The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy Sayers (Collier Books, 1987, previously published as Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World; the original essay dates are from the 1940's through the 1960's)
I set myself a challenge to read all of the Dorothy Sayers books in our house, including all the Lord Peter Wimsey stories in chronological order. (This does not include the stories written after Sayers' death by Jill Paton Walsh. I just couldn't, even though some of them are based on Sayers' own unfinished work.) So far I've read 16 of the 19, but I still have a long way to go. That's because the three remaining books are her translations of Dante's Divine Comedy. I had thought I was almost done until this morning, when I remembered those, which are in a separate section of our bookshelves.
Be that as it may, I'm not going to review them all, but I will take a pause now and talk about this collection of essays. It's the only book we own of her nonfiction, and it has made me want to find more, and also to explore her plays. Reading Sayers—even her detective stores, but especially her essays—makes me feel as if I have been ordering from the children's menu and was given a glimpse of the feast that's available if I could appreciate it. What a mind she had! How deeply and logically she thought! How well she could put words together! My multilingual family and friends will be interested to note that when she quotes (or has her characters speak) in another tongue, she rarely translates, on the grounds, I suppose, that all educated people should know enough Latin, French, German, and Italian to get the point. Fortunately, one can usually get the point even so.
The essays range from easily accessible to literary and deep, but even "Dante and Charles Williams," which I initially did not expect much from, I found to be fascinating. There, for example, is this amazing paragraph:
The image of woman is, of course, asserted in Beatrice, about whose person the theology of romantic love is assembled and displayed. I am not sure that Williams, in calling it "the image of woman," was doing full justice to himself or Dante. The image is not of femaleness as such—the ewig Weibliches about which Goethe and D. H. Lawrence and others have made so much to-do. It is a personal relationship of adoration, and Williams himself was the first to insist that the adoration need not be (though in literature it most frequently is) that of a man for a woman. It might, in the exchange of hierarchies, be that of a woman for a man; if, he would say, Beatrice had written her version of the Commedia, Dante himself might have figured in it as the "God-bearing image." Or the element of sex might not enter it at all. But in one way or another, the Image is that of the God-bearing person, whose earthly archetype is Mary, and whose heavenly archetype is Christ.
It's impossible to do justice to her thinking even with long quotations, but I hope these will give you taste of her ideas. If you'd like the full-course meal, most of the essays from The Whimsical Christian can be found online at this Google Books link. The bold highlights are my own.
From "What Do We Believe?"
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of all things. That is the thundering assertion with which we start; that the great fundamental quality that makes God, and us with him, what we are is creative activity. ... Man is most god-like and most himself when he is occupied in creation. ... Our worst trouble today is our feeble hold on creation. To sit down and let ourselves be spoon-fed with the ready-made is to lose our grip on our only true life and our only real selves.
From "Creed or Chaos?"
This is the Church's opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people's readiness to listen goes, she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real; and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of Laissez-faire is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a recall to prayer. The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.
The task is not made easier by the obstinate refusal of a great body of nominal Christians, both lay and clerical, to face the theological question. "Take away theology and give us some nice religion" has been a popular slogan for so long that we are likely to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning.
The modern tendency seems to be to identify work with gainful employment; and this is, I maintain, the essential heresy at the back of the great economic fallacy that allows wheat and coffee to be burned and fish to be used for manure while whole populations stand in need of food. The fallacy is that work is not the expression of man's creative energy in the service of society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure.
From "Toward a Christian Esthetic"
It may be well to remember Plato's warning: "If you receive the pleasure-seasoned muse, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law and agreed principles."
Let us distinguish between and event and an experience. An event is something that happens to one, but one does not necessarily experience it. To take an extreme instance: suppose you are hit on the head and get a concussion and, as often happens, when you come to, you cannot remember the blow. The blow on the head certainly happened to you, but you did not experience it; all you experience is the aftereffects. You only experience a thing when you can express it—however haltingly—to your own mind. ...
When it is a case of mental or spiritual experience—sin, grief, joy, sorrow, worshop—the thing reveals itself to him in words and so becomes fully experienced for the first time. By thus recognizing it in its expression, he makes it his own—integrates it into himself.
The act of the poet in creation is seen to be threefold—a trinity—experience, expression, and recognition: the unknowable reality in the experience; the image of that reality known in its expression; and power in the recognition; the whole making up the single and indivisible act of a creative mind.
From "Creative Mind" This is a long quotation, but necessary to get the idea of one example of Sayers' own creative mind. I'd long since heard the theory, from Creationists, that fossils exist because God created them at the same time he created everything else, although for what reason it was unclear. Of course that line of thinking was thoroughly mocked, but hear Sayers out: as a writer, such an idea was not at all strange to her. Here she reveals that a mind that can work out elaborate train timetables for a murder mystery can also grapple with a science fiction writer's view of time.
It was during the last century that the great war was fought between churchmen and men of science over the theory of Evolution.... The scientists won their victory chiefly, or at any rate largely, with the help of the paleontologists and the biologists.... It was scarcely possible to suppose any longer that God had created each species—to quote the text of Paradise Lost—‘perfect forms, limb’d, and full grown,’ except on what seemed the extravagant assumption that, when creating the universe, he had at the same time provided it with evidence of a purely imaginary past that had never had any actual existence. Now, the first thing to be said about this famous quarrel is that the churchmen need never have been perturbed at all about the method of creation, if they had remembered that the Book of Genesis was a book of poetical truth, and not intended as a scientific handbook of geology. They got into their difficulty, to a large extent, through having unwittingly slipped into accepting the scientist’s concept of the use of language, and supposing that a thing could not be true unless it was amenable to quantitative methods of proof. Eventually, and with many slips by the way, they contrived to clamber out of this false position; and today no reasonable theologian is at all perturbed by the idea that creation was effected by evolutionary methods. But, if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist—then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences. They might, in fact, have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.
I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician. But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it no longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world. It is the way every novel in the world is written.
Every serious novelist starts with some or all of his characters ‘in perfect form and fully grown,’ complete with their pasts. Their present is conditioned by a past that exists, not fully on paper, but fully or partially in the creator’s imagination. And as he goes on writing the book, he will—especially if it is a long work, like The Forsyte Saga or the "Peter Wimsey" series—plant from time to time in the text of the book allusions to that unwritten past. If his imagination is consistent, then all those allusions, all those, so to speak, planted fossils, will tell a story consistent with one another and consistent with the present and future actions of the characters. That is to say, that past, existing only in the mind of the maker, produces a true and measurable effect upon the written part of the book, precisely as though it had, in fact, "taken place" within the work of art itself. ...
I think that if the churchmen had chosen to take up that position, the result would have been entertaining. It would have been a very strong position because it is one that cannot be upset by scientific proof. Probably, theologians would have been deterred by a vague sense that a God who made his universe like this was not being quite truthful. But that would be because of a too limited notion of truth. In what sense is the unwritten past of the characters in a book less true than their behavior in it? Or if a prehistory that never happened exercises on history an effect indistinguishable from the effect it would have made by happening, what real difference is there between happening and not happening? If it is deducible from the evidence, self-consistent, and recognizable in its effects, it is quite real, whether or not it ever was actual.
I am not, of course, giving it as my opinion that the world was made yesterday all of a piece, or even that it first came into being at the point where prehistory stops and history begins. I am only saying that if it had, then, provided the imagination were consistent, no difference of any kind would have been made to anything whatever in the universe. Though, of course, if we were willing to accept such a theory, we might find it easier to deal with some of our problems about time. ... All I have tried to do in this piece of fantasy is to show that where you have a consistent imagination at work, the line between scientific and poetic truth may become very hard to draw.
If you find this playing with time and reality rather strange, you should try quantum physics.
At the present time, we have a population that is literate, in the sense that everybody is able to read and write; but, owing to the emphasis placed on scientific and technical training at the expense of the humanities, very few of our people have been taught to understand and handle language as an instrument of power. This means that, in this country [1940's England] alone, forty million innocents or thereabouts are wandering inquisitively about the laboratory, enthusiastically pulling handles and pushing buttons, thereby releasing uncontrollable currents of electric speech, with results that astonish themselves and the world. Nothing is more intoxicating than a sense of power: the demagogue who can sway crowds, the journalist who can push up the sales of his paper to the two-million mark, the playwright who can plunge an audience into an orgy of facile emotion, the parliamentary candidate who is carried to the top of the poll on a flood of meaningless rhetoric, the ranting preacher, the advertising salesman of material or spiritual commodities, are all playing perilously and irresponsibly with the power of words, and are equally dangerous whether they are cynically unscrupulous or (as frequently happens) have fallen under the spell of their own eloquence and become the victims of their own propaganda. For the great majority of those whom they are addressing have no skill in assessing the value of words and are as helpless under verbal attack as were the citizens of Rotterdam against assault from the air. When we first began to realize the way in which the common sense of Europe had been undermined and battered down by Nazi propaganda, we were astonished as well as horrified; yet there was nothing astonishing about it. It was simply another exhibition of ruthless force: the employment of a very powerful weapon by experts who understood it perfectly against people who were not armed to resist it and had never really understood that it was a weapon at all. And the defense against the misuse of words is not flight, nor yet the random setting off of verbal fireworks, but the wary determination to understand the potentialities of language and to use it with resolution and skill.
Written in England in the late 1940's, this absolutely is spot-on for here and now, except for the low numbers—from the emphasis on STEM subjects in schools to our powerlessness in the face of propaganda. To be clear: Left, Right, it makes no difference, and I'm not singling out any person or party. It just is.
From "The Image of God"
In the beginning God created. ... And he created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
This far the author of Genesis. The expression "in his own image" has occasioned a good deal of controversy. Only the most simple-minded people of any age or nation have supposed the image to be a physical one. The innumerable pictures that display the Creator as a hirsute, old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud are recognized to be purely symbolic. The image, whatever the author may have meant by it, is something shared by male and female alike; the aggressive masculinity of the pictorial Jehovah represents power, rationality or what you will; it has no relation to the text I have quoted. Christian doctrine and tradition, indeed, by language and picture, set its face against all sexual symbolism for the divine fertility. Its Trinity is wholly masculine, as all language relating to man as a species is masculine.
The Jews, keenly alive to the perils of pictorial metaphor, forbade the representation of the Person of God in graven images. Nevertheless, human nature and the nature of human language defeated them. No legislation could prevent the making of verbal pictures.... To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures. But continually, throughout the history of the Jewish-Christian Church, the voice of warning has been raised against the power of the picture-makers: "God is a spirit," "without body, parts or passions"; He is pure being. "I am that I am."
Man, very obviously, is not a being of this kind: this body, parts, and passions are only too conspicuous in his makeup. How then can he be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the "image" of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, "God created." The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and ability to make things.
From "Problem Picture"
It has become abundantly clear of late years that something has gone seriously wrong with our conception of humanity and of humanity's proper attitude to the universe. We have begun to suspect that the purely analytical approach to phenomena is leading us only further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness, and that it is becoming urgently necessary to construct a synthesis of life. It is dimly apprehended that the creative artist does, somehow or other, specialize in construction, and also that the Christian religion does, in some way that is not altogether clear to us, claim to bring us into a right relation with a God whose attribute is creativeness. Accordingly, exhorted on all sides to become creative and constructive, the common man may reasonably turn to these two authorities in the hope that they may shed some light, first, on what creativeness is, and, secondly, on its significance for the common man and his affairs.
If we conclude that creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe ... we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or paint, or music, or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same pattern is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman. And, if it is, whether, by confining the average man and woman to uncreative activities and an uncreative outlook, we are not doing violence to the very structure of our being.
To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of problems of extreme difficulty, which he has to solve with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he [has at his disposal] such as machine power, rapid transport, and general civilized amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that hte increase of scientific knowledge would give him the mastery over nature—which ought, surely to imply mastery over life.
Perhaps the first thing that he can learn from the artist is that the only way of mastering one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.
From our brief study of the human maker's way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result that shall be final, predictable, complete, and the only one possible. The concept of problem and solution is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process does not produce a solution of John and Mary's combined problem; it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new set of problems. Even if ... we allow the touch of baby hands to loosen some of the knots into which John and Mary had tied themselves, the solution (meaning George or Susan) is not the only one possible, nor is it final, predictable, or complete.
From "Christian Morality"
I do not suggest that the Church does wrong to pay attention to the regulation of bodily appetites and the proper observance of holiday. What I do suggest is that by overemphasizing this side of morality, to the comparative neglect of others, she has not only betrayed her mission but, incidentally, also defeated her own aims even about morality. She has, in fact, made an alliance with Caesar, and Caesar, having used her for his own purposes, has now withdrawn his support—for that is Caesar's pleasant way of behaving. For the last three hundred years or so, Caesar has been concerned to maintain a public order based upon the rights of private property; consequently, he has had a vested interest in morality. Strict morals made for the stability of family life and the orderly devolution of property, and Caesar (namely, the opinion of highly placed and influential people) has been delighted that the Church should do the work of persuading the citizen to behave accordingly. Further, a drunken worker is a bad worker, and thriftless extravagance is bad for business; therefore, Caesar has welcomed the encouragement of the Church....
Unhappily, however, this alliance for mutual benefit between Church and Caesar has not lasted. The transfer of property from the private owner to the public trust or limited company enables Caesar to get on very well without personal morals and domestic stability; the conception that the consumer exists for the sake of production has made extravagance and thriftless consumption a commercial necessity; consequently, Caesar no longer sees eye to eye with the Church about these matters.... The Church, shocked and horrified, is left feebly protesting against Caesar's desertion, and denouncing a relaxation of moral codes, in which the heedless world is heartily aided and abetted by the state....
Perhaps if the Churches had had the courage to lay their emphasis where Christ laid it, we might not have come to this present frame of mind in which it is assumed that the value of all work and the value of all people are to be assessed in terms of economics. We might not so readily take for granted that the production of anything (no matter how useless or dangerous) is justified so long as it issues in increased profits and wages; that so long as a worker is well paid, it does not matter whether his work is worthwhile in itself or good for his soul; that so long as a business deal keeps on the windy side of the law, we need not bother about its ruinous consequences to society or the individual....
The best Christian minds are making very strenuous efforts to readjust the emphasis and to break the alliance with Caesar. The chief danger is lest the churches, having for so long acquiesced in the exploiting of the many by the few, should now think to adjust the balance by helping on the exploitation of the few by the many, instead of attacking the false standards by which everybody, rich and poor alike, has not come to assess the value of life and work. If the churches make this mistake, they will again be merely following the shift of power from one class of the community to the other and deserting the dying Caesar to enlist the support of his successor. A more equal distribution of wealth is a good and desirable things, but it can scarcely be attained, and cannot certainly be maintained, unless we get rid of the superstition that acquisitiveness is a virtue and that the value of anything is represented in terms of profit and cost.
The churches are justifiably shocked when the glamour of a film actress is assessed by the number of her love affairs and divorces; they are less shocked when the glamour of a man, or of a work of art, is headlined in dollars. They are shocked when unfortunates are reduced to selling their bodies; they are less shocked when journalists are reduced to selling their souls. They are shocked when good food is wasted by riotous living; they are less shocked when good crops are wasted and destroyed because of overproduction and underconsumption. Something has gone wrong with the emphasis....
From "The Other Six Deadly Sins"
We all know pretty well the man—or, perhaps still more frequently, the woman—who says that anybody who tortures a helpless animal should be flogged till he shrieks for mercy. The harsh, grating tone and the squinting, vicious countenance accompanying the declaration are enough to warn us that this righteous anger is devilborn and trembling on the verge of mania....It is very well known to the more unscrupulous part of the press that nothing pays so well in the newspaper world as the manufacture of schisms and the exploitation of wrath. Turn over the pages of the more popular papers if you want to see how avarice thrives on hatred and the passion of violence. To foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money. A dogfight, a brawl, or a war is always news; if news of that kind is lacking, it pays well to contrive it.... You may know the mischief-maker by the warped malignancy of his language as easily as by the warped malignancy of his face and voice. His fury is without restraint and without magnanimity—and it is aimed, not at checking the offense, but at starting a pogrom against the offender.
Ungovernable rage is the sin of the warm heart and the quick spirit; in such men it is usually very quickly repented of—though before that happens it may have wrought irreparable destruction.
An odd change has come over us since the arrival of the machine age. Whereas formerly it was considered a virtue to be thrifty and content with one's lot, it is now considered to be the mark of a progressive nation that it is filled with hustling, go-getting citizens, intent on raising their standard of living. And this is not interpreted to mean merely that a decent sufficiency of food, clothes, and shelter is attainable by all citizens. I means much more and much less than this. It means that every citizen is encouraged to consider more, and more complicated, luxuries necessary to his well-being. The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods had become, before the war, the prime civic virtue. And why? Because the machines can produce cheaply only if they produce in vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running, millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.
Hand in hand with covetousness goes its close companion—invidia or envy—which hates to see other men happy. The names by which it offers itself to the world's applause are right and justice, and it makes a great parade of these austere virtues. It begins by asking, plausibly, "Why should not I enjoy what others enjoy?" and it ends by demanding, "Why should others enjoy what I may not?" Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are "my rights" and "my wrongs." At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.
The difficulty about dealing with envy is precisely that it is the sin of the have-nots, and that, on that account, it can always find support among those who are just and generous minded. Its demands for a place in the sun are highly plausible, and those who detect any egotism in the demand can readily be silenced by accusing them of oppression, inertia, and a readiness to grind the face of the poor.
The years between the wars saw the most ruthless campaign of debunking ever undertaken by nominally civilized nations. Great artists were debunked by disclosures of their private weaknesses; great statesmen, by attributing to them mercenary and petty motives, or by alleging that all their work was meaningless, or done for them by other people. Religion was debunked and shown to consist of a mixture of craven superstition and greed. Courage was debunked, patriotism was debunked, learning and art were debunked, love was debunked, and with it family affection and the virtues of obedience, veneration, and solidarity. Age was debunked by youth, and youth by age. Psychologists stripped bare the pretensions of reason and conscience and self-control, saying that these were only the respectable disguises of unmentionable unconscious impulses. Honor was debunked with peculiar virulence, and good faith, and unselfishness. Everything that could possibly be held to constitute an essential superiority had the garments of honor torn from its back and was cast out into the darkness of derision. ... It is well that the hypocrisies that breed like mushrooms in the shadow of great virtues should be discovered and removed, but envy is not the right instrument for that purpose, for it tears down the whole fabric to get at the parasitic growths.... Envy cannot bear to admire or respect; it cannot bear to be grateful. But it is very plausible; it always announces that it works in the name of truth and equity.
Here is a phrase that we have heard a good deal of late: "These services ... ought not to be made a matter of charity. We have a right to demand that they should be borne by the state." Now that sounds splendid, but what does it mean?
Now, you and I are the state, and where the bearing of financial burdens is concerned, the taxpayer is the state. ... If the burden hitherto borne by charity is transferred to the shoulders of the taxpayer, it will inevitably continue to be carried by exactly the same class of people. The only difference is this: that people will no longer pay because they want to—eagerly and for love—but because they must, reluctantly and under pain of fine or imprisonment. The result, roughly speaking, is financially the same; the only difference is the elimination of the two detested virtues of love and gratitude.
I do not say for a moment that certain things should not be the responsibility of the state—that is, of everybody.... But what I see very clearly is the hatred of the gracious act and the determination that nobody shall be allowed any kind of spontaneous pleasure in well-doing if envy can prevent it. "This ointment might have been sold for much and given to the poor." Then our nostrils would not be offended by any odor of sanctity—the house would not be "Filled with the smell of the ointment." It is characteristic that it should have been Judas who debunked that act of charity.
From "Dante and Charles Williams"
[Charles Williams'] judgments were as free as any modern man's judgments could be from what we call a "sense of period." ... Period-sense is a thing of very recent origin—it scarcely begins to exist before the closing years of the eighteenth century. We may see this very vividly illustrated in the history of theatrical costume. Right down to Garrick's time, nobody thought it odd to play Coriolanus or Macbeth in a periwig, and all the classical heroines in panniers and powdered hair, any more than Shakespeare had boggled about making his Roman conspirators pull their hats about their brows, or giving Brutus a pocket in his gown. No doubt everybody knew that the custom worn in past ages was different from their own—they knew, but the did not feel that it mattered. They felt that the play was dealing with human beings in a human situation—not with historical personages conditioned by a historical environment. And this was a reflection of their whole attitude to the writers of the past—they judged them as though they were contemporaries, bringing their opinions to the bar of absolute, rather than of relative, truth.
From "The Writing and Reading of Allegory"
We are so much accustomed nowadays to take it for granted that romantic love between the sexes is one of the most important and sacred things in life, that it is hard to believe that, before the twelfth century, such an idea never entered anybody's head—and, if it had, it would have been considered not only immoral but also ridiculous. That human beings did in fact fall in love, with very disturbing effects, was of course a fact that nobody in any age could possibly overlook; but it had never been customary to admire them for it. On the contrary, passion, as distinct from a decent conjugal affection, had always been held to be a bad thing, both in men and in women.... On this point, pagan and Christian were agreed. The passionate adoration of woman was a weakness, and worse....
And then, almost unimaginably, starting among the troubadours of Provence, and singing its way across Europe in all the Romance languages, came the new cult of courtly love. We cannot now stop to inquire what brought it into being; it is enough that it came, that it spread like wildfire, and established itself, changing the whole aspect of men's lives, and effecting one of the very few genuine social revolutions in history.
From "The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil"
The corruption of the will saps the intellect, and the Devil is ultimately a fool as well as a villain.