Sunday, January 30, 2011

No Pity

A book I sometimes talk about but am hesitant to recommend is Richard Adams's The Girl in the Swing. I hesitate to recommend it because it is sexually explicit as well as being a thriller and quite haunting.

On the other hand, it has some important insights. I don't (for obvious reasons) own a copy of the book, so I will be speaking from memory here. At one point there is a conversation between an Anglican priest (perhaps the best character in the book) and a young couple. The bride, a pagan if there ever was one, presses the priest with some animation on what she sees as the unnecessary absence of sex in Christianity. Why, she wants to know, can't Christianity be more like pagan fertility cults? Wouldn't that make it a lot more attractive? Wouldn't that make it more affirming of the joy and beauty in the world?

The priest answers with care. He talks about the story of Kali, who comes up out of the river, suckles her child, and then kills it. He says that he believes that paganism, and pagan fertility religion specifically, without the taming influence of Christianity, is cruel. Speaking of a fertility goddess, any fertility goddess, he says, "She'd have no pity."

This is Adams's version of the insight I am always paraphrasing from C.S. Lewis, who in turn got it from Denis de Rougemont: When Eros is made a god, he becomes a devil.

There are those today (fortunately, not a very influential group, as yet) who want to promote paganism as an alternative to contemporary liberalism, and who miss no opportunity to attack Christianity as, supposedly, the cause of contemporary liberalism. We have at least one commentator in this camp at my group blog, What's Wrong With the World. When Christians lament the anti-natalism of our current culture and the crazy, postmodern attacks on the very meaning of marriage, the programmatic pagan thinks this is a great opportunity to suggest that the real origin of the redefinition of marriage lies 'way back in Christian asceticism. I will not trouble my readers here at Extra Thoughts with all the obvious responses that could be made to this agenda-driven historical silliness, reminiscent of all the trendy -isms that have left the university an intellectual wasteland.

But I will point out that one of the first supposed "advantages" of the supposedly "pro-natal" pagan view of marriage, pointed out by the advocate himself, is that if a pagan marriage was barren, divorce was possible on that basis alone. Right here we see the "no pity" principle in action--I guess Henry VIII was a good pagan when he ditched poor Catherine, though to be strictly accurate, Catherine was not barren, only unlucky enough to have baby boys who died and a baby girl who lived. Then again, considering the demographics-bending pagan preference for boys over girls and willingness to commit large-scale female infanticide, perhaps Henry was being a good pagan there, too.

The sexual revolution has given us an inkling of what a fertility cult is all about, and it isn't a pretty picture. Children are the first casualties. It is indeed true that when Eros is made a god, he becomes a devil. All the magic of sexuality and of the differences between the sexes needs, desperately requires, the Christian virtues of love, restraint, lifelong commitment, care for the weak, and denial of self. Man is fallen, and so, too, is man's sexual nature. Without the restoration of human nature in Jesus Christ, the worship of that nature leads to barbarism, cruelty, oppression of women, and the sacrificing of the weakest among us.

Adams was a good novelist, and a man of insight, and he understood this truth. (He was not really a good Christian, so he wasn't quite sure what to do with it.) Without committing too much of a plot spoiler, I will say that the saddest and most telling line in the book, in German, is this: "Ich hatte kein Mitleid"--"I had no pity."


William Luse said...

very nice and heartfelt little essay.

Christianity is sanity, I like to think, because it makes room for almost everyone except the sexual profligate. It embraces at once the ascetic and the amorous; the former keeps the latter's passions in perspective. The virgin and the mother are not opposites, since there was once a Virgin who was both. The father of seven has fewer children than the celibate priest who baptizes them.

The pagan fertility cults, as I recall, were not famous for their fertility, but for the debauchery of their ceremonial rites.

Lydia McGrew said...

Very well put, Bill.

Tim said...

And Adams reprises that conversation at the end of the book, allowing, in a sense, the priest to have the last word:

"I stopped, and after a moment she whispered, 'Ich hatte kein Mitleid.' We waited, but she did not speak again."

Lydia McGrew said...

Actually, though (I'm still trying to avoid too much of a plot spoiler), the first-person narrator comes in after that and takes, though with heart-searching and a lot of emotional agony, the position that even though the priest was right, the narrator won't reject the pagan side, because the evil it led to was (supposedly) necessary to the cause of love. It makes for a very ambivalent ending, though perhaps true to human nature.