Birzer – Myth, Sanctification, and Unity
"Myth, Sanctification, and Unity"
Philadelphia Society, April 13, 2002
I’ve been asked to speak
today on an American unity and the a possible reclaiming of culture.
To do so, I think we must
national (though not necessarily
patriotic) understandings of Americanness, and look to Americans as
the best (and, admittedly, at times, the worst) that western civilization has
Two things, I think, should
be clear, especially if we want to reclaim the culture.
First, that myth serves as the glue of any
community – whether small or large, whether of a family or a culture or a
And, second, that the myth of
America is, in many ways, the myth of western civilization: that is, the
synthesis of the classical, the Judeo-Christian, and the Barbarian.
It is and always has been, first and foremost, based on the
sanctification of the best of the pagan and the secular.
Finally, I will very briefly
examine some possibilities for a revived American myth, as rooted in the
holds an estranged place in the modern world.
But, that is the modern world’s fault.
Not myth’s. Indeed, myth
might just save the modern world from itself.
The Oxford don and profound mythmaker J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his poem
“Mythopoeia,” echoing the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the legend-makers
with their rhyme
of things not found within
It is not they that have
forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized
in lotus-isles of economic
forswearing souls to gain a
(and counterfeit at that,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced)[i]
Myth, as Tolkien knew,
equaled a truth that could not be explained by mere fact; myth is in essence a
greater truth than finite science can provide on any single question.[ii]
Because of this, myth can emphasize the beauty of God’s creation as
well as the sacramental nature of life.[iii]
“Our time, sick nigh unto death of utilitarianism and literalness,
cries out for myth and parable,” American novelist and political philosopher
Russell Kirk explained. “Great
myths are not merely susceptible of rational interpretation: they are truth,
Both Tolkien and Kirk believed that myth could teach men and women how
to be true men and women, as God intended them to be, and not as mere cogs in
a vast machine.
The great English writer G.K. Chesterton, who served as a significant
source of inspiration to a much younger Tolkien, once explained myth in a way
that only Chesterton was capable of:
But imaginative does not mean
imaginary. It does not follow
that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false.
Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is
touching transcendental truths; that his images of shadows of things seen
through the veil. In other words,
the natural mystic does not know that there is something there; something
behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of
beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that
can call it up.[v]
Equally important, myth plays
a vital role in any culture, binding together members of its various
communities. “It is quite easy
to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully
than a book of history. The
legend is generally made by a majority of the people in the village, who are
sane. The book is generally
written by the one man in the village who is mad,” Chesterton concluded in
Communities, political theorist Don Lutz has recently explained
“share symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people
and link them to some transcendent order. . . . The shared meaning and a
shared link to some transcendent order allow them to act as a people.”[vii]
The man “who has no sympathy with myths,” Chesterton wrote, “has
no sympathy with men.”[viii] One
cannot, it seems, separate men from myths.
Just as men are born into authority and community; they are also born
into myth, and may, if blessed, become a part of it.
Sanctification of the Pagan
“The northern [pagan imagination] has power, as it were, to revive
its spirit even in our own times,” Tolkien claimed in his famous critical
essay on Beowulf.[ix]
True myth, then, has the power to revive us, to serve as an anamnesis,
to return us to right reason. Indeed,
for a devout Christian such as Tolkien, even pagan myths attempted to express
God’s greater truths. Or, as
his friend, C.S. Lewis, put it, “Pagan stories are God expressing Himself
through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there.”[x]
But, myths can be dangerous, or “perilous” as Tolkien usually
described it, if they remain pagan. Therefore,
Tolkien argued, one must sanctify them, that is, make them Christian and put
them in God’s service, through His Grace, not our will alone.
And, by “sanctify,” Tolkien meant not to separate from
the world, but to preserve the substance of something and to change its
As an important example, one only has to think of the example of an
intrepid early medieval Anglo-Saxon saint such as Boniface of Crediton.
His story claims that while evangelizing the pagan Germanic tribes in
north central Europe, he encountered a tribe that worshiped a large oak tree.
To demonstrate the power of Christ as the True God, Boniface cut down
the oak, much to the dismay of the tribe.
Rather than the Norse God Thor striking down St. Boniface for his
crimes against his tree, an evergreen sprang up on the same spot.
So that Boniface could continue preaching to the astounded pagans, his
followers placed candles on the newly grown evergreen, and, hence, it became
the first Christmas Tree. Whether
true in fact or not (and it cannot be true in fact, of course, as it cannot be
verified or replicated; it is and should remain a mystery), Christians
repeated the story of “sanctifying the pagan site” in a multitude of ways
during conversions in Europe and throughout the world.
St. Boniface, historian Christopher Dawson claimed, may be the single
most important reason modern Europe exists.
The work of St. Boniface did
more than any other fact to lay the foundations of medieval Christendom.
His mission to Germany was not an isolated spiritual adventure like the
achievements of his Celtic predecessors; it was part of a far-sighted
programme of construction and reform planned with all the method and
statesmanship of the Roman tradition.
It involved a triple alliance between the Anglo-Saxon
missionaries, the Papacy, and the family of Charles Martel, the de facto
rulers of the Frankish kingdom, out of which the Carolingian Empire and the
Carolingian culture ultimately emerged.[xi]
Other examples of sanctification include St. Paul’s attempt to
convert the Athenians with their statue of the “Unknown God”; the holidays
of Christmas and Easter being placed on high pagan holidays; St. Augustine’s
sanctification of Plato and Cicero in The
City of God; St. Aquinas’s sanctification of Aristotle; and even the
Christian monks who built their monastery on top of the highest mound/temple
in Cahokia, Illinois, the former site of the priest-king of a vast Indian
churches throughout Europe and North American sit on formerly sacred pagan
sites. They, in essence, baptize
the suspect ground, just as Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas.
As is obvious from the above, St. Boniface certainly was not alone in
his sanctification of the northern pagan.
Indeed, the entire creation of Medieval Europe (really, of Europe
itself) was the synthesis of the classical, the Christian, and the Barbarian,
as noted in the introduction to this talk.
Italian-born German theologian Romano Guardini noted the important
contributions of the northern pagan spirit to Christianity:
Deeply significant for the
new religious outlook of medieval man was the influx of the Germanic spirit.
The religious bent of the Nordic myths, the restlessness of the
migrating peoples and the armed marches of the Germanic tribes revealed a new
spirit which burst everywhere into history like a spear thrust into the
infinite. This mobile and nervous
soul worked itself into the Christian affirmation.
There it grew mightily. In
its fullness it produced that immense medieval drive which aimed at cracking
the boundaries of the world.[xiii]
For the Christian,
though, Grace, Mercy, and Love replace raw self-directed will as the motive
power of the world.
Tolkien’s and Guardini’s advocacy of the sanctification of the best
of the pagan reflects St. Augustine’s thinking.
In his “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine wrote: if
philosophers “have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we
are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those
who have unlawful possession of it.” In
The City of God, St. Augustine sanctified Cicero’s “On Duties”
and Plato’s Republic to develop
his arguments for a stable and thriving Christianity within a post-Imperial
Roman world. For his example in
“On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine referred to the Jewish acquisition
of Egyptian gold, silver, and garments as the Hebrews departed for the
promised land. Augustine
justifies Hebrew actions by noting that the Egyptians failed to use God’s
gifts properly. Further, “human
institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is
indispensable in this life – we must take and turn to a Christian use.”[xiv]
Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third
centuries, presaged Augustine’s argument.
Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in Miscellanies,
served as a “preparatory teaching for those who will later embrace the
faith.” Additionally, perhaps
God gave philosophy to the Greeks as an introduction it to Christianity.
Philosophy, Clement concluded, “acted as a schoolmaster to the
Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for
Taking these arguments together, the modern Christian may rightly
surmise that Plato and Aristotle served as much as a preparation for
Christianity as did Abraham and Moses. History
and legend, as Tolkien argued, fused with the incarnation of Christ, the True
other words, God blessed, or sanctified, the world – and its myths – with His
Only Begotten Son.
Clement and St. Augustine were both responding to Tertullian’s famous
question: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”[xvii]
But truth, Clement, St. Augustine, and Tolkien each claimed, belongs to
God, whether codified in scripture or nature or even within elements of pagan
myth and culture.
As the Author of existence God placed a part of His Truth in
each culture, and, as Christopher Dawson has shown, each culture orders itself
around the cultus, reflecting – correctly or incorrectly – that cult’s
vision of the Divine. Therefore,
as each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it finds some piece of
the larger truth located within itself, allowing it to accept the full Truth
of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection.
As typical, C.S. Lewis put it succinctly: “Paganism does not merely
survive but first really becomes itself in the v[ery] heart of
That is, every person and culture longs for something greater than
itself. Paganism, according to
Lewis, fails to fulfill its mission until Christianity subsumes it.
Myth against Modernity
The sanctification of the pagan in the past is fine, but what does it
have to do with unity, and especially American unity?
The present after all encounters hostile and brutal ideologies,
nihilism, modernity, and post-modernity?
I believe the past has more to teach us now, than perhaps ever before.
In addition to the prolific work of Neo-Thomists of the Twentieth
Century – such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson – who brilliantly argued
that the greatest hope for modern culture came from the work of St. Thomas
Aquinas, we should also turn to the Augustinians such as historian Christopher
The only remedy is to be
found in that spiritual force by which the humility of God conquers the pride
of the evil one. Hence the
spiritual reformer cannot expect to have the majority on his side.
He must be prepared to stand alone like Ezekiael and Jeremy.
He must take as his example St. Augustine besieged by the Vandals at
Hippo, or St. Gregory preaching at Rome with the Lombards at the gates.
For the true helpers of the world are the poor in spirit, the men who
bear the sign of the cross on their foreheads, who refused to be overcome by
the triumph of injustice and put their sole trust in the salvation of God.[xix]
C.S. Lewis cautioned, though,
that the path of St. Augustine and St. Boniface may no longer be open to us.
At least the Germanic barbarians believed in something transcendent,
and the missionaries could challenge them as one believer to another.
Modern man, though, believes only in his own vision, and the idea of a
higher power is suspect if not outright rejected.
The result have been the reintroduction of the Sophist notion that
“man is the measure of all things.” “It
is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith.
Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: ëye shall be as gods.'” Whittiker
Chambers wrote in 1952. “It is
the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the
world. It is the vision of
man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence,
redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world.”[xx]
Hence, Lewis worried. “I
sometime wonder,” Lewis wrote, “whether we shall not have to re-convert
men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity.”[xxi]
Still, all humans share many things in common, even in the great
cultural rifts of the twentieth-century.
Most importantly, we share in humanity itself – created in the image of
God, fallen, but redeemed through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of
Christ – whether recognized or not. That
very story arms us. “There is
in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of
doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters when
incorporated with it,” Cardinal Newman wrote, “and makes them right and
acceptable to its Divine Author, whereas before they were either infected with
evil, or at best but shadows of the truth.”[xxii]
Second, I think we – western men, that is – are especially equipped to
evangelize. But, we need to
rethink myth – perhaps in a western context, perhaps in a specifically
American context. Certainly,
Americans have attempted to create – or, perhaps, discover such myths.
Our founders drew, as Russell Kirk reminds us in the Roots
of American Order, on the patrimony of the Jews, Greeks, Romans, and
But, we live in a world, as Lewis warned, that seems to be even
pre-pagan. And modern man seems
to be quickly becoming post-modern man.
So, what are the possibilities for a revived myth, for a revived
understanding of man as created in the image of God, for a sanctification of
the cultures around us? There are
probably many possibilities, but I have come up with only two – at least two
that have predominated historically.
First, an American myth that seeks the unity of our American culture
should somehow recognize the importance of republican thought and our
republican heritage: in terms of fundamental importance of virtue, the
sanctity of property, the self-defense to protect virtue and proerty, a
celebration of the uniqueness of each human person and his possible
contributions to order, of each local community, a fear of power, balance in
government, and, of course, liberty. As
George Washington said in his first inaugural: “The preservation of the
sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government
are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the
experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Second, at least historically, many American myths – especially in
attempting to find the unifying American character – have emphasized the
frontier character of the seventeenth through nineteenth century America:
Thomas Jefferson and the Yeoman Farmer (based, on Harrington’s vision in Oceana);
James Fenimore Cooper and Leatherstocking; Frederick Jackson Turner and the
rise of democratic man; Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show; John Ford’s
magisterial and Catholic visions of sin and redemption in Monument Valley.
Few of these western myths, of course, are true in any sense, as they
often mixed with nationalist understandings of a possible America, rather than
America as the inheritor of the best of the western tradition.
Neither of these types of myths are Christian either.
Though, it is certainly possible to find overlap and the possibilities
of Christianity to sanctify them. Republicanism
and Christianity certainly have much in common – especially virtue and the
need to sacrifice one’s self for the greater good.
Frankly, I don’t have the answer.
Ultimately, a redeeming myth must resonate with the community, and it
must take on a life of its own. Certainly,
words such as “Let’s Roll” and “We’re all going to die but three of us
are going to do something,” – words from the heroes of the downed flights of
9-11 have an immense power, equal to, say, “Don’t Tread on me.”
Perhaps, these can serve as basis of a revived myth based on a virtuous
American character. They
certainly move me.
In the words of Dawson, though, “We may not be able to build
cathedrals like the Catholics of the thirteenth century, or write epics like
Dante, but we can all do something to make man conscious of [a higher truth;
something greater than himself], and [ ] let the light into the dark world of
a closed secularist culture.”[xxiii]
“Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf,
Carpenter, ed., Letters, 147.
The Everlasting Man, 104-5.
Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives
(Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1989), 18.
On Tolkien’s significant influence on Kirk, see James Person, Kirk.
Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
(1925; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 105.
Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado
Springs: Shaw, 1994), 47.
Lutz, ed., in “Preface,” to
Colonial Origins of the American Constitution (Indianapolis, Ind.:
Liberty Fund, 19XX), xv.
The Everlasting Man, 109.
“The Monsters and the Critics,” 77.
Lewis, The Letters of C.S. Lewis to
Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963, ed. Walter Hooper (1979; New York: Collier
Books, 1986) 427.
Religion and the Rise of Western
Culture, 62. For more on
St. Boniface from Dawson, see Christopher Dawson, The
Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (New
York: Sheed and Ward, 1934), 210-11. See
also, Letters of St. Boniface (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2000); and Thomas F.X. Noble, ed.,
Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the
Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).
See John Henry Newman,
An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1878; Image
Books, 1960), 358.
Guardini, The End of the Modern World
(1956; Wilmington, Dela.: ISI Books, 1998), 9.
Augustine of Hippo, “On Christian Doctrine.”
of Alexandria, “Miscellanies.”
“On Fairy Stories,” 156.
Prescriptions against Heretics.
Lewis, Magdalen, to Dom Bede Griffiths, 1 November 1956, WCWC, CSL Letters
to Dom Bede Griffiths, Letter Index 36.
Dawson, Religion and the Rise of
Western Culture (1950; New York: Image Books, 1991), 124.
Whittaker Chambers, “A Letter to My Children,” Witness.
Lewis, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” in
Present Concerns: Essays by C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (Harvest,
Newman, An Essay on the
The Crisis of Western Education,