Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eucatastrophe, Mythopoesis, and Life

I have said it before.  Undoubtedly, I will say it again: Tolkien's On Fairy Stories should be required reading on more than one reading list, but it should be at the top of the list for mythopoets.  If you are not familiar with his theory of eucatastrophe, then I highly recommend getting hold of the lecture in some form and digesting it thoroughly (and for greater reasons that that this blogpost will assume a familiarity with it).  In his epilogue, he included a statement on the faith that underlay all his work.  For in the end, eucatastrope was both the spring of his creativity and his thought, and also the deep hope of his life.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures,  men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels--peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: "mythical" in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the Man's history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-eminently the "inner consistency of reality."  There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.  To reject it leads either to sadness of wrath.

When I consider the general notions of what Christianity is about that are popular currency in the world today, and especially in America with which I am most familiar, whether those notions are entertained by Church people of various stripes or by the people who despise them, I am tempted to conclude some very unflattering things.  But then I remember that, despite my supposedly informed upbringing, I held similar notions.  These notions tend to center on a cluster of Sin, Faith (a rather peculiar notion of what faith is, honestly), the Death of Jesus, and the Bible.  Having been raised with this cluster in a version of its popular configuration, Christianity failed to make sense to me well into my adult life, until during my second graduate degree program in the field of religion, a professor assigned a little book from the fourth century: On the Incarnation of God by Athanasius of Alexandria.

This book revolves around the axiom that God became human so that humans might become divine.  The axiom is rooted in the New Testament and the key to the Nicene Creed.  If, this Christmastide, you find yourself wondering why a Galilean peasant and his fellow Jewish followers so transformed the world with a story that took the Mediterranean world by storm, consuming and displacing other stories and cultuses on an empire-wide and then a global level, I am not aware of a way to be more helpful when it comes to reading material than to recommend Athanasius' On the Incarnation (that, and skipping the chapters that are diatribes against Jewish conversationalists).  It is free in an old and difficult translation, and cheap in a new and easier translation.  Both normatively and descriptively, I would argue that it provides in a compact volume a formulation of what the Christian mythos and ethos are all about.

Wishing you all the blessings of the season,


  1. Along with St. Ireneus, St. Athanasius is one of the major reasons that I, too, embraced Christianity later in life. On the Incarnation is brilliant, and only the tip of the ice berg. (There is a reason he is given the moniker Great).

    The polemics Athanasius uses against Jews and the Arians need to be understood in context. Unlike our contemporary cultural experience, Athanasius did not live in a world where Nazi Germany brutally murdered 6 million Jews. On the contrary, it was Christians who were coming out of a period of brutal persecution by the Roman Empire.

    In addition, it is good to remember what happened to unrepentant heretics during this period — they were exiled, not killed.

    Thus, the polemics used by Athansius and other Church Fathers did not have the ugly consequences we normally associate with that kind of language if used today.

  2. FrDave: Thanks for the comment.

    My concern would be that the polemic will inevitably be read in the wrong context by modern readers, and so would not prove helpful but distracting. Especially with no knowledge of accepted conventions of ancient rhetoric.

    If I were assembling a full reading list on the heartbeat of Incarnation/Theosis, I'd include the gospel of John, Irenaeus, Gregory "I'm not called The Theologian for nothin'" Nazianzus, and probably also Clement of Alexandria and Symeon the New Theologian. Man, now I am trying to think of way to work in Cyril of Alexandria, who is more popular with me than with lots of folks.

    The black dwarf definitely deserves the appellation the Great. I wish it was handed out with about the same frequency as the Theologian. *Athanasius Contra Mundum*.