Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We Need More Churches (Francis Pharcellus Churches, That Is)

A perennial favorite - and certainly a personal favorite of mine - is the short editorial/letter-response answering the question: Is there a Santa Claus?

The year was 1897. It was the age of Ingersoll - the Great Agnostic - who in this country at least was the chief spokesperson for rationalism. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and with it an lust towards materialism. And the move from science to scientism was also threatening to entirely chase magic from the mortal realm.

It was in this American milieu that New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church was given the task of answering a little Virginia O'hanlan's question about Santa Claus. Wikisource has the entire essay here.

I see those same troubling things in full vigor today. A rationalism that is both unkind and belittling towards others. Mammon is the god of this age. And scientism still stifles faith and hope.
An antidote Church wrote (and I would second what he wrote):

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Certainly we know more today than we did at the close of the nineteenth century. Yet we are no where near saying we have it all figured out. Mystery still surrounds us, the more we probe into space, the more we delve into the past, the more scientists delve into the wonders of the animal body.

One more paragraph from Church:

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Diminish faith, fancy and poetry and will not love and romance eventually be diminished as well? I worry about the reductionism that makes of humans mere robotic accidents of the "blind forces of nature."

As the poet Keats put it:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnom├Ęd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.


We need more Francis Churches, and some more John Keats, too.

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