The Old Age and the New | Thomas Howard | From "The Old Myth and the New," Chapter One of Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism
Editor's note: This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Thomas Howard's Chance or the Dance?, first published by Harold Shaw Publishers and then later republished by Ignatius Press. It has long been admired as a unique and highly literate critique of secularism, as well as a lively apologetic for Christianity. "If I could have everyone in culture read must ten books," Peter Kreeft wrote of Chance or the Dance?, "this would be one of them." And Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., says, "Some rare books really explain things, how they are. This book is one. Howard's poetic, reflective reminder of how we see the image of God in all things because each is made in the Word is a book that genuinely teaches and inspires."
Here, then, are the first few pages of Chance or the Dance?
There were some ages in Western history that have occasionally been called Dark. They were dark, it is said, because in them learning declined, and progress paused, and men labored under the pall of belief. A cause-effect relationship is frequently felt to exist between the pause and the belief. Men believed in things like the Last Judgment and fiery torment. They believed that demented people had devils in them, and that disease was a plague from heaven. They believed that they had souls, and that what they did in this life had some bearing on the way in which they would finally experience reality. They believed in portents and charms and talismans. And they believed that God was in heaven and Beelzebub in hell and that the Holy Ghost had impregnated the Virgin Mary and that the earth and sky were full of angelic and demonic conflict. Altogether, life was very weighty, and there was no telling what might lie behind things. The ages were, as I say, dark.
Then the light came. It was the light that has lighted us men into a new age. Charms, angels, devils, plagues, and parthenogenesis have fled from the glare into the crannies of memory. In their place have come coal mining and E = mc2 and plastic and group dynamics and napalm and urban renewal and rapid transit. Men were freed from the fear of the Last Judgment; it was felt to be more bracing to face Nothing than to face the Tribunal. They were freed from worry about getting their souls into God's heaven by the discovery that they had no souls and that God had no heaven. They were freed from the terror of devils and plagues by the knowledge that the thing that was making them, scream and foam was not an imp but only their own inability to cope, and that the thing that was clawing out their entrails was not divine wrath but only cancer. Altogether, life became much more livable since it was clear that in fact nothing lay behind things. The age was called enlightened.
The myth sovereign in the old age was that everything means everything. The myth sovereign in the new is that nothing means anything.
That is, to the darkened mind it did not mean nothing that the sun went down and night came and the moon and stars appeared and then dawn and the sun and morning again and another day, which would itself wax and then wane into twilight and dusk and night. It did not mean nothing to them that the time of work was under the aegis of the bright sun and that it was the sun that poured life into the seeds that they were planting and that brought out the sweat on their foreheads, and that the time of rest was under the scepter of the silver moon. This was the diurnal exhibition of what was True—that there are a panoply and a rhythm and a cycle, a waxing and a waning, a rising and a setting and then a rising again. And to them it was not for nothing that the king wore a crown of gold and that the lord mayor wore medallions. This was the political exhibition of what was, in fact, True—that there are royalty and authority and hierarchy at the heart of things and that it is possible to see this in lions and eagles and queen bees as well as in the court of the king. To them it was not for nothing that a man went in to a woman in private and uncovered her and knew ecstasy in the experience of her being. This was simply a case in point of what was True anyway—that there is a mystery of being not to be thrown open to all, and that the right knowledge of another being is ecstatic, and that what appears under these carnal forms is, in fact, the image of what is actually True.
The former mind, in a word, read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex—these were all exhibitions in their own way of sex-these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. This mind fancied that everything meant everything, and that it all rushed up finally to heaven. We have an idea of royalty, this mind said, which we observe in our politics and which we attribute to lions and eagles, and we have this idea because there is a great King at the top of things, and he has set things thus so that our fancies will be drawn toward his royal Person, and we will recognize the hard realities of which the stuff of our world has been a poor shadow when we stumble into his royal court.
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So this mind handled all the data of experience as though they were images—cases in point, that is, of each other and of the way things are. So that when they came across the idea, say, of the incarnation of the god, it made perfect sense to them, since it was in the nature of things to appear in images—royalty in lions and kings, strength in bulls and heroes, industriousness in ants and beavers, delicacy in butterflies and fawns, terror in oceans and thunder, glory in roses and sunsets—so of course the god might appear in flesh and blood, how else? And when they heard about a thing like resurrection, they could believe it, since they thought they could see the same thing (life issuing from death) in other realms—seedtime and harvest, and morning and evening, and renunciation and reward—and so what else did it all mean but that it is the way things are that life triumphs over death?
This mind saw things as images because it saw correspondences running in all directions among things. That is, the world was not a random tumble of things all appearing separately, jostling one another and struggling helter-skelter for a place in the sun. On the contrary, one thing signaled another. One thing was a case in point of another. A goshawk tearing a field mouse seemed a case in point of what is also visible in the fierce duke who plunders the neighboring duchy. A lamb was an instance of timidity, mildness, harmlessness. The earth receiving life from the sun and bringing forth grass and trees and nourishing everything from itself was like all the other mothers we can observe—doves and ewes and our own mothers. The inclination to trace correspondences among things transfigured those things—goshawks, lambs, the earth, kings—into images of one another, so that on all levels it was felt that this suggested that. It is a way of looking at things that goes farther than saying that this is like that: it says that both this and that< are instances of the way things are. The sun pours energy into the earth and the man pours energy into the woman because that is how fruit begins—by the union of the one thing and the other; by the union of what appears under stellar categories as sun and earth, and under human categories as man and woman. That is, in both instances, there is enacted under the appropriate species what lies at the root of things.
Ironically, this way of looking at things did not die when the myth that made it possible died (the myth being that everything really does mean everything). When, under the fluorescent glare of the laboratory lights, the old myth died and the new myth (that nothing means anything) took over, men, without realizing what they were doing. kept on behaving and speaking of their experience as though everything meant everything. That is, their new myth told them that things are impersonal and abstract. They don't mean anything; they are. The method that led to the new myth was called the scientific method. It became sovereign when it was given the authority of dogma in the eighteenth century. The process was called Enlightenment, and it is the myth with which the modern world bas supplanted the old myth.
But, oddly, the sovereignty of the new myth, ought to have slain the image-making inclination of man, since there is no reason at all to suppose, under the new, that one thing suggests another (lions suggesting kings who themselves suggest the King); no reason, that is, except fancy, for the laboratory has no equipment for chasing and tracing these orbiting and glorious correspondences in which the lion and the king appear as images; that is, as serious suggestions of something real). That sovereignty was like the sovereignty of the Roman emperor who insisted on being worshiped as a god. People obliged him but went on with their household gods anyway.
The difference between them and us is that, whereas nobody supposed that he really was divine, we modern men have accepted the sovereignty of the new myth. We bow to the edict (Science is All) and then believe it. But, all the while, all unaware, we keep the old myth alive. It has trickled out of the old ages into the enlightened ages. It appears in a thousand ways, and in every case it belies the new myth. It is what makes us shake hands and set the table for lunch and say, "I felt like a fish out of water", and bring out cake and candles for a birthday and dance and write sonnets and go behind closed doors for sexual intercourse and stand up for a woman or the President and go to Mass. It is what makes us put on one dress for shopping and another for cocktails and another for the opera and another for church. It is what makes us put on beads and paisley and steel rims if we feel one way about society, and button-down shirts and oxford cloth and plastic rims if we feel another way. For these things all suppose that one thing means another; that it is appropriate to make this (a handshake) say this ("Hello, I see you, I greet you", etc.); that one may signal in this realm (clothes) what is at work in this realm (political philosophy); that we may enact thus (sex behind closed doors) what is, in fact, true (that this knowledge of other beings is high and holy and not for the marketplace); that when we speak this way about some common thing (a sonnet about evening) we may be speaking more accurately than when we speak analytically, since the poetry is itself perhaps a case in point of something that is exhibited in the colors, tranquility, and clarity of the evening.
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Thomas Howard was raised in a prominent Evangelical home (his sister is well-known author and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot), became Episcopalian in his mid-twenties, then entered the Catholic Church in 1985, at the age of fifty. He is an acclaimed writer and scholar, noted for his studies of Inklings C.S. Lewis ( Narnia & Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis) and Charles Williams (The Novels of Charles Williams), as well as books including Christ the Tiger, Chance or the Dance?, Hallowed be This House, Evangelical is Not Enough, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass, On Being Catholic, The Secret of New York Revealed, and Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, the story of his embrace of Catholicism, and Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page here.
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