Sunday 29 December 2013

The Centre for Faith & Culture

The Centre is above the art gallery in King Street, Oxford.
I was recently asked by Maica Rivera from Madrid (CEU San Pablo) to give a brief email interview about the Centre and what we have been trying to do in Oxford over the last twenty years. The year 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of our founding, so it seems like a good moment to look back. 

Q: What can you explain to Spanish Chesterton readers about the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford?

A (Stratford): My wife and I founded it in 1994 as a partnership between Westminster College (later absorbed into Oxford Brookes University) and the Edinburgh publisher T&T Clark (later absorbed by Continuum). It was a research centre, its work being the organisation of conferences and the publication of books. Our aim was to explore the meaning of evangelization, and to understand the relationship between faith and culture. We were both

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Desolation of Smaug

Here is an interview I did for a Spanish conference on Lewis and Tolkien scheduled for 2014.

Q: How can your book The Power of the Ring help us to prepare for our cinema experience with the forthcoming film The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug?

A (Stratford): Obviously the film can be enjoyed simply as an adventure or action movie, with lots of fighting, magic, monsters, and heroic deeds. In that sense it is not essential to read about the film or the book before going to the cinema. But my book is designed to explore the deeper meanings of the story and the intentions of J.R.R. Tolkien in writing it. These meanings and intentions add another layer of interest and enjoyment to the story. Unless you know them you will miss some of the pleasure you might have had in viewing the film.

My book aims to explain why Tolkien’s “Middle-earth” – the imaginary world in which the story is set – is relevant to us today. Tolkien created Middle-earth out of real-life places and experiences. His vivid descriptions of nature, which inspired Peter Jackson to design the world of the movie, draw on real life but help us to look at the world in a new way, with a keener appreciation of its beautiful qualities and a stronger love of nature. In the 1960s Tolkien’s writing even helped to inspire the ecology movement.

But there are many other ways in which Middle-earth throws light on the real world. For example, Tolkien was very concerned with the crisis in modernity caused by the development of technology and our over-reliance on it. The “Ring” and dark magic in general represents all the various types of machinery with which we try to control the world – often polluting it in the process – and force others to do our will. Most importantly of all, the tale of the Hobbit is about the transformation of a personality. Bilbo represents “Everyman” – that is to say, you and me – in a journey from a rather boring complacency to a much higher state of being, a state that Tolkien himself refers to as “nobility of spirit”. By this he means the possibility of heroism, a preparedness to sacrifice oneself and one’s own gain for the sake of others, as Bilbo is willing to do by the end of the story.

A fairy tale, like The Hobbit, as Tolkien well knew, is more than an entertainment. It contains a moral lesson – or many such lessons. G.K. Chesterton once said that "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten" (Orthodoxy, 1908). In the same way, the various dangers that the Hobbit and the Dwarves meet along the way to the Lonely Mountain, including the Orcs of the mountains and the giant spiders of Mirkwood,

Thursday 5 December 2013

The four rivers of meaning (2)

I have been writing about the four meanings of Scripture, a traditional doctrine revived in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (115-118): "According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church" (115).

We must start with the historical or literal meaning (the plain sense of the words, as they were evidently intended to be understood, taking into account the genre and context in which they were written), and then move on via an understanding of “typology” to the doctrinal message the words and events convey about Christ, who is the centre of Revelation. We then draw

Tuesday 3 December 2013

The four rivers of meaning (1)

All revelation has four dimensions, or can be approached from four directions, which we may call the historical (or literal), doctrinal, moral, and mystical. The doctrinal, moral, and mystical meanings taken together constitute the “spiritual” meaning of Scripture. The modern crisis over religion is due to the confusion of these four meanings, “fundamentalism” (whether Christian or Islamic) being an attempt to reduce all spiritual meanings to the most banal, most literal level.

The one River that springs up in Eden (which represents Christ, the Living Waters, the Logos, the source of grace) divides into four as it enters the Garden that God has made as a home for Man. Thus the Garden of Eden is fourfold, it has the four directions (West, South, East, North), which correspond not just to the four gospels but to the four letters of the divine Name, the four faces of the Cherubim, and the four arms of the Cross.

Saint Ambrose compares the four Rivers of Genesis 1:10-14 to the four Cardinal Virtues: “The Pishon which flows over gold is Prudence, the Gihon which bathes Ethiopia (whose name signifies impurity) is Temperance, the Tigris (in Hebrew the swift) is Fortitude, and the Euphrates (the fertile) is Justice” (cited in Emile M├óle, The Gothic Image, 110 fn.). St Augustine follows Ambrose in this, and so does St Bonaventure.

In the classical view, there are also four main types of explanation (Gk: aition) that we can give for things in general: final, formal, efficient, and material. The final cause is what they are for, or how their nature fulfils itself. The formal cause is the inner shaping idea that makes them what they are. The efficient cause is what brings something about, or makes it do what it does, or be what it is. The material cause is simply what it is made of. If we follow the same Augustinian/ Bonaventuran tradition, we arrive at the following list: [1]

TEMPERANCE – Material cause – Finding our starting point, stable base
FORTITUDE – Efficient cause – Generating the energy we have available
PRUDENCE – Formal cause – Tracing our path to the final goal
JUSTICE – Final cause – Arriving at the goal we are striving for

[1] Emma Therese Healy, Saint Bonaventure’s Artium Ad Theologiam (Franciscan Institute, 1955), p. 94.

To be continued...