, demonstrating his commitment to the reconciliation and growth of both faith and reason. John 8:57-58; also see John 1:1-2. Wolfgang Achtner, “Infinity in Science and Religion: The Creative Role of Thinking About Infinity,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 47.4 (2005), 396. 3 Adam Drozdek, “Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor,” Laval Théologique et Philosophique 51.1 (1995), 130. 4 Joseph W. Dauben, “Georg Cantor and Pope Leo XIII: Mathematics, Theology, and the Infinite,” Journal of the History of Ideas 38.1 (1977), 85. 5 Ibid. 103. 6 Ibid. 103. 7 Achtner 395. 8 Ibid. 395. 9 Ibid. 409. 10 Ibid. 409. 11 Dauben 87. 12 For more on transfinite numbers see Jané 193-226. A more direct way to understand these so-called “transfinite” numbers is to think of them as sizes of infinite sets. (This is closer to Cantor’s first conception of these transfinite numbers.) For instance, if you take the natural numbers as a completed set ({1, 2, 3, …, ∞}), Cantor claimed that a number, say , could be used to describe the 1 2

Hayden Kvamme is from Excelsior, MN. He is a Religion and Mathematics double major.


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


Instructive Ghosts “Christian” Nihilism and Symbolic Renewal in A Good Man is Hard to Find

by Aaron Colston


Good Man is Hard to Find tells the story of a family—a husband and wife, their children and a sly grandmother—whose road trip takes a turn for the worst when they encounter a bespectacled serial killer who calls himself the “Misfit.” Amidst the terror and gore of the events that follow, author Flannery O’Connor stages a psychological conflict between the grandmother and the killer, representatives of the Christian and modern moral orders, respectively. Through their interaction, O’Connor illustrates the distinctly Christian character of modern nihilism, while exposing the tension within and complexity of pre-modern Christian consciousness. Ultimately, O’Connor suggests a postmodern synthesis in which the Christian and modern orders develop new powers of meaning. Carl Jung writes that the makeup of modern moral order is a severed tie with traditional values: The man whom we can with justice call “modern” is solitary... he has become “unhistorical” in the deepest sense and has estranged himself from

12 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


the masses who live within the bounds of tradition...To be “unhistorical” is the great Promethean sin, and in this sense modern man lives in sin. A higher consciousness is like a burden of guilt.1

Modern consciousness is a solitary knower. Traditional values are not practiced but are put under a microscope. The modern mind takes footing on the “edge of the world” in order to observe the entirety of traditions before it; however, this power of knowing, which sets the modern mind apart from the traditional world, elevates it to lonely heights. But, like Prometheus who was punished for bringing the fire of enlightenment to Man, the modern man carries a burden of guilt for rising above the traditional world. The Misfit is Jung’s solitary knower in a Christian context. Once the Misfit describes his time in prison as one buried alive—“Turn to the right, it was a wall… turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor”2 —the grandmother tells him, “If you would pray… Jesus would help you.”3 The Misfit replies simply that “I don’t want no help…

I’m doing all right by myself.”4 The prison is a metaphor for the solitary state, and Christ is the symbol of pre-modern values. His rejection of Christ, then, seems to show that the Misfit is immanently modern. Although the Misfit rejects Christ, he also acknowledges two “paths” based on possible historical truths: If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness…5

These two “paths” are drastically different images of the world. One image is the worldview that comes from the Christian faith, and the other is one of the destructive life of nihilism—the belief that nothing in life has meaning. But this nihilism is a peculiarly Christian one, because in proposing that there is no meaning in life if Christ was not real, it accepts the premise that Christ, and not any other religious figure, is the source of meaning. Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart, in his essay “Christ and Nothing,” reflects on this “Christian” nihilism. He writes that Christianity, with its cry of “no other god,” is in part responsible for the nihilism of [modern] culture. The gospel shook the ancient world to its foundations, indeed tore down the heavens, and so helped to bring us to the ruin of the present moment…6

Hart agrees with Jung that modern man is estranged from the values of the traditional world. However, Hart proposes that the values which modern man rejects and observes from a historical viewpoint are ultimately Christian values, because the gospel “tore down the heavens” once populated by the gods of myth. The gods thus vanquished, the modern man is left either with belief in Christianity or the belief that there is no other value “higher than choice,” which leaves no room in existence for “any transcendent Good.”7 Hart’s insight mirrors the Misfit’s belief that Christ

Trapped in this paradigm of “nothing higher than choice,” O’Connor’s Misfit suffers profoundly. “I wasn’t there so I can’t say he didn’t [raise the dead]… I wisht I had of been there… It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known… and wouldn’t be like I am now.”8 He desires what cannot be attained; he demands to see and choose a Christ that cannot be seen. The Misfit does not suffer alone, however. While Jung describes modern man’s estrangement from the viewpoint of the modern, O’Connor uses the grandmother to describe estrangement from the viewpoint of the pre-modern Christian. This perhaps reflects some of O’Connor’s own feelings: “I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level.”9 O’Connor clarifies later, “If you’re a Catholic you believe what the Church teaches and the climate makes no difference. What I mean is that I am conscious in a general way of the world’s present historical position, which according to Jung is unhistorical.”10 In any case, it seems that the traditional Christian mind feels the “contemporary situation” of estrangement just as the modern does, but differently, since it does not break with its own views. Rather, it knows that something has broken from it, like a deep wound. When O’Connor states that this type of estrangement is felt at “the ultimate level,” she adds a heightened level of tension that the modern consciousness seems to lack. The question arises: by whom and in what way is the Christian mind’s “ultimate level” of estrangement represented in the story? By the grandmother, who embodies the values of the traditional South, and in her dressing with white cotton gloves, a straw hat, collars and cuffs trimmed with lace, and a spray of cloth violets and a sachet. “In case of an accident,” O’Connor observes, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”11 Convinced of her propriety, the grandmother tries to

Like Prometheus who was punished for bringing the fire of enlightenment to Man, the modern man carries a burden of guilt for rising above the traditional world. was the only other person—except himself—to believe in and to worship. When the Misfit talks about “no pleasure but meanness” he shows that he has chosen to worship himself, a faith founded on the supremacy of choice as a good in itself.

keep her grandchildren in line. When one of the children says that “Georgia is a lousy state,” the grandmother, “folding her thin veined fingers,” replies that “in my time, children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else.”12 She


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


chides her granddaughter for calling the gas station they visit a dump and calls the owner “a good man” for letting mill workers charge their own gas.13 The grandmother’s manners—her attire and her behavior—are signs of how she imagines herself: a “proper” Southern woman, an heir to the “nobility” of the plantation era. As such, she sees that it is her duty that manners are enforced. Yet the grandmother does not merely represent a particular way of life. She also represents a type of unhistoricity. Her memory is steeped in the imagery and sentiments of the Southern noblesse oblige, inclinations that come from a Southern past that estranges her from the present. When she sees an AfricanAmerican child by the road, she says “Wouldn’t that make a picture now?… If I could paint, I’d paint that picture.”14 Her granddaughter, however, points out that “he didn’t have any britches on.”15 Her unhistorical inclinations lead her to reduce the African-American child’s nakedness to a pastoral and sentimentalized portrait, while her granddaughter sees his lack of britches for what it is—the startling poverty in her world. In her longing for the past, the grandmother had not been “telling the truth but wishing that she were.”16 Her nostalgia is both her hope for survival in the hostile present and what makes her unhistorical and estranged. This quality is essential to understanding a higher level of estrangement of the Christian world from the modern, but it is her guilt that pushes it to the “ultimate level.” The grandmother is guilty because for the majority of the story she fails to recognize what is her own. At the opening of the story, she says of the Misfit, “I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”17 Here the grandmother recognizes her estrangement from the Misfit; in the same way that the Jungian modern man objectifies history to observe it, the grandmother objectifies the Misfit in order to condemn him, saying “a criminal like that” instead of “a criminal like him”. In a Buberian “I-it” fashion (as

14 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens, 16191620

opposed to an “I-thou” fashion), the grandmother refuses to acknowledge the personhood of the criminal. It is not until she faces the mannered criminal for the first time that a change begins to stir in her: “The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar as if she had known him all her life [emphasis added] but she could not recall who he was.”18 She recognizes in him something that she has herself: the manners of a “proper” Southerner. The Misfit answers the grandmother with “Yes’m” and “nome” (contracted forms of “Yes ma’am” and “no ma’am”), and is embarrassed not to have a shirt on in front of her.19 But it is only after the Misfit wears the coat of her biological son that the change in the grandmother climaxes: she recognizes fully who he is. She murmurs to the Misfit “why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” and touches him.20 The Misfit and the grandmother are bound, strangely, by the suffering of their common estrangement. While the suffering

is common, the Christian mind—represented by the grandmother—suffers at an “ultimate” level because it is estranged from its own child, the modern world. Once the Misfit murders the grandmother, the story comes to a strange but significant close: Without his glasses, the Misfit’s eyes were redrimmed and defenseless-looking… [He picked up] the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg. “She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”21

man, represented in the Misfit, back into the world he abandoned, O’Connor confronts the estrangement of the modern but also reunites the Christian world with the child it was deprived of. The result of this confrontation is a symbolic synthesis of past and present, a union wherein both worlds find—as literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin would say—new ways to mean.25 Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company) 227-8. 2 Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works (New York: The Library of America) 150. 3 Ibid. 150. 4 Ibid. 150. 5 Ibid. 152. 6 David Bentley Hart, “Christ or Nothing,” First Things, October 2003, 10 Sept. 2011 <http://www.>. 7 Ibid. 8 O’Connor, Collected Works 152. 9 Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. The Habit of Being (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux) 90. 10 Ibid. 103. 11 O’Connor, Collected Works 138. 12 Ibid. 139. 13 Ibid. 141-42. 14 Ibid. 139. 15 Ibid. 139. 16 Ibid. 143. 17 Ibid. 137. 18 Ibid. 146. 19 Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) 42. 20 O’Connor, Collected Works 152. 21 Ibid. 153. 22 Flannery O’Connor, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 112-113. 23 O’Connor, The Habit of Being 90. 24 O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose 45. 25 Mikhail Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press) 346. 1

Paradoxically, this scene represents the symbolic renewal of the Misfit. He receives the grandmother’s cat, a significant moment because the cat signifies her traditional, Christian character. When the Misfit takes possession of the cat it is a fusion of the modern and the Christian. However, this fusion occurs because the Misfit was “defenseless-looking,” that is, he steps down from the lonely heights of the modern man and meets the Christian world from which he had been previously estranged. Having rejoined the Christian mind, he identifies suffering (“somebody there to shoot her”) with virtue, akin to the suffering of Christ on Calvary. “I prefer to think,” writes O’Connor of this symbolic renewal of the Misfit, “that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.”22 O’Connor would also write, “I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic… and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer has hold of the wrong horror.”23 But what is the “right” horror? It is the ghost-like haunting of the modern man by the Christian world from which he is estranged; as O’Connor said, “Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.”24 By bringing the modern

Aaron Colston is from Los Angeles, California. His major is History modified with Education. Parable of the Mustard Seed by Jan Luyken


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


Faith and Paradox:

G.K. Chesterton’s Philosophy of Christian Paradox by Chris Hauser


ithin its long history, Christianity has been accused of almost every kind of vice imaginable. Strangely enough, its critics— sometimes even the same critic—have attacked it for contradictory reasons. Some detractors, in particular Epicureans and Materialists, have decried it for its unworldliness and pessimistic outlook on the material world. Other disparagers—those with a more cynical point of view, such as the Stoics or Existentialists— have condemned Christianity for blinding the people, shielding their eyes from the true bleakness of the world by giving false promises of divine mercy and a glorious afterlife. Hell, it is said, is a doctrine breeding despair; but Heaven, they say with equal vehemence, is a doctrine breeding false hope. It is with this criticism that G.K. Chesterton begins his explanation of his “philosophy of paradox” in the sixth chapter of Orthodoxy, his excellent book of wit and wisdom.1 As Chesterton points out, it might be easily overlooked if this were the only set of inconsistent charges but indeed there hardly seems to be an accusation against Christianity whose opposite has not

16 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


also been leveled against the religion. It has been accused of being too pacifistic, “an attempt to make a man like a sheep,” as a result of Gospel phrases like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy.”2 And yet the bloodshed of the Crusades and the intolerance for heresy have earned this meek, sheep-minded religion a reputation for violence and aggression.3 “Or again,” Chesterton writes, “Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.”4 The accusations run on and on, extending from an unwarranted destruction of the family to an irrational insistence on the family, from an unnatural praise of celibacy to an overly natural demand for children.5 It would seem that Christianity is as full of paradoxes as it is of parables. The result of all these contradictory charges is that everything about Christianity seems to be not just wrong, but wrong in opposite ways and for opposite

The Fall of Man by Hendrick Goltzius, 1616

reasons. When a young Chesterton reflected on the picture of Christianity painted by its critics, he began to think that they did not understand how evil Christianity really must be if their contradictory criticisms were all correct. He was forced to reevaluate just how bad Christianity was: “It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out.”6 However, the more Chesterton reflected on this, the more he found this conclusion to be unsatisfactory. For the striking thing about Christianity was that though its critics collectively accused it of every possible evil, individually most of them were willing to admit that certain ethical principles or teachings were very valuable and beneficial to the welfare of humanity. Chesterton decided that the critics had no special insight into Christianity, for they had no explanation for its apparently endless evil: I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking) was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals. They gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness. Such a paradox of evil

rose to stature of the supernatural. It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope. An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.7

Once he realized that the critics had no real explanation to offer him, Chesterton began to think for himself about how he could make sense of the faith that those critics regarded as “supernaturally evil”: There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation… would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.8

This is precisely the response given by Christianity to the critic: there’s not something wrong with Christianity but with the critic, or rather with the critic’s philosophy. Paradox is indeed at the heart of Christianity, for it is precisely the paradoxical shape of its doctrines that allows it to offer answers to deep


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


moral and philosophical problems. For example, the theological paradox of Original Sin illumines the answer to the moral dilemma of balancing pride with humility. Original Sin is the doctrine stating that mankind’s nature has been corrupted as a result of its willful disobedience to God, represented biblically in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man.9 In describing Original Sin, Chesterton writes, “The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall… That whatever I am, I am not myself.”10 Instead of establishing a virtue of modesty that somehow splits the gap of pride and humility, this doctrine of normal abnormality enables humans to simultaneously experience the glory of the highest pride and the awe of the meekest humility. Conversely, Chesterton illustrates the “diluteness” of the pagan or agnostic philosopher’s balance between pride and humility:11 The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but so insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse… This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go glad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of

Christianity brought something new into the equation, a solution to this dilemma of pride and humility. Thus, in combining the doctrine of the Fall with the promises of the Incarnated Christ, Christianity uncovered a new balance, one that would allow both passions of Pride and Humility to blaze side-by-side: In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny—all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no preeminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had preeminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.13

This understanding of man’s dignity, illumined by the combined doctrines of his immortal soul and his sinful nature, further unlocks Christianity’s paradoxical mixture of optimism and pessimism. In describing his own discovery of this paradox, Chesterton writes, I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world… The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring… I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.14

Hence, the Christian pessimistic optimism satisfies the intuition of the pessimist because it acknowledges the evil of the world brought on by the Fall. It satisfies the intuition of the optimist because it acknowledges that Creation and Man, in their deepest senses, truly are good. In other words, Christianity reduces neither passion—not that of optimism nor that of pessimism—but rather allows both to

Photograph of G.K. Chesterton

18 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011

the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels… Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble.12


shine with the greatest intensity, for both are now able to operate in accord with the truth. Lastly, there is the paradox of caritas, or love. This virtue, considered to be the greatest of the theological virtues,15 answers the dilemma posed by the paradox of justice and mercy. The pagan position, a position echoed in much of today’s political rhetoric, was one of justice: as Chesterton writes, “A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn’t: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed.”16 While the degree of punishment has indeed been moderated since Roman times, the following general principle is held by modern citizens just as it was by Roman ones: “In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable.”17 What has changed is not the principle but the definition of “pardonable” and the overall fairness of the judicial process. On the other side is the stance of mercy, of “pardoning unpardonable acts.”18 Many people have also adopted this kind of stance towards punishment, especially those philosophically committed to denying free will. There are many famed adherents to this position, including the philosopher Bertrand Russell:19 these individuals have fallen for the all too tempting appeal of “tolerance” and will “explain sin as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc.”20 This position, too, is unsatisfactory, for it leaves no room for the very idea of pardonability, guilt, or any real rightness or wrongness. As Chesterton writes, It [the determinist stance] leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it [the justice stance] leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all… We must be much more angry with the theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before.”21

Once again, Christianity gives a solution to a riddle, not by “pardoning unpardonable acts” in the name of mercy, nor by executing criminals in the name of justice, but by “loving unlovable people” in the name of Christ, thereby preserving the fullness of mercy and the fullness of justice.22 George Macdonald, a Christian author writing a few decades before Chesterton, once wrote, “Man is not made for justice from his fellows,

Caritas (or, Madonna and Child) by Stanislaw Wyspianski, 1904


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


we begin to appreciate the wisdom that Christianity offers. More important than getting the right answers is asking the right questions. Chesterton argues that when we do get a good understanding of the questions before us, we come to realize that the answer might not be an abstract concept at all, but a person who walked the earth two thousand years ago. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Moody Publishers: Chicago, 2009) 130. 2 Ibid. 132. 3 Ibid. 132. 4 Ibid. 135. 5 Ibid. 135. 6 Russell lecture 7 Chesterton 131. 8 Ibid. 136. 9 Ibid. 136-7. 10 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Entries 397401. 11 Chesterton 235. 12 Ibid. 142. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 142-143. 15 Ibid. 121-122. 16 1 Corinthians 13:13. 17 Chesterton 144. 18 Ibid. 19 Ibid. 20 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Entry 387. 21 Chesterton 144. Note that Chesterton’s comment about forgiving “unto seventy times seventy” is made in reference to Jesus words in “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” (Matthew 18:21-35). 22 Ibid. 23 George MacDonald: An Anthology Ed. C. S. Lewis (New York: Macmillian, [1947] 1974) from James V. Schall. Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington Books: Oxford, 2004). 24 Ibid. 233. 25 G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2008) 214. 1

Resurrection of Christ by circle of Christoph Schwartz, c. 16th century

but for love, which is greater than justice, and by including supercedes justice… Justice to be justice must be much more than justice.”23 Love includes both justice and mercy, a true balance without any kind of dilution, and is thereby able to produce true justice and real mercy. It is precisely because Christianity is able to solve the greatest paradoxes of our existence by theological paradoxes of its own that Chesterton embraced it. Christianity to him is not about “this truth or that truth” but is a wholly “truth-telling thing”—indeed, the only philosophy that “has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.”24 Chesterton found that what the early Christian claimed was true: they were carrying around a key.25 It is the key to human existence and the philosophical puzzles that characterize it. The critic fails to understand this because he fails to appreciate the problems that Christianity is trying to solve, and it is this confusion that has driven much of the criticism of Christianity. Before criticizing something, one really ought to figure out what exactly that thing is and what it was meant for—for how can one criticize something when one does not understand its purpose? It is only when we become truly acquainted with the puzzles and the questions that present themselves to natural reason, when we ask ourselves, for example, how it is that justice and mercy could ever come together, that

20 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


Chris Hauser ‘14 is from Barrington, IL. He is a History major.

Nicholas of Cusa Exploring the Intersection of Christianity & Scientific Discovery by Steffi Ostrowski


hroughout history, there have been many notable occasions where scientific development appeared to clash with Christian theology. However, there have been even more examples of scientists who rejected the notion of an inherent conflict and practiced both strong faith and science. The Dartmouth Apologia has addressed this issue on multiple occasions by looking at the lives of scientists such as Galileo Galilee and Johannes Kepler, men of faith whose work set the foundation of modern astronomy.1 The discussion is far from over, and can be taken deeper by exploring the faith of notable scientist and philosopher Nicholas of Cusa. His life and work show that not only can science and Christianity coexist, but that faith is, in many cases, a vessel for scientific

discovery, while science can help illuminate one’s faith. Nicholas of Cusa, or Nicholas Cusanus, was born in 1401 in Kues, Germany. During his academic career at the Universities of Heidelberg, Padua, and Cologne, he studied canon law, theology, physics, astronomy, and mathematics.2 Cusanus’ life was devoted to the reconciliation of ideas that seemed incompatible at the time, such as the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians and the combination of traditional theology and mathematics. It is indicative of this synthesis that mathematics became a primary illustrative tool in many of his philosophical works. De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance), one of Cusanus’s most famous works, is no exception. The focus of this, and of the majority of his papers, is


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


the nature of God, the ability of man to understand Him, and how this should frame one’s approach to knowledge.3 Cusanus uses an argument similar to the Socratic mode of inquiry, arguing that one must accept how little he truly understands in order to gain knowledge. For Cusanus, however, this is the case because of the metaphysical truths of the greatness of God and the weakness of man. This humility fueled his curiosity in both faith and science. He explains this idea with an analogy of God as the Absolute Maximum; the “Maximum” being “to that than which there cannot be

Acknowledging this leads to intelligence. “If we can fully attain unto this [knowledge of our ignorance], we will attain unto learned ignorance. … The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be.”7 This view of God’s infinitude suggests that there is an unlimited amount of knowledge to attain, a truth that dictated Cusanus’s approach to science. He wanted to learn about the world around him not so that he could eventually know everything, but that by understanding the world he might better understand

He wanted to learn about the world around him not so that he could eventually know everything, but that by understanding the world he might better understand God. anything greater.”4 According to Cusanus’ illustration, when we learn things, we acquire knowledge in finite chunks, which can be thought of as finite numbers. When summing finite numbers, it is always possible to reach a higher number by adding another finite number to it. Since the Absolute Maximum is the point where there cannot be anything greater, we can never reach it by summing finite numbers, and therefore man can never know everything.5 This led Cusanus to the idea that titled this work, Learned Ignorance. “It is clear, therefore, that all we know of the truth is that the absolute truth, such as it is, is beyond our reach.”6

God. Echoing scripture he states: “All our wisest and most divine teachers agree that visible things are truly images of invisible things and that from created things the Creator can be knowably seen as in a mirror.”8 One consequence of Cusanus’s admittance of man’s ignorance was a refusal to let the status quo influence his theories. He approached science with a fresh eye and was not afraid to reject ideas he disagreed with, regardless of their origin or popularity. Perhaps his most radical cosmological statement was abandoning Ptolemaic astronomy by saying that the earth was not in the center of the universe.9 Instead of shying away

Altarpiece with depiction of the Trinity

22 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


from controversial statements, Cusanus was made bolder by his faith, allowing him to make revolutionary discoveries such as the “principle of mediocrity.”10 This principle, which posits that a person on the earth, moon, sun, or any other body would view themselves as stationary with all other celestial bodies in motion, would later provide a starting point from which Copernicus and Kepler would build their theories. Cusanus also rejected Aristotelian cosmology based on perfect forms.11 Before Cusanus, it was considered common knowledge that planetary orbits were perfectly circular. Contradicting this was heresy to many; positing that the universe was not perfect seemed akin to saying God was imperfect. Cusanus, however, took the opposite approach. Continuing with his theme of ignorance, he asserted that we are incapable of ever truly comprehending what God is, but we are able to see what he is not. With this simple analogy, God’s inherent perfection prevents perfection from existing in the natural universe. Although the theory of non-circular planetary motion would not be fully developed for over one hundred years, Cusanus paved the way for future scientists to explore this idea. Not only did Nicholas Cusanus’s faith lead him to important scientific discoveries, but he also used science to help inform and illustrate his faith. Continuing with the concept of God as the Absolute Maximum, Cusanus argued that it is impossible for man to understand God in any non-symbolic way because He is outside of anything man can conceive: “But since from the preceding [points] it is evident that the unqualifiedly Maximum cannot be any of the things which we either know or conceive: when we set out to investigate the Maximum symbolically, we must leap beyond simple likeness.”12 Nicholas of Cusa found mathematics to be the greatest tool in symbolically representing God. Because we are incapable of truly comprehending the infinite, Cusanus said the natural starting place is the finite numbers. From these, we can apply numerical relations to grasp some sort of understanding of infinite figures. We then can apply relations of infinite figures to arrive at a small

Nikolaus von Kues (Nikolaus Cusanus)

Cusanus used this transition from finite numbers to infinite figures to the Absolute Maximum when grappling with the concept of the Trinity. He begins with a line and extends each end forever: a maximum, infinite line. He then makes the seemingly nonsensical statement that “if there were an infinite line, it would

If there were several eternal beings, one would possess something which another lacked and so none of them would be perfect; in other words, there would exist an eternal which was not eternal at all, since it is imperfect. understanding of the Absolute Maximum. “At this point our ignorance will be taught incomprehensibly how we are to think more correctly and truly about the Most High as we grope by means of a symbolism.”13

be a straight line, a triangle, a circle, and a sphere.”14 First, he shows that an infinite circle is in fact an infinite line. As one increases the circumference of a circle, its curvature decreases. Therefore, the circle with the


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


eternal beings, one would possess something which another lacked and so none of them would be perfect; in other words, there would exist an eternal which was not eternal at all, since it is imperfect.”17 By examining the works of Nicholas Cusanus, it is clear that it was his belief in God that drove his philosophical musings and scientific discoveries. It was this faith that humbled him to consider all he could not know, led him to explore controversial cosmological theories, and inspired him to develop new ways of explaining complicated theological concepts. The life of Nicholas Cusanus is yet another example of how faith in God can not only coexist with science, but can inform it and lead to remarkable outcomes. See Andrew Schuman and Robert Cousins, “Galileo Revisited: Part I: From Copernicus to the Inquisition,” The Dartmouth Apologia 1.1 2007; Grace Nauman, “Science and Orthodoxy: The Faith of Galileo and Kepler,” The Dartmouth Apologia 5.1 2011. 2 Dermot Moran, “Nicholas of Cusa and Modern Philosophy,” The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy, ed. James Hankins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 178. 3 Ibid. 174. 4 Cusanus, Nicholas. De Docta Ignorantia. Trans. Germain Heron (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954) 5. 5 Ibid. 6-11. 6 Ibid. 11. 7 Ibid. 4. 8 Ibid. 30; 1 Corinthians 13:12. 9 Jasper Hopkins, “Nicolas of Cusa,” The Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. Joseph Stayer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987) 125. 10 Dennis Danielson, “Ancestors of Apollo.” American Scientist 2011. 11 “Nicholas of Cusa.” Door to Science. 2007. July 2011 <>. 12 Cusanus 20. 13 Ibid. 20. 14 Ibid. 35. 15 Ibid. 42. 16 Ibid. 15. 17 Ibid. 16. 1

Detail of Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, c. 1510

maximum circumference is one with the minimum curvature: an infinite, straight line. (See picture) He uses similar logic to show that an infinite line is in fact a maximum triangle and sphere as well. The key to this illustration is that the infinite line does not simply look like an infinite triangle, circle, or sphere, it is all at once an infinite triangle, circle, and sphere: “An infinite line is not a triangle as [a triangle] is educed from a finite line; rather, [the infinite line] is actually an infinite triangle, which is identical with the [infinite] line.”15 The next step is to move from this infinite figure to the concept of the Absolute Maximum. The conclusion of the illustration is that in the same way that an infinite line is simultaneously an infinite triangle, circle, and sphere, the Absolute Maximum is at the same time the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Cusanus also used mathematics to illustrate why he rejected polytheism. To him, “nothing could be more false than the assertion that there is more than one God, for it is nothing short of a denial of God and the entire universe.”16 Once again, he begins at the Absolute Maximum. If God is in fact the maximum, which by definition he must be, then he is the sum of all things. In order for there to be a second god, he would also have to be the sum of all things, which is a contradiction. Just as there cannot be more than one absolute maximum in mathematics, there cannot be more than one god. As he put it, “If there were several

24 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


Steffi Ostrowski ‘14 is from Oakmont, PA. She is a Physics and Computer Science double major

HISTORICITY HOLY WAR & Putting the Crusades in Context by Blake Neff


ppearing in everything from classic poetry to modern film, the image of peasants and kings taking up the sword to fight for their religion has become a defining image of the Middle ages. Saladin and Richard the Lionheart are among the most famous names in history. In recent years, however, the Crusades have acquired a startling immediacy because of comparisons to renewed conflicts between Western and Middle Eastern powers in which religious tension has been exploited to further political and military agendas. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, writes in his book God is Not Great that “the jihadist assault reconjured the blood-stained spectre of the Crusaders.”1 The Crusades have reentered the modern consciousness as a sort of historical fable, a paradigm of Western imperialist aggression and ethno-religious persecution. Portrayed alongside other choice incidents such

as the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades are used by some to malign Christianity as inherently violent, aggressive, intolerant, and corrupt. Historian Steven Runciman describes the Crusades as “nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.”2 Bringing up the Crusades as the quintessential Christian atrocity (or series of atrocities) carries with it the implication that their alleged evils were a natural byproduct of a Christian society. Just as Stalin’s gulags or Hitler’s gas chambers are seen as clear evidence for the corruption of their underlying ideologies, these medieval holy wars are seen as the brutal and natural byproduct of a devoutly religious society. Because of the prevalence of this understanding of the Crusades, it is important that both Christians and non-Christians understand the historical context of the Crusades in order to distinguish fact from the hyperbole and pure


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


fiction that accompanies many interpretations of these events. In the present day, one of the most common viewpoints on the Crusades is that they were simply wars of aggression provoked by either simple intolerance or the desire of the Christian Church to use its spiritual

Christendom remained on the defensive. France was attacked by Muslim armies, Sicily was conquered, and even Constantinople, the most important city in Christendom, was repeatedly besieged. By the eleventh century the Christian world had regained its footing, but the fear that Christendom was in a constant battle

When analyzing any historical event, and particularly one so fraught with misinterpretation and exaggeration, it is crucial to look at both its context and its causes. The Crusades did not spontaneously appear from a historical vacuum. authority for short-sighted material ends. This attitude sadly remains prominent in no small part due to the proliferation of outdated—or simply poor—scholarship. James Reston, Jr.’s popular history work Warriors of God depressingly encapsulates this common view when his foreword refers to the crusading period as a “frenzy of hate and violence unprecedented before the advent of the technological age and the scourge of Hitler.”3 Christopher Tyerman, author of God’s War, refers to the “mixture of demotic religious propaganda and material greed” that “combined to create an obscene cocktail of butchery and bigotry.”4 Both of these views are inadequate and incomplete interpretations of complex historical events. When analyzing any historical event, and particularly one so fraught with misinterpretation and exaggeration, it is crucial to look at both its context and its causes. The Crusades did not spontaneously appear from a historical vacuum. The people of Europe did not leave their homes and march thousands of miles to wage war for no reason, and it is important to understand their own motivations and justifications before passing judgment on the events of the Crusades. In broad historical terms, the Crusades came in the wake of four centuries of Christian retreat all across the known world. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Muslim armies had poured out of Arabia in great numbers, capturing the Holy Land, Mesopotamia, northern Africa, and even Spain. Of the Christian world’s five patriarchates, or cities of major religious importance, three were captured (Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem), and for the next four centuries,

26 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


for its own existence remained a powerful force in the European psyche, and this attitude was directly linked with the beginning of the Crusades. More immediately, the First Crusade was triggered by the weakening of the eastern Byzantine Empire. For centuries, the Empire was the eastern bulwark of Christianity, surviving numerous invasions and occasionally reasserting Christian control over important cities such as the patriarchate of Antioch. By the late eleventh century, however, the arrival of the Seljuk Turks from the Asian steppes had them tottering on

The Four Leaders of the First Crusade

Map of Constantinople

the brink of collapse. In 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert, the Byzantine Empire suffered a devastating defeat to the Turks, and over the next few years the Empire lost most of its land in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). As the Turks continued to advance, cities of great historical importance to Christianity such as Nicaea and Antioch fell out of Christian hands. By 1095, the Turks were strong enough that the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, was com-

lies when it came to resisting further Islamic advances. This request for help motivated Pope Urban II to call for the first Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Urban called upon the knights of Europe to join together to take back the city of Jerusalem. While the sense that Christendom was under siege was likely the greatest concern in Urban’s mind, he was also motivated by a desire to halt attacks on Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, which were believed to be increasing. The

Given the Christian ideals of seeking peace and loving one’s enemies, contrasted with the ubiquity of warfare in human existence, it is unsurprising that Christian thinkers have thought deeply on the circumstances under which a Christian nation or individual may be permitted to take up arms. pelled to write to Pope Urban II in Rome requesting military assistance. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantines had been in schism with the Roman Church since 1054, the two churches were not complete enemies and still considered each other al-

general circumstances of the First Crusade show that it was not conceived as an aggressive move, but rather as a defensive one, meant to protect the Christian world from what appeared to be an existential threat. Given the Christian ideals of seeking peace and


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


loving one’s enemies, contrasted with the ubiquity of warfare in human existence, it is unsurprising that Christian thinkers have thought deeply on the circumstances under which a Christian nation or individual may be permitted to take up arms. Indeed, some of the Church’s most important figures have attempted to formulate methods to determine which wars are just and which are not. St. Augustine, who lived in the fourth century A.D., was among the first Christian thinkers to write on how a just war could be defined. In his most famous work, The City of God, Augustine wrote, The wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage

Depiction of St. Thomas Aquinas from the Demidoff Altarpiece.

28 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing.5 Augustine’s work was continued by St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote at the height of the Crusading era. Aquinas asserts in his Summa Theologica that three requirements must be met in order for a war to be considered just: First, a war must be waged by a lawful sovereign. Sovereign rulers bear the duty of protecting their people from harm and injustice, and therefore only they may undertake the action of declaring and waging war. Second, a war must have a just cause. Examples of just causes would be protecting one’s people from the invasion and harm of another state, or intervening to halt some other grave injustice. While a few medieval writers argued that wars of conversion were just, the greater weight of religious scholarship rejected this.6 Finally, a war must be waged with right intention. Aquinas quotes Augustine in saying that, “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.”7 Whether or not the Crusades themselves had a just result, the question of whether they could be seen as just wars when they occurred is worthy of examination. When carried out by feudal lords and authorized by the Pope, they certainly fulfilled the sovereignty condition for a just war. In the mind of Pope Urban, the second condition was fulfilled by the danger presented to Christendom by the aggression of the Turks, as well as the belief that Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were being attacked. Pope Urban urged his listeners that, “Your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them.”8 The third condition laid out by St. Aquinas obviously must have varied in its fulfillment in the heart of each crusader. No doubt some of the leaders and soldiers who embarked on the cru-

sades perceived the potential for temporal gain even in an enterprise as arduous as crusading. However, most evidence suggests that a great many crusaders, even those in the nobility, were motivated by a true conviction that what they did was right. Knights embarking on a crusade were required to settle their debts, and many had to sell a great deal of land just to finance their journey to the Holy Land. Primary documents reveal that almost all planned to return from the Holy Land after their “pilgrimage,” meaning that for most there was no prospect of winning new lands abroad. Not all Christian thinkers in Europe, however, were convinced that the Crusades were pursued in such a way as to justify their continuance. Notable as contrarian voices during the Crusades are Peter the Venerable and Roger Bacon. Peter, abbot of an important monastery in Cluny, France, was troubled by the total lack of knowledge most in the Christian world had of Islam and organized the first ever Latin translation of the Quran. Bacon was a contemporary critic of the crusading enterprise, arguing that it hurt the salvation of souls because “those who survive, together with their children, are more and more embittered against the Christian faith.” Their dissent is important for balancing our understanding of Christianity at that time.

Clearly, both faith and reason played a role in determining individuals’ and leaders’ responses to aggression and their attitudes toward violence. There was no univocal endorsement of violence. Overall, with a sensitive subject like the Crusades it is exceptionally important that one avoid hyperbole and instead view things from a distant, rational perspective. Before analyzing or making a moral judgment of the past, it is crucial that one has a firm grasp of known facts and be willing to take context into account. Was crusading a net positive for the world or even for Christianity? Likely not. Was it the source of much suffering and outright evil? Beyond all doubt. But do the historical events fit the narrative of Christian aggression motivated by intolerance? No. Much can be learned from the Crusades if one takes an honest and open approach, rather than making assumptions about the beliefs and motivations of historical people. The fact  that  Pope  Urban’s  initial  orders  and  intentions led to the tragic violence of the Crusades illustrates the immense problem of unintended consequences in any endeavor, and the great deal of suffering they caused provides a compelling reason for why modern Christians should always attempt to be peacemakers. Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (New York: Twelve Books, 2007). 2 Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) 480. 3 James Reston Jr., Warriors of God (New York: Doubleday, 2001) xiii. 4 Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (New York: Penguin, 2006) 104105. 5 Augustine, “The City of God,” New Advent <>. 6 Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977) 20. 7 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Volume III (New York: Cosimo, 1912), 1354. 8 Pope Urban II, “Speech at the Council of Clermont,” Medieval Sourcebook <http://www.> 1

Blake Neff ‘13 is from Sioux Falls, SD. He is a History major. God Willeth It! Pope Urban II preaches preaches the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


St. Augustine’s

Confessions Review by Emily DeBaun


ith the rigor of an intellectual autobiography and the honesty of a personal memoir, St. Augustine’s Confessions provides a clear picture of how faith and reason can seamlessly coexist in an individual’s worldview. The book gives a chronological account of Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual development, beginning with his religious upbringing, moving on to his time of spiritual uncertainty as a student and teacher of rhetoric, and peaking with his dramatic conversion to Christianity at age 30. Confessions then follows Augustine as he renounces his secular career and becomes a member of Catholic clergy. The book finishes with an overview of his post-conversion philosophy, as well as a good deal of exposition on scripture. Throughout the entire work runs the story of Augustine’s difficult conversion, which was as much a transformation of the mind and body as it was of the spirit. Though written around 400 AD, Confessions is strikingly relevant to students today, as Augustine expounds in detail upon his time in the university setting. He recounts his many uncertainties about the greater questions of life, seeking answers from Manichaeism, astrology, and other popular worldviews of the day, especially those purported at the schools where he studies and teaches. However, he finds himself ultimately dissatisfied with the reasoning behind these ideas, which

30 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


opens the door for his later return to the religion of his devout mother Monica—Catholicism. In this section of the book, Augustine also recounts his more personal struggles with lust, a relentless sense of ambition, and an addiction to entertainment. Augustine’s intellectual and personal experiences at the university are in many ways indistinguishable from those of students today; the timelessness of these issues engages readers, who gain the benefit of an older, wiser Augustine retrospectively considering his former struggles. In addition to connecting with Augustine’s intellectual and moral struggles, readers will surely sympathize with his complicated journey towards Christianity. Though Augustine later becomes a historic leader in the Catholic Church, his conversion to Christianity is far from simple. Even once he has intellectually assented to the claims of Christianity, Augustine finds it personally impossible to relinquish his own nature and ambitions and allow the truths of Christianity to transform him. He describes his consciousness of this process, addressing God, The thoughts with which I meditated about you were like the efforts of those who would like to get up but are overcome by a deep sleep and sink back again. No one wants to be asleep all the time… yet often a man defers shaking off sleep… even when the time to get up has arrived.1

Baptism of St. Augustine by Louis de Boulogne, c. 1702

This quote shows Augustine’s reluctance towards full devotion to God—a sense of “not wanting to be asleep all the time,” but struggling to “shake off” his previous worldview and have Christianity be not only a matter of philosophical acceptance, but one grounded in deep, transformative personal faith. Augustine’s struggle further mounts when his acquaintance Ponticianus describes his own conversion. In the conversation, Augustine apprehends the joy of genuine, child-like faith, which Ponticianus frames simply as “becoming God’s friend.”2 Flustered, Augustine exclaims, “Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven (Matt. 11:12), and we with all our high culture without any heart—see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood.”3 Here, Augustine is exasperated with the disconnect between his own “heart and head,” so to speak, realizing that to “capture heaven,” he will need to have a relationship with God that is more than a matter of intellect. After deeply agonizing over this apparent impossibility, divine intervention occurs and Augustine hears a child’s voice compelling him to read scripture. Opening the Bible, Augustine is confronted with pointed condemnation of the specific sins he contends with, as well as God’s promise to accept those who struggle with belief.

This alignment of events is enough to penetrate Augustine’s outer shell of desire and ambition, to turn his intellectual conclusions into felt personal beliefs, and to change his selfish future desires into ones that will glorify God and be spiritually edifying to others. Confessions’ detailed account of Augustine’s conversion reveals the intricacy of a Christian’s personal belief, which entails a divinely orchestrated combination of intellectual, spiritual, and emotional trust in the person of Jesus Christ. In terms of style, Confessions takes the form of an extended, written prayer. Augustine frequently addresses God directly and in true, confessional nature, seeking forgiveness and illumination, while offering thanksgiving. That this dialogue does not implicitly include the reader indicates that the piece is written for God and for Augustine’s personal introspection, further adding to the personal authenticity that pervades the piece. Also characteristic of the style is Augustine’s tendency to slip into more philosophical discourse, delving into detail on the progress of his former beliefs and recounting arguments for schools of thought he once endorsed. The entire book is heavily laced with references and quotes from scripture, guiding the way Augustine interacts with God through the text, and proving the Christian orthodoxy of his ideas. The text is dense, requiring slow reading and careful consideration for full benefit, but it is packed with thought, feeling and insight. The fluidity with which Confessions passes from exultation of God to philosophical discourse to fond personal remembrance reveals the incorporation of Augustine’s religion, his intellect, and his actual, dayto-day being. Relevant and engaging, though endlessly deep for contemplation and interpretation, Confessions is a timeless classic that depicts the truly integrated life of a Christian thinker. St. Augustine: Confessions, trans. H. Chadwick (New York: Oxford, 2008) 141. 2 Ibid 143. 3 Ibid 146. 1

Emily DeBaun ‘12 is from Sandown, New Hampshire. She is a Physics major.


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


Bertrand Russell’s

Why I Am Not a

Christian Review by Peter Blair


ertrand Russell, the renowned twentieth-century philosopher, aims to present a brief but compelling case against Christianity in the atheist classic Why I Am Not a Christian. Russell lists three propositions whose truth he claims necessitates the falsity of Christianity. If he can prove that neither is there a God, nor is there an immortal soul, nor was Christ the best or wisest of men, then, he argues, he has shown Christianity to be false. Russell’s arguments in favor of these points had become standard fare for many modern atheists, but in fact they are lacking in force and depth. Russell’s case against God’s existence consists merely in his refutation of the traditional arguments offered for the proposition “God exists.” However, even if his refutations were successful—and they are not—that would still be an incomplete case for atheism. It does not follow from the proposition “there have been no good arguments for the existence of God so far” that “God does not exist.” If that did follow, then it would have been correct for the ancients to assert that America, or gravity, or the heliocentric universe did not exist, when in fact those three things do exist. The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence under certain concrete circumstances. In addition to refuting every plausible proof

32 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


for God’s existence, the atheist, if he wishes to win by default, must also argue that the proposition “God exists” is one of those beliefs for which the absence of evidence counts as evidence of absence. Russell does not do so. Russell also fails Bertrand Russell. to refute the proofs he cites. He imagines that it is a decisive rebuttal to the first cause argument to state: “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.”1 However, no theistic philosopher has ever, at any time or in any place, argued that because everything must have a cause, therefore the universe must have an uncaused cause; the plain contradiction there is obvious. The cosmological argument, instead, starts from such major premises as everything which moves (everything which changes) must have a cause, or everything that has a beginning must have a cause, or everything that is contingent must have an explanation. To conclude

the existence of God from these premises creates no contradiction. Russell also thinks he has a devastating answer to the minor premise of the cosmological argument, for he writes: “nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why [the universe] should not always have existed.”2 Once again he has missed his mark, for Thomas Aquinas, one of the most accomplished defenders of the first cause argument, famously held the same position. The cosmological argument (with the exception of some versions such as William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument) need not invoke a minor premise relating to the word’s temporality. His statements about the other theistic proofs are similarly unsuccessful. For example, he imagines that he has removed an argument for God’s existence when he tells us that natural laws are merely statistical averages and not laws at all. In fact, he has just created a new argument. The regularity of nature in the absence of any natural law to account for it screams, as G.K. Chesterton argues in Orthodoxy, for an explanation. He refutes the argument for design by referencing Darwin, as if evolution explains why the cosmological constants are as they are. In the course of addressing this argument, he points out that the universe will die one day—why that day has not come yet if the universe is, as he supposes, eternal, is a question he does not answer. He gives us the Euthyphro dilemma as a refutation of the moral argument while ignoring the many deconstructions offered of it for two thousand years. He concludes this section with an instance of the genetic fallacy, arguing that people believe only because they have been taught to do so or because they want a feeling of being safely looked after by a higher power. This kind of talk, of course, not only commits the genetic fallacy, but is also a double-edged sword. One can always create psychological just-so stories to explain anything. I could say Russell rejected Christianity because he was too proud to submit to God’s au-

Ascension of Christ by Garofalo, c. 1510-20.

Christ thought it was so. Christ qua human professed agnosticism about the time of the second coming.3 Biblical prophecy is progressive and fulfilled in stages, and the kingdom of God is both “already” present and “not yet” present. Therefore, when Christ says things like, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom,”4 he can be taken as referring to his resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and the establishment of the church just as well as to his second coming, whereas Russell seems to assume that he can only be referring

Russell’s arguments in favor of these points had become standard fare for many modern atheists, but in fact they are lacking in force and depth. thority and too licentious to submit to traditional morality. That is not, however, a valid response to someone offering rational arguments for their position. He then tries to show why Christ was neither the wisest nor the best of men. He was not wise, Russell tells us, because he thought his second coming would occur within the lifetime of his disciples. There is good reason to think that his disciples did think, for a time, that this was so, but there is very little reason to think

to his second coming. Perhaps aware of this response, Russell tries to bolster his case by interpreting Christ’s motives. He states, for example, that Christ told his disciples to “take no thought for the morrow” because he thought he was coming back soon. There are, of course, alternative explanations; he may, for example, have been exhorting his disciples to rely on the providence of God. Russell argues that Christ is not the best of men


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


because he believed and preached hell. Russell tells us that the doctrine of hellfire as punishment for sin is a doctrine of cruelty, and that it gave the world generations of cruel torture. He does not substantiate the second claim, and in the first he overlooks the fact that “fire” is only one of many images and metaphors used for hell. Christians need not believe that hell involves actual fire or that those in it are actually burned. One traditional Christian view holds that hell is not

a fiery pit, but a final separation, chosen by the individual himself, from God. To force those who have chosen Hell to go to Heaven would be a denial of free will. Many Christians, furthermore, have argued that Heaven would be an even worse punishment for those who hate God than Hell; as Cardinal Blessed Newman wrote, “Heaven would be Hell to an irreligious man.”5 In the end, all of these points are merely distractions. Russell did not reject Christianity because he misunderstood the cosmological argument, nor did any dispassionate academic consideration for technical points of Biblical scholarship inspire him to write stirring denunciations of Christianity. And when one reads this essay carefully, the underlying attitudes and intuitions that sustain his rejection and contempt of Christianity become luminously clear. Beneath all the surface rationalizations and fallacies of his piece, one can discern the fundamental spirit of his atheism. It consists of two things: his unshakable faith in human progress and the ability of modern technological science to affect it, and his sense that religion is unmanly, weak, and not commensurate with the dignity of a free man. About scientific progress he says, Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.6

He delivered this lecture before World War II, so one can forgive him slightly for his faith in secular, scientific progress; Europe had not yet witnessed the Holocaust, or the horrors of national socialism, or the slaughters in Cambodia and China, all undertaken by secular leaders. It had not yet seen eugenic technology, ever more deadly and disastrous forms of warfare, gas chambers, and the atomic bomb. But we who have the benefit of this history should not be seduced by Russell’s rhetoric. The truth is that humans perpetually indulge in evil, and that no matter how learned we fancy ourselves or how technologically superior we become, all of us always contain the potential for radical evil. This cannot be changed by science, and when science advances without morality and divine grace it will only increase our ability to do more evil to more people with more ease. This is why the famous historian Christopher Dawson argued in his work Progress and Religion that the idea of progress itself, an idea that took such firm root in Russell’s mind, was a leftover from Christianity, and

Original Sin by Michiel Coxie, c. 1550

34 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Fall 2011


that belief in progress only made sense and could only be maintained in a Christian context. Before Christianity, time and history were viewed as essentially circular; everything would come back just as it had before in an endless, eternal loop. It was Christianity that introduced a linear conception of time into the world, one in which history was seen as moving towards a telos, its final consummation in the second coming of Christ. For a secularist, there is no reason to believe in a teleological conception of history, and very good reason to disbelieve it. Consequently, belief in progress can only be maintained if it is grounded in faith in a provident God who, despite appearances, is moving history to a final perfection and consummation and who trans-

It is hard—that is, it takes strength—to live the Christian life. Fr. Pinckaers writes the following about the Christian virtue of meekness: “Far from being associated with weakness, true meekness is rather the outcome of a long struggle against the disordered violence of our feelings, failings, and fears. In such instances meekness implies tremendous inner strength.”8 The Christian life is a war, which is why monks were originally known as milites Christi, soldiers of Christ. It is easy to live under a legalistic moral system that does not obligate you to struggle against lust, pride, anger, envy, and greed, does not direct you to achieve the full perfection of charity, and then talks about how unmanly Christians are. Only someone unacquaint-

The Christian life is a war... Only someone unacquainted with the actual lived Christian life, both with the strength it requires and the freedom it brings, could speak as Russell does. forms our natural inclination to evil into some good. If you abandon Christianity, you must also abandon belief in progress. In his last paragraph, Russell explicitly states his second main charge against Christianity: his intuition that there is something unmanly, undignified in serving and loving God. He writes, We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the word­—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face...[a good world] needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future our intelligence can create.7

ed with the actual lived Christian life, both with the strength it requires and the freedom it brings, could speak as Russell does. In short, Russell’s essay neither succeeds in falsifying Christianity nor in successfully defending atheism. His refutations of traditional Christian arguments are mainly directed at straw men, his attacks on Christ are based on literalistic readings of the Bible, and his underlying attitudes towards science and progress do not square with reality. His essay is an instructive case in how even the best philosophers can falter when they venture outside their specialties. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Touchstone, 1967) 6 . 2 Ibid. 7. 3 Mark 13: 32. 4 Matthew 16:28. 5 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons Vol. 1 (London: Rivingtons, 1868) 7. 6 Russell 22. 7 Ibid. 23. 8 Servais Pinckaers, The Pursuit of Happiness (Staten Island, NY: Saint Pauls/Alba House Press, 1998) 61. 1

One thing can be surely said. If Russell is quite serious here in his contempt of people who think themselves sinners, and in his belief in the inevitability of progress brought about solely by the human mind, he most certainly cannot claim to be looking at the world frankly in the face. Anybody who honestly did that would not for a minute disparage the doctrine of original sin. As G.K. Chesterton said, it is the only Christian doctrine that can really be proved.

Peter Blair ‘12 is from Newton Square, Pennsylvania. He is a Government major.


Fall 2011 • The Dartmouth Apologia •


A Prayer for Dartmouth This prayer by professor of religion Lucius Waterman appears on a plaque hanging outside Parkhurst Hall. O Lord God Almighty, well-spring of wisdom, master of power, guide of all growth, giver of all gain. We make our prayer to thee, this day, for Dartmouth College. Earnestly entreating thy favour for its people. For its work, and for all its life. Let thy hand be upon its officers of administration to make them strong and wise, and let thy word make known to them the hiding-place of power. Give to its teachers the gift of teaching, and make them to be men right-minded and high-hearted. Give to its students the spirit of vision, and fill them with a just ambition to be strong and well-furnished, and to have understanding of the times in which they live. Save the men of Dartmouth from the allurements of self-indulgence, from the assaults of evil foes, from pride of success, from false ambitions, from hardness, from shallowness, from laziness, from heedlessness, from carelessness of opportunity, and from ingratitude for sacrifices out of which their opportunity has grown. Make, we beseech thee, this society of scholars to be a fountain of true knowledge, a temple of sacred service, a fortress for the defense of things just and right, and fill the Dartmouth spirit with thy spirit, to make it a name and a praise that shall not fail, but stand before thee forever. We ask in the name in which alone is salvation, even through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen. The Reverend Lucius Waterman, D.D.

The Nicene Creed We, the members of The Dartmouth Apologia, affirm that the Bible is inspired by God, that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, and that God has called us to live by the moral principles of the New Testament. We also affirm the Nicene Creed, with the understanding that views may differ on baptism and the meaning of the word “catholic.”

We [I] believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We [I] believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We [I] believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

36 • The Dartmouth Apologia • Winter 2011 ]

Photo by Kelsey Carter â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;12

The Dartmouth Apologia - Fall 2011  
The Dartmouth Apologia - Fall 2011  

The Dartmouth Apologia - Fall 2011