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Tag: utopianism

Apocalypse and Alternate History: the novels of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Now that so many people are reading books on electronic devices, more and more books are being made available in digital format. Since I became a Kindle owner a couple of years ago, I have really enjoyed dipping into the many old, out-of-copyright books that available to be downloaded at no cost. Project Gutenberg, which claims to be “the first producer of free electronic books (ebooks),” has for some years provided digitized versions of books in many formats, including those used on the Kindle and the Nook and other devices. Even more convenient for Kindle owners like myself is the fact that every time Project Gutenberg releases a “new” old (public domain) book, Amazon immediately publishes it for the Kindle at no cost. This provides an extra convenience for Kindle owners, since we can have it downloaded to our device automatically (cutting out a step, compared to acquiring it directly from Project Gutenberg) and we can keep the title in our library “cloud” when we don’t need or want to have it taking up space on our Kindles.

Robert Hugh Benson
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson,
former Anglican, bestselling Catholic author

One of my favorite out-of-copyright authors whose books are available from Project Gutenberg is Robert Hugh Benson. On the PG site, you’ll find a number of his Catholic novels, written in the early years of the twentieth century. Google Books also has free downloads of his novels and short stories, as well as a fair number of his catechetical, apologetic, and homiletic works; both Project Gutenberg and Google Books also offer biographies of Benson (the Google one is in two volumes).

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Msgr. Benson, who was almost as popular in the early 1900s as Fulton Sheen would be fifty years later. Benson was the son of an (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, and himself was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1895. Within a few years, however, he became a Catholic priest and a very popular writer for both Catholic and Anglican audiences, producing many works of Catholic apologetics as well as novels in various genres — historical, speculative, and contemporary fiction, all with religious themes.

http://www.booksshouldbefree.com/book/Lord-of-the-World-Robert-Hugh-Benson

Benson has been enjoying a sort of literary comeback in recent years, with a number of small publishers bringing some of his better known works back to print, and a number of web sites are devoted to Benson & his works. I have read a few of his novels, having begun with his most famous one, Lord of the World (one of his few works still available in print editions). This novel has been described variously as being “dystopic,” “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” “prophetic,” and “apocalyptic.” The latter is probably the most apt, because Benson presents a vision of the world as it may when the end times arrive, as described in the final book of the Bible (“The Revelation to St. John,” known traditionally to Catholics as “The Book of the Apocalypse”). Benson, writing in the early years of the twentieth century (Lord of the World was first published in 1907), was alarmed at the social trajectory of the modern, Western world, and wrote this novel, at least in part, as a warning of where things seemed to be headed. Projecting his story forward in time less than a century, he foresaw a world that had become radically secularized, a culture of death in which euthanasia has become so common that euthanasia squads, not ambulances, are sent to accident sites and euthanasia parlors have replaced nursing homes. Marriages are sterile, churches are empty, and a demagogue rules over an all-encompassing socialist world government. Most churches have become Masonic temples, and the few churches that remain are all Catholic. I won’t give away the ending, but if you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you probably know where it’s headed.

Strangely enough, Benson’s loyal readers were dismayed by this novel, complaining that it was too gloomy. Despite his insistence that it described the way the Bible assures us the world really will end, his fans urged him to write another end-of-times novel, with a happy ending and, very reluctantly, he did. The result was a novel called Dawn of All. In its introduction, Benson writes:

In a former book,
called “Lord of the World,” I attempted to sketch the kind of
developments a hundred years hence which, I thought, might reasonably be
expected if the present lines of what is called “modern thought” were
only prolonged far enough; and I was informed repeatedly that the effect
of the book was exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic
Christians. In the present book I am attempting — also in parable form
— not in the least to withdraw anything that I said in the former, but
to follow up the other lines instead, and to sketch — again in parable
— the kind of developments, about sixty years hence which, I think, may
reasonably be expected should the opposite process begin, and ancient
thought (which has stood the test of centuries, and is, in a very
remarkable manner, being “rediscovered” by persons even more modern than
modernists) be prolonged instead. We are told occasionally by moralists
that we live in very critical times, by which they mean that they are
not sure whether their own side will win or not. In that sense no times
can ever be critical to Catholics, since Catholics are never in any kind
of doubt as to whether or no their side will win. But from another
point of view every period is a critical period, since every period has
within itself the conflict of two irreconcilable forces. It has been for
the sake of tracing out the kind of effects that, it seemed to me, each
side would experience in turn, should the other, at any rate for a
while, become dominant, that I have written these two books.

Benson also says that he found Dawn of All very tedious to write, because he knew it described a world that would never exist. To convey the idea that we shouldn’t ever expect to live in the world described, he has a priest from our real world find himself transported in a dream to an alternate reality, a world which, having found that socialism doesn’t work and the promises of modern philosophy are empty, has gradually been won back to the Catholic faith and public life has been put back under the influence of the Church. Protestantism has been reconciled to Rome, Ireland is one big religious retreat center (all the laity having been evacuated to America or somewhere), and the Inquisition once again keeps the world safe from heretics. In fact, the novel basically presents an idealized version of medieval Christendom, a world in which trade guilds (not labor unions) are prominent, and people are required in public to wear attire legally prescribed for their state in life and occupation. It’s an odd work of speculative fiction, and best read after Lord of the World.

NuEvan Press, Dawn of All, Robert Hugh Benson

Speaking of odd, NuEvanPress.com offers ebook versions of both these novels that, the publishers say, have been “gently edited” to make the books more palatable to modern readers. A cursory look at the samples available on Amazon doesn’t reveal any obvious updates, so I’m guessing the “gentle editing” was intended to help the edition conform to the Amazon rule that anyone desiring to publish a title in the public domain must provide “added value,” in order to make their edition distinct from the free ebooks that Amazon publishes. In addition to the “gentle editing,”  NuEvan Press also includes helpful subtitles (“A Catholic Novel of the End Times” and “A Visionary Novel of the Catholic Church Victorious”), as well as an appendix in each book, relevant to the content of the novel. The appendix to Lord of the World contains a selection of readings from the Church Fathers on the Antichrist; in Dawn of All, it’s the Fathers on “the preeminence of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

I recommend any of Benson’s books, particularly the two mentioned here. Lord of the World provides the “Catholic answer” to the Left Behind novels, and Dawn of All presents a nice little fantasy that may provide a tonic in these days of the culture wars and the marginalization of religion. One caveat: the language will sound a bit formal or even old-fashioned, perhaps irritatingly so for some readers, so if that might be you, go ahead and plunk down $2.99 for the NuEvan Press e-editions; otherwise, just go for the freebies.

If you’ve already read these or other books by Robert Hugh Benson, please click the comment link, and let me know what you think!

Comment on Gilson’ s Foreward to City of God

Aside from agreeing with Gilson’s general thesis — that we wouldn’t have the modern notion that we can create a universal and just society, had it not been for Augustine’s City of God —  I will simply suggest that his last point is one worth considering. Although I don’t think we are anywhere near creating a just society on earth (according to the secular or the Christian model) – in fact, we often seem to be going in quite the opposite direction! – it seems that in the present day, when the secular world presents itself more and more as being necessarily antagonistic toward the Christian faith than perhaps at any time since Augustine’s own day, it is more important than ever that separated Christian bodies unite with – or at least collaborate with – the Catholic Church, to make common cause toward building a just society consonant with (not striving against) Christian principles. (In fact we see, more and more, that other religions are willing to make common cause with Christianity against the assaults of secularism.)

Now, when Augustine used that term “Catholic,” he meant not only “that Church visibly united with the See of Peter (the pope),” but also “that Christian body which is free from heresy (or doctrinal error)” – i.e., not the Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, etc. From the Catholic perspective, these two uses of the term are identical: the Catholic Church proclaims the Christian faith in its fullness, and without error through its infallible teaching authority (Magisterium). Any Christian individual or corporate body that denies any portion of the Catholic Church’s teaching of the faith is at a spiritual disadvantage, because they do not know (or acknowledge) the faith in its fullness. According to this understanding, Protestants differ from Catholics not simply as one religious denomination differs from another (“different strokes for different folks”), but they necessarily suffer from the ill effects of doctrinal error, to the extent that they differ or dissent from the Catholic faith. It is an act of charity to try to heal the breach of separation, so that “separated brethren” may be restored to the full life of the Christian (i.e., Catholic) Church.

I don’t say this polemically — that is, I’m not trying to present an argument to support the Catholic view, but simply trying to articulate it, because Gilson wrote as a Catholic when he said that “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.” Gilson does not say so, but I think he would agree that this desire for a unified society (“one world, one Church”) can best be achieved if separated Christian bodies are re-unified with the Catholic Church. The Body of Christ must be whole in order to be healthy, and it must be healthy in order to be able not only to defend itself against the encroachment of secularism, but to work toward building a just society, for the good of all (Christians, secularists, and others).


Sixty years after Gilson wrote his essay, the gulf between the Christian and the secular mindsets has become only more pronounced, much deeper and wider than it was only a few decades ago, to the point that no one denies the profound differences between the two. One evidence of this is the increasing stridency of self-proclaimed atheists. In the mid-20th century, public atheists could still cheerfully make common cause with religious believers, because they could recognize that the two shared many ideas about the common good; this seems no longer to be true. Public atheists today (notably Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) argue that religious believers are not only wrong (mistaken) but downright evil, and must be eradicated (I believe it was Dawkins who recently suggested that inculcating religious faith in one’s children should be considered child abuse).
 
At any rate, there seems to be plenty of evidence that today, more than ever, Christianity in particular, and religion more generally, is under the guns of the secularists. (Remember that even in Augustine’s own day, those who wanted to blame Christianity for the world’s problems did so on religious, not atheistic, grounds.) I think this explains why both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have labored so ceaselessly not simply to be “ecumenical” in the pallid sense often used by those who profess to embrace the “spirit of Vatican II” (“let’s all make nice and pretend that all religions are equally good and true”), but in the more vital sense of trying to bring separated bodies of Christians back into the embrace of Mother Church, so that they may not only have the benefit of the sacraments of the Church and the authoritative teaching of the Roman Magisterium, but also so that the Body of Christ may be truly unified and at full strength – both lungs, all the arms & legs, fingers & toes cooperating fully with their Head, which is Christ, and his vicar on earth, the Roman pontiff. Only if the Body is whole and healthy can it most effectively build up society on earth, so that it more closely resembles the City of God, of which all Christians are citizens by virtue of their baptism, and to which all men are called.

We have seen in recent years a remarkable amount of progress toward this re-unification: not only the restitution of some of the ancient churches to the Roman Communion under Pope John Paul II but also great progress more recently with traditional-minded Anglicans (Anglicanorum Coetibus) and in ironing out remaining obstacles between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox. It should be noted that Rome has taken some pains to show that the legitimate spiritual patrimony of these other Christian traditions should be preserved and allowed to flourish in their own right, rather than trying to homogenize everyone to become cookie-cutter “Roman” Catholics; the present and former Holy Fathers have shown that this legitimate diversity, when secured by a common faith, enriches the Church, rather than weakening it.

In addition to corporate reunions, there have also been a number of public statements issued by representatives of the Catholic Church and of various Protestant bodies, affirming their common faith on many points, not only of doctrine but how that doctrine bears on Christians vis à vis the problems of modern society. If this trend of solidarity continues, there may be some real hope of the Christian Church in the future being able, as She has in the past, to make lasting and beneficial contributions to the common good of the City of Man.

Gilson’s Foreward to the City of God

What follows is my summary of the abbreviated version of Gilson’s introductory essay that appears in the Image edition of the City of God that I’m reading. It runs on a bit, so I’ll put my commentary in a separate post.
 
Gilson emphasizes that our modern aspiration to build a perfect, universal society had its origins in Augustine’s description of the City of God and the way this City cooperates with, and shares benefits with, the City of Man. However, the modern world neglects a fact that the ancient world would have found impossible to deny – that every society is held together (i.e., merits the name of “society”) only insofar as it is united by two things: religion and blood kinship. He goes on to say that Augustine, in writing The City of God, demonstrates that the City of God, or the Heavenly Society, also is defined by these two factors – religion, in that it consists only of those who have held God as their highest good, and kinship, in that it comprises those who recognize not only the physical brotherhood of Men (all descended from the same original parents) but, more importantly, the spiritual brotherhood of Man (adopted sons of God the Father, through His divine Son, Jesus Christ).
 
In Gilson’s account, Augustine demonstrates that Rome, long before his own day, had ceased to merit the name civitas (“society” or “City”) in the sense Augustine uses the term. That is, it is no longer bound together by a concern for the common good, or a shared understanding of what that good is. Going farther, Augustine demonstrates that the earthly city (not merely the city of Rome, which is its concrete exemplar) has been at odds with the heavenly society since the first generation of mankind, when Cain, who was motivated by pride and self-interest, killed his brother Abel, who worthily worshipped God; thus Augustine illustrates the difference between these two societies, which is the difference between their two primary loves (God or self). By defining things in this way, Gilson shows that, on Augustine’s terms, no earthly city can, with perfect justice, claim the name of “society,” because its primary motivation will always be self-interest (in early Rome, this meant honor or public recognition, later wealth, power, and pleasure) rather than Charity.

Thus, suggests Gilson, any later generation which is inspired by The City of God to create a just, unified, and peaceful society needs to recognize that such a society must be founded on a love of God and neighbor and depend on the grace of God for its peace and unity, and that the any efforts in this world will always, necessarily, fall short of the perfection that can be known only in the life of the world to come. This is why modern efforts to create worldwide social unity are doomed to fail, because, as Gilson puts it, “they have studied everything except the Christian faith in order to find a common bond.” He suggests, “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.”