It's been awhile since I've commented on the blogging of my friend Fr. Anthony Chadwick. Since our initial dustups many months ago, my theological sentiments have aligned more closely with his, and I accordingly find much (but not all) of what he writes about the Catholic faith compelling. He is a gifted thinker and writer, and I'm proud to link his blog here at OJC.
However, we remain at odds on the matter of Muscular Christianity. In a recent blog article entitled, "Der Ubermensch", Fr. Chadwick takes aim once again at the belief and practice of muscular Christianity, linking my recent blog article
I detest the notion of “muscular Christianity”. Christianity isn’t something to be defended, but lived. It is not strength, but love and beauty, the Beatitudes. . . .
Perhaps we can begin by being Christians in the spirit of the Beatitudes, seeking the Kingdom of Heaven and then weighing up our own strengths with those of the enemy.
Now, I see all that as a glaring example of the either/or fallacy. (That now makes two fallacies marking Fr. Chadwick's argument, the first one being the guilt-by-association/extention fallacy he commits every time he demonstrates the truth of Godwin's Law.) Christianity is a faith to be both defended and lived. It both strength and love and beauty.
The Catholic truth of this is summed up, I think, in an extrordinary 2015 article by Matt Walsh I stumbled upon just a day or so ago. The article began as a critique of contemporary "worship", but quickly turned to the topic of muscular Christianity:
I recently attended a service that might help solve the riddle of the fantastic decline of American Christianity. It was a different church from the one I normally go to.
Let me set the scene, perhaps it will sound familiar:
I walked in and immediately realized that I’d inadvertently stumbled upon a totally relaxed, convenient, comfortable brand of church. The first hint was the choir members dressed in shorts and flip flops. Sweet, bro. So chill.
There were a bunch of acoustic guitars and drums and tambourines and a keyboard. Before the service/concert began, some guy came out to rev up the crowd. Opening acts aren’t usually a part of the liturgical experience, but this is 2015 and we’re, like, so not into solemn silence and prayer anymore.
There must always be noise. Always noise. Sounds. Lights. Never silence, not even for a moment. . . .
If the faith is to regain lost ground in this country, it will only happen when Christianity is presented and understood as what it is: a warrior’s religion. A faith for fighters and soldiers. CS Lewis said it best (as usual):
Enemy-occupied territory–that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
There. There it is, explained more compellingly in two sentences than many pastors can muster in a lifetime of sermons. This is frightening, militant language, but it’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, and it is, most importantly, accurate. As Christians, we are fighting a war against the Devil himself. We are advancing against the darkest forces of the universe, and we march with God by our side. And all the while, all around us, on a dimension invisible to mortal eyes, angels and demons and supernatural forces, both good and evil, work to defend or destroy us.
The stakes are infinite. Our souls hang in the balance. We are standing on a battlefield where the hope of eternal life awaits the loyal soldiers. The Psalms say “praise be the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands for war.” This is the feeling and the attitude that our leaders and churches should be stirring in us. This is the truth of this life and of this faith that we claim. It’s a ferocious, formidable, terrifying, joyful truth. It’s the truth that Scripture spends over 1,000 pages trying to explain. It’s the truth that should be shouted from the rooftops of every church and proclaimed from the mouths of every Christian.
But Lewis did not simply view this call to battle in mere spiritual or metaphorical terms. He saw social and political implications. From the book Present Concerns (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986):
The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things - from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train. But if we want to understand chivalry as a distinct ideal from other ideals - if we want to isolate that particular conception of the man comme il fant which was the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture - we cannot do better than turn to the words addressed to the greatest of all the imaginary knights in Mallory's Morte Darthur. "Thou wert the meekest man, says Sir Ector to the dead Launcelot. "Thou were the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest."
The important thing about this ideal is, of course, the double demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost maidenlike, guest in a hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth. When Launcelot heard himself pronounced the best knight in the world, "he wept as he had been a child that had been beaten."
What, you may ask, is the relevance of this ideal to the modern world. It is terribly relevant. It may or may not be practicable - the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it - but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die. . . . (Brute heroism without mercy and gentleness) is heroism by nature - heroism outside of the chivalrous tradition.
The medieval knight brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate toward one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed that lesson. It demanded valour of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop. . . .
If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections - those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be "meek in hall", and those who are "meek in hall" but useless in battle - for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed. When this dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair. . . . The man who combines both characters - the knight - is not a work of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas or marble, for its medium.
In the world today there is a "liberal" or "enlightened" tradition which regards the combative side of man's nature as a pure, atavistic evil, and scouts the chivalrous sentiment as part of the "false glamour" of war. And there is also a neo-heroic tradition which scouts the chivalrous sentiment as a weak sentimentality, which would raise from its grave (its shallow and unquiet grave!) the pre-Christian ferocity of Achilles by a "modern invocation". . . .
(However), there is still life in the tradition which the Middle Ages inaugurated. But the maintenance of that life depends, in part, on knowing that the knightly character is art not nature - something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen. And this knowledge is specially necessary as we grow more democratic. In previous centuries the vestiges of chivalry were kept alive by a specialized class, from whom they spread to other classes partly by imitation and partly by coercion. Now, it seems, the people must either be chivalrous on its own resources, or else choose between the two remaining alternatives of brutality and softness. . . . The ideal embodied in Launcelot is "escapism" is a sense never dreamed of by those who use that word; it offers the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable. . . .
Lewis sees softness and "milksopiness" in an insufficiently chivalrous man, but Leon Podles takes it a step further in his book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, where he complains about the "bridal mysticism" that took hold in the Western Church during the Middle Ages, and how it contributed to a subculture of unmanliness in the Roman Catholic Church. Podles also documents how the feminization of the church proceeds apace today, and infects nearly all Christian communions, including evangelical and liberal Protestantism.
And, as we all know, the syndrome has infected Anglicanism as well. It was so bad in the Church of England of the 19th-century that F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley began the "muscular Christianity" movement that Fr. Chadwick decries:
Beginning at mid-century, the broadchurch Anglican F.D. Maurice and his pupil, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, began espousing the virtues of muscular Christianity. Maurice and Kingsley, like many Englishmen, worried that the Anglican Church and Britain were suffering from the evils of industrialization: among others, growing slums, poverty, secularization, and urban decay. Life was a battle, Kingsley argued, and Christians should be at the center, actively employing their "manfulness" and "usefulness" against the evils of industrialization. Kingsley doubted that traditional morality would be able to cope with the effects of industrialization unless the Church reformed itself. He also deplored what many considered to be increasingly suffocating effeminacy within the Anglican Church, and believed that muscular Christian men equipped with a cohesive philosophy consisting equally of athleticism, patriotism, and religion could rescue Church and country from sloth.
Lewis was on or near the Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum, but despite the "milksoppy" reputation, to put it mildly and charitably, of English Anglo-Catholicism, Lewis was a chivalrous man: meek in hall AND useful in battle. (He fought in WWI.) His Narnia series defends chivalry to the uttermost, with boys (and girls!) carrying weapons and willing to use them.
Likewise, J.R.R. Tolkien. As Bradly Birzer writes in an Imaginative Conservative article, Tolkien & Anglo-Saxon England: Protectors of Christendom, per Tolkien,
The Christian should embrace and sanctify the most noble virtues to come out of the northern pagan mind: courage and raw will. “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage,” Tolkien wrote. “The northern [imagination] has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times." Tolkien thought that a vigorous Christianity needed that northern pagan myth spirit to make it stronger. The German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini argued along the same lines. . . .
From its original conception as a myth for England, first conceived in muck and blood-filled trenches in northern France, Tolkien’s legendarium grew much larger in scope and significance. The story, especially The Lord of the Rings, became much more than a myth for any one people or any one nation. It, instead, became a myth for the restoration of Christendom itself. The intrepid Anglo-Saxon missionaries, in particular St. Boniface of Crediton, created medieval, Christian Europe by carrying classical and Christian traditions into the heart of pagan, barbarian Europe. St. Boniface converted innumerable barbarians to Christianity, unifying them under Rome. St. Boniface even crowned Pepin, son of Charles Martel, an action that would eventually lead to the papal recognition of Charlemagne as the revived Holy Roman Emperor in 800 a.d. With the return of the king Aragorn to his rightful throne, Tolkien argued, the “progress of the tales ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome." In his own private writings, Tolkien equated numerous parts of Italy with various geographical aspects of Gondor. In his diary, for example, Tolkien recorded that with his trip to Italy, he had “come to the head of Christendom: an exile from the borders and far provinces returning home, or at least to the home of his fathers." In a letter to a friend, Tolkien stated that he had holidayed “in Gondor, or in modern parlance, Venice." That Tolkien should place a mythologized Italy, and ultimately Rome, at the center of his legendarium is not surprising, as he viewed the Reformation as ultimately responsible for the modern, secularized world.
That Tolkien believed that the Anglo-Saxon world might offer us strength to redeem Christendom, should not surprise us. The hero of The Lord of the Rings, after all, is an Anglo-Saxon farmer turned citizen-warrior. Even as an uneducated gardener, this most loyal of companions recognized hope deep in the heart of Mordor. “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach." Like his real counterparts who understood the meaning of the Logos, Sam, too, can comprehend the abstract.
One of the principal criticisms we hear from the neopagans among the European New Right, which is producing some absolutely excellent analytical works re: the debacle that is Europe, is that Christianity is a feminized, flaccid and pacifistic faith that not only quite naturally gave rise to liberalism but sapped the vitality from modern European men. Ad fontes, they cry, but it is not to our sources that they look. They look to tradition, but a tradition that antedates ours. They look to the noble pagans of old. (Well, we would point out that they weren't so noble, and that the Faith is a needed corrective, but their point is taken.)
I must confess that when we look at ourselves in the mirror there is some justification for this criticism. And it's not only liberal Protestantism that exhibits this manifest lack of muscular Christianity; as Leon Podles has demonstrated in his work, certain strains of Catholic mysticism are to blame, as are strains of modern Evangelicalism.
Judging by what I observe in much of both Neo-Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism, the feminizing rot has taken told there as well.
It was not so in our history, however. As Tolkien argued, and as it came out in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Christianity did make peace with the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. This culture fed into a European stream and became the basis of chivalry, as Lewis likewise believed. I'm thrilled to see that Tolkien argued that the renewal of such a culture could become the basis of a renewed Christendom. My belief is that Christians in Europe and the Anglosphere MUST become "men with chests" again, lest the task of saving Western civilization from the depredation of the Islamist/Leftist phalanx passes to the neopagan, and all too often neofascist, movement in Europe and elsewhere that is currently working up an impressive head of steam.
Lex orandi, lex credendi. As Walsh implies and as both Lewis and Tolkien believed, Catholic worship is suffused not just with truth and beauty but with the spirit of muscular Christianity. Accordingly, we ought not "detest" it.