Romaphobia and the Tragic Loss of Incarnational Worship

I mentioned in my last post that I’m investigating heavily into what the early church Fathers and ancient historians had to say about liturgical/sacramental practices in the church, and that I would blog about the books and articles I’m reading on that topic. However, I felt the need to first take a short detour into something [related] that has been at the forefront of my mind lately.

I was having a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, a gentleman devout in his Christian faith and extremely theologically knowledgeable. The topic of C.S. Lewis came up, and I mentioned something about Lewis’s Anglicanism. 

“Yeah, Anglican…that’s just one step away from Catholicism,” my friend said. 

His tone was not disrespectful, but it carried a certain mild disdain. I was taken aback by his words. I’m certain of his awareness that Anglicanism is fully Protestant, which means there are key theological (and other) distinctions between it and Roman Catholicism. So what could he have meant, exactly? I’ve pondered this as I’ve read works of church history, ecclesiology, and theology of worship over the past several weeks. My conclusion is that what he had in mind, at least partially, were the commonalities to be found in worship and devotional practices between these two traditions of Christendom. 

I believe a very apt description of these paractices is that they are deeply incarnational. What do I mean by that? Simply put, incarnational worship and devotion recognizes and celebrates the Lord’s use of the material creation as a means by which the reality of the Holy Spirit can be perceived by those who are in Christ. Why would we describe this as “incarnational”? Because God the Son saw fit to enter the material creation, even taking on a fully human, material body; moreover, during his earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus used material things such as water, wine, bread, and even saliva and dirt as tools through which his power was made manifest. He used the mundane elements of creation to do and communicate extraordinary things! He didn’t need the water in the wine jars in order to miraculously produce wine for the wedding at Cana, but he requested it anyway. He didn’t need the mud to restore the sight of the blind man, but he used it. Why? I am convinced that His use of the material was a blessed sign to us that we can and should see Him through everything he has made, and that the physical can remind us of his holiness in a tangible way.

Never should we worship created things, and we should fully reject the idea that material objects, by themselves, have some kind of inherent mystical powers. Rather, by incorporating the physical, earthly realm, our five senses can participate in and greatly enrich our worship and devotion practices. I’m not talking about cultivating emotions; I’m talking about a heightened awareness of God’s presence. I think these two things should not be confused, but often are. For example, in my case, some very modern Christian music (David Crowder, Third Day, etc.) will foster emotions about God, but it’s not at all the same experience as sensing the nearness of the person of the Holy Spirit. The latter has an entirely different texture. Can these things happen together? Of course. Do they always? No. 

If you’ve ever witnessed a Roman Catholic Mass or Eastern Orthodox liturgy, you’ve likely experienced the many beautiful material/sensory trappings that often characterize them: candles, incense, golden crosses and chalices, ornately embroidered vestments, prayer beads, bells, tonal chants, and sometimes a sung liturgy. While I am not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, the high church experience is intensely worshipful for me. It is majestic, beautiful, and immersive. I sense with my whole self the holiness of God and the sacredness of worship. And, I know I’m not the only Protestant who would say this; based upon the many emails I’ve received from readers over the past few weeks, there are droves of us. Yet, many Protestant denominations almost entirely exclude these material elements from their practices. Why is this? 

I think the reason, sometimes, is what I have heard called Romaphobia–a strong disagreement with (even fear of) non-Protestant theology/ecclesiology characterized by a wholesale rejection of all things that look, feel, or sound “Catholic.” (Take note that this is definitely not the approach that was taken by the Reformers!) Churches, such as many parishes of the Anglican church, that have not thrown out the baby with the bathwater, are sometimes looked upon with suspicion. My very first experience of high church was at an Anglican church in California five years ago, and I remember being struck by the similarities between their worship and what I’d read and seen on television about Roman Catholic Mass. Thankfully, this did not repel me, despite the fact that I grew up around a ton of anti-Rome attitudes. 

Side Note: I’m reading Thomas McKenzie’s book, The Anglican Way right now, and it is phenomenal! So informative! 

embed-celtic-crossRecently, I attended worship at a local Anglican church (affiliated with the conservative Anglican Church in North America). It wasn’t the highest-of-high-church services, but it was a very incarnational experience nonetheless. Behind the linen-draped altar table  and rising above it, was an enormous cross carved in a Celtic style. Royal-looking lit candles were set at either end of the Lord’s table. The service opened with a procession of the vestment-clad Bishop, priests, and deacon down the center aisle, led by a young acolyte (I think that’s the term) holding a long rod with a golden cross at the top. The liturgy included the Nicene Creed being declared in unison by everyone present, as well as deeply theological spoken prayers. At several points, many attendees made the sign of the cross–forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, then back to chest. (I love that practice–crossing yourself to outwardly signify your identity in Jesus Christ!) The liturgy of the Eucharist was very reverent and formal, and it was the first time I’ve taken Communion on my knees, in front of a cross, with a priest serving the elements. At the end of the worship service, the Bishop walked out front and center to give a final blessing. In his hand, he carried what is called a crozier or bishop’s staff. It’s a large, hooked shepherd’s staff, and his was made of what appeared to be intricately-carved wood. The rich symbolism was immediately apparent to me–the Bishop’s Christ-appointed role is to shepherd those under his care.  

Make no mistake: I affirm that there is room in orthodox Christendom for different expressions of worship; I’m not saying that there is one specific “right way to do it.” (Nor am I saying that anything goes; do laser lights and smoke machines point people to Jesus? I doubt it.) What I find tragic is how much that is good has been lost in many Protestant denominations (in both worship and private devotion), sometimes (not always!) because their tradition sprang from a history of Romaphobia. 

From West to East: An Evangelical Minister’s Discovery of the Orthodox Church

This is part 2 of my new series examining issues of ecclesiology, liturgical/sacramental worship practices, and the historical roots from which the branches of Christianity have grown. The response to part 1 was incredible–the article has been shared several thousand times on social media and reblogged in a few places. Readers have emailed me with stories of their journeys to liturgical traditions or to simply say, “Thank you for this; it has been weighing on my mind for quite some time as well.” I never would have imagined that my personal exploration of these matters would touch such a sensitive nerve in the faith community. 

In part 1, I offered a brief review of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Churchwhich describes Robert Webber’s journey to Anglicanism several decades ago plus a few recent stories of others who have moved from Evangelicalism to the Anglican church. What I find helpful about this kind of memoir is that it allows me to examine the author’s motivations and rationale; it’s a more gentle (and often more thoughtful) introduction to a church than a scholarly apologetic (or polemic) would be. 

The next book on my growing list is Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Peter Gilquist. Prior to reading it I knew next to nothing about the Orthodox Church. Twenty years ago, I toured the Holy Lands with my dad, and the trip included stops at a couple of gorgeous Greek Orthodox churches. I remember the stunning, mysterious iconography and intricate tile mosaics, but as a teenager raised in the Southern Baptist church, the experience impacted me no differently than touring any other grandiose historical/religious site. (I didn’t begin to understand the distinctives of the different branches of Christendom until my mid-30’s, unfortunately.)

Gilquist’s story surprised me from its beginning. He opens with the account of his ordination, alongside 59 other men, into the diaconate and priesthood of the Orthodox Church back in 1987. The service also included the reception of over 200 laypersons. Virtually all of them, clergy included, had come from Evangelical Protestant denominations. Gilquist asks:

whatever would possess…Bible-believing, blood-bought, Gospel-preaching, Christ-centered, lifelong evangelical Protestants to come to embrace this Orthodox faith so enthusiastically? Is this a new form of religious rebellion? Have vital Spirit-filled Christian people somehow jumped the track to a staid and lifeless, crusty, sacral gloom? Worse yet, is this one of those subtle deceptions of the enemy? 

After this rather sensational introduction, Gilquist offers his personal account beginning with his time serving as a college evangelist for Campus Crusade for Christ back in the 1960’s. He began his ministry while he was a first-year seminary student at Dallas Theological Seminary, but was asked by Campus Crusade to move to Wheaton College. So, he transferred to Wheaton Graduate School and began a new campus ministry in the Chicago area. But the disquiet in his soul only grew. He says:

It was at Wheaton that I resumed the process of disenchantment with church. I had now been educated against anything with sacramental and liturgical overtones…There were a few ‘weirdos’ or ‘rebels’ at Wheaton who wore wire-rimmed glasses and tweed sport coats and opted for the Episcopal Church. Most of the rest of us leaned toward what had become a growing American phenomenon: the Bible church. I was drawn to the preaching and biblical exposition…There were times…I wanted a bit more dignity, or maybe majesty, in the Sunday morning services, but giving up more meaningful worship was the trade-off for the preaching of the Bible. 

From there, Gilquist chronicles years and years of increasing frustration with the status quo and how the Holy Spirit also moved in the hearts of his closest friends from his Campus Crusade ministry years–pastors of Evangelical Protestant congregations scattered around the US. What resulted was a council of sorts; each of them agreed to do independent investigation into church history, theology, and ecclesiology with the most objective eye possible. At a landmark meeting, one of the group members, Jack Sparks, articulated their mission this way: “Everybody claims to be the New Testament Church. The Catholics say they are; the Baptists say they are; the Church of Christ says it is–and nobody else is. We need to find out who’s right.” 

Says Gilquist:

our motivation was to be the best Christian people we could be, to be a twentieth-century expression of the first-century Church…we had agreed on the front end to do and be whatever we found that the New Testament church did and was, as we followed her through history. If we found we were wrong, we would change. We were committed to believe her doctrine, to enter into her worship, and to reflect her government as best we could discern it.

When they would convene in person to discuss their independent conclusions, they found that their searches were converging…on the Orthodox Church, much to their shock (and some dismay). 

Gilquist gives a key list of the early Church documents they examined and generally outlines their investigation into church history (loved this). Then, in part two, he spends five chapters evaluating Orthodox theology from a biblical perspective. I found this extremely helpful; I had some of my misconceptions about [scary] things like veneration of Saints (including Mary) and ritualistic worship corrected. Veneration is not worship. Extremely enlightening to me was coming to understand a very real distinction between “prayer to” and “worship of.” In the Orthodox Church, there is no such thing as a dead Christian. The Saints are Christians who led exemplary lives on earth and are now living in the presence of Christ. Orthodox Christians entreat the Saints to pray for them just as they would ask any other family member or close friend to pray for them. There is no idolatry going on; the Saints are not asked for anything other than intercessory prayer. 

Bottom line: I highly recommend Gilquist’s book and I have continued my exploration of the Orthodox Church through a few different routes, both written and in video format. I particularly like a video series on YouTube called Orthodoxy 101 Boot Camp by Father Barnabas Powell, a former Pentecostal preacher from the south who converted to Orthodox Christianity. Being a southern girl myself, I could totally relate to some of his anecdotes and church humor. :-) He tells quite a bit of his personal story in the first episode. I’m halfway through episode 3. I plan to read Fr. Thomas Hopko’s multi-color introductory book series, The Orthodox Faith.

In my next post, I will offer reflections on the book I’m currently reading, When the Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio. I have the very strong conviction that understanding the earliest history of the Church through its surviving documents is crucial in this type of exploration. Even though the writings of the earliest Church Fathers are not canonized as Scripture, they have much value. What happened right after the time of Paul? How were Christians worshiping in the corporate setting? What was their view on church polity? The standard Evangelical Protestant view seems to be that the baby Church basically left the ritualistic trappings of Judaism behind (“freedom from Law”) and that after the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the church gradually went down a path of confusion and corruption (with small pockets of faithful Christians enduring) until things were “set right” by the Reformation. I’m finding out that this is not only an over-simplification, it is a distortion of the facts. Stay tuned.

Evangelical Protestants Moving to Liturgical and Sacramental Traditions

My past few weeks have been enriching in a way I never could have anticipated. I mentioned at the end of my last post that I would be sharing my thoughts on the ecclesiological and theological investigation I have felt the Holy Spirit calling me to undertake. This will be the first post in a series of reflections upon what I’m learning and the books I would (and would not) recommend.

church and candlesFirst, I need to backtrack nearly two years to an article published by The American Conservative in January of 2014. It is entitled, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: Is the High Church the Christianity of the Future?” When I read the piece, my heart resonated with the sentiments about the yearning for liturgical, holistic, mysterious, beautiful, and <gasp!> sacramental worship. I was struck by the descriptions of Protestant Evangelical Christians making a gradual, thoughtful, and dramatic move to traditions that were very different (understatement) from what they were familiar with. Another interesting thing to note is that, when it comes to the many atheist-to-Christianity stories that I encounter, nearly all the converts choose liturgical, sacramental traditions. I wanted to better understand why this is. 

I began asking some very specific questions about church traditions other than my own and my long-held assumptions about their practices and theology. Does it matter to God how we worship Him in the corporate and private setting? Should worship practice be fully incarnational by engaging all of the human senses–sight, smell, touch, sound, taste? Does tangible symbolism have an important place in worship? What was worship like in the early church, and what was the theology behind their ritual? To the extent that we can know how early Christians worshiped, should we emulate them? Is there a biblical basis for preserving early tradition? Is there such thing as a “worshiping community” that goes far beyond what I’ve always thought that meant?

The more I research and study, the more I’m beginning to suspect that the answer to many (all?) of these questions may very well be “yes.” 

I’ve returned to the American Conservative article a few times over the past months, and I’m doing some in-depth theological and historical research, but I’ve also recently begun reading book-length accounts written by Evangelical Protestants who have made the move to liturgical, sacramental traditions (such as Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism). I’d like to offer a mini-reflection on the books I’m reading, each in a separate post. Please note that I will not be commenting very much on theological differences between church traditions at this point. I wish to be as responsible and thoughtful as possible by examining such issues from different perspectives prior to sharing my conclusions. 

Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Church by Robert Webber 

When I first began reading Webber’s book, which was written several decades ago, I was worried that it would be a bit dated, only in terms of its evaluation of the current attitudes and dynamics in Evangelical Protestantism. Turns out, most of his insights about church culture and worship practice are still very relevant. A convert to the Anglican church, Webber recalls his longing for a spiritual identity with deep historical roots and the desire to become acquainted with the teachings of the early Church Fathers. He talks at length about “Christ-centered worship” as opposed to “me-centered worship,” which I really appreciated.

In terms of liturgy, this quote beautifully sums up Webber’s view: “Weekly worship and the calendar of the sacred year gives direction and definition to my spiritual life. I no longer walk alone as in a lone-ranger Christianity, but I join with millions of Christians around the world in a weekly and yearly devotion that defines our existence in the world” (Kindle loc. 605). He describes sacrament as “a way of encountering the mystery” of the Almighty. “On occasion,” he says, “a red flag goes up in response to such words as liturgical or Eucharist. But these words go back to early Christian vocabulary, and they carry many connotations…signs like water, bread, wine, oil, and the laying on of hands are visible and tangible meeting points between God and people. They are the points of intersection between God’s action and human faith.” In my 30-some years in the Evangelical Protestant church, I’ve witnessed the laying on of hands and oil anointings only a handful of times; Webber’s words made me ask myself why such practices seem (in my church experience) to be limited to special occasions (new ministry commissions, for example) or extreme situations (grave or chronic illness). Moreover, why is Communion not a weekly expression of worship in many Evangelical Protestant churches? There is such richness in these things. 

I learned quite a lot from Webber about the Anglican view of worship practices and had some misconceptions corrected. My one criticism of the book would be that I think he is a little too hard on the intellectual element of spiritual formation; but I think he does this as an over-correction of his former attitude of extreme rationalism. I came away inspired to further investigate Anglicanism (which, by the way, was the church tradition of C.S Lewis, and many other luminaries of the faith). 

Bottom line: This is a quick read with many good insights, and the author has a charitable attitude (that’s important!!!). 

In my next post, I will offer some thoughts on  Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Peter Gilquist. 

 

The Island of Misfit Joys: Church Culture and Christian Intellectualism

2015 has been a year of paradox for me. It has been a season of personal growth that has brought unprecedented intimacy with God, yet the result of that intellectual and spiritual development has deepened an ever-present sense of aching isolation that I experience within local church community. As a student immersed in the world of Christian academia, I hear similar confessions from my peers, who are scattered around the country. When we gather in video hangouts, online discussion forums, or annual meetings, the conversation and fellowship is so very rich, and we openly express our gratitude for the level of community modern technology has made possible. But at the end of the day, it isn’t quite the same as being able to gather with kindred spirits, in person, on a regular basis, and we talk about that fact with sad resignation.

At the conclusion of the last live class session of my fall semester (a course on Christianity and philosophy of fine art), my professor remarked how much he hated that we couldn’t all get together for coffee and discussion; it simply isn’t possible when individual members are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. I got a bit of a lump in my throat when he said this, as it hit a sensitive spot. I long for a local community of like-minded Christians, people who appreciate the enormous spiritual value of loving God with the intellect and thus prioritize the cultivation of the mind. I imagine long, philosophical and theological discussions in artsy coffee houses, group outings to hear scholarly lectures, and book studies on everything from the early Church Fathers to current theological debate and matters of ecclesiology.

The picture in my mind is a romantic ideal, no doubt; but it seems to me that something closely akin to it should be present in Evangelical church culture. Unfortunately, many (if not most) of us who are shaped this way struggle with feelings of isolation and lack a genuine sense of personal belonging within our own church community. We live with the unrequited desire for the reciprocal sharing and celebration of the joys we find in honoring God our Creator through the intellectual pursuit of truth about Him, the world, mankind, and the journey towards the New Jerusalem. All too often, we are (inadvertently) made to feel as if these are misfit joys unique to more bookish believers. “How do you have time to read so much?” “That kind of stuff goes right over my head.” These are the kinds of statements I hear often. Finding just a few people interested in the work of committed, ongoing study and dialogue is incredibly difficult; responses to invitations tend towards “I just don’t have time for that in this season of life. My family is so busy!” (Which reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which the master demon emphasizes that busy-ness is the best soul poison. The fact is, we make time for what we value.) 

This situation has led me to wonder how church culture might differ in this particular regard among the various branches of Christendom. I’ve never questioned whether or not my life-long church tradition is the one in which I, a person with these kinds of tendencies, can best flourish as a Christ follower. However, several events over the course of this year have raised nagging questions in my mind: Are there church traditions that place more of an emphasis upon intellectual development in Christian living and as a form of worship? Is the unrelenting feeling of unsettled-ness/odd-duckie-ness something that some Christians should simply endure as a personal burden and do their best to influence the community they’re in, or is it an indicator of truly being misplaced? I don’t have answers to these questions right now, but I do strongly sense that the Holy Spirit is leading me into deeper theological and ecclesiological investigation on these matters. To what end, I cannot yet say. 2015 has been a year of emerging questions, so 2016 will likely be a year of exploration and hopefully, one of revelation.

In the near future, I will begin a blog series based upon the reading I’m doing along this journey. My hope and prayer is that it will be a help to other believers dealing with similar uncertainties about being in community, about spiritual formation, and about church tradition. 

“A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.” –Proverbs 16:9

 

Bishop Robert Barron on Atheism and Philosophy: “Give me a break!”

This is an excellent short video from Bishop Robert Barron in which he addresses the statistics presented in the popular media concerning theism, intellectualism, and academia. What I love about Bishop Barron’s approach is how he gets right to the core of the issue and exposes erroneous claims for what they are.  He defines the terms clearly and concisely, and points out the mistakes in reasoning frequently made by opponents of Christianity. I particularly love his utter intolerance for the farcical arrogance that has become so common in pop atheism.

A Science and Faith Resource You Don’t Want to Miss

Click Image to Order from Amazon

J. Warner Wallace’s latest book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, is an exciting recent addition to the short list of science and faith books I regularly recommend to those desiring a strong, reader-friendly introduction to the issue of science and Christianity. It contains many of the same topics that are addressed in other scientific apologetics offerings, such as the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning argument, the origin of life, and the problems of consciousness, free will, and morality. However, this isn’t your average, dime-a-dozen pop apologetics book; far from it, in fact.

What makes this book so unique (and incredibly entertaining, to boot) is how Wallace frames the entire discussion as a detective’s investigation into the question: Was the origin of the universe an “inside job,” or is the likely suspect something—or someoneGCS-Closing-Argument-Illustration-05-1024x874—outside of the “crime scene”? In other words, does the universe have a transcendent cause, and if so, who or what makes the list of likely suspects? The use of homicide case summaries as analogies for examining the scientific evidence related to cosmic and biological origins and helpful, appealing illustrations on nearly every page make this book as enjoyable as it is informative.

Wallace’s book is well researched; it presents the arguments in a comprehensible fashion and includes counter-arguments and relevant scientific and historical context for the supporting evidence. For example, in the opening chapter, he outlines the observational evidence for an ultimate beginning of the universe, including not only the better-known research of Edwin Hubble, but also the related work done by physicists and astronomers such as Vesto Slipher, Georges Lemaitre, Arno Penzias, and Robert Wilson. Readers without a science background need not be intimidated. The crime scene investigation parallels Wallace constructs greatly aid the reader in understanding the significance of the scientific evidence for the over-arching argument. 

There are several other features of the book that are both fascinating and useful. For instance, there are “Expert Witness” sidebar profiles scattered throughout. These are short bio sketches of leading scholars in the different fields being explored, including some of their scholarly achievements, key arguments, and notable publications. Among others, Robert Pennock, Paul Churchland, Leonard Susskind, Paul Davies, and Roderick Chisholm are profiled (but I must say that I especially loved seeing Dr. Mark Linville included, since he’s my dissertation director). :-)  In addition, there are other sidebar boxes, such as  “A Tool for the Call-Out Bag,” which describe crime scene investigator techniques and how they are analogous to what scientific investigators do, and “Our  Emerging ‘Suspect’ Profile” boxes that sum up the accumulated evidence and preliminary conclusions as the chapters progress.

If you don’t already own a copy of God’s Crime Scene, I highly recommend it as an engaging and  worthwhile addition to your personal apologetics library. It would make a wonderful gift this Christmas season, particularly for college students, parents of teens, church leaders, and anyone in lay ministry who deals with questions pertaining to science and faith.

Check out the book trailer—->

God’s Crime Scene by J. Warner Wallace from J. Warner Wallace on Vimeo.

 

Mankind: The Artist, the Revolution

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton argues that man, as a species, is different in kind,  not just degree, from all other living creatures. Man’s origin, he says, is one of the grand mysteries of the cosmos, along with the birth of the universe itself and the emergence of the first life. Mankind, endowed with rationality and free will, exploded onto the scene and “a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable…not merely an evolution, but rather a revolution.”

Chesterton rejects the “gray gradations of twilight” suggested by materialist accounts of evolutionary gradualism in favor of a human nature that was mature at first appearance. It is important to be clear on what he was and was not claiming here. He is unconcerned with the question of whether or not any sort of evolutionary process produced the biology of Homo sapiens; he is defining human nature as the entire package, which includes our rationality and awareness of transcendentals, such as objective morality and the inherent value of human beings. 

cave art 1Chesterton points to the character of famous ancient cave art in order to support his assertion. Instead of the crude, simplistic scratchings of the so-called “caveman,” the paintings and sketches were “drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.” Contrary to the materialist narrative that conceives of human beings as a product of gradualism in every respect (physical bodies and mental capacities) this artwork tells the story of a mind very much like contemporary man’s. “So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past,” says Chesterton, “that human character is quite human and even humane. It is certainly not the ideal of an inhuman character, like the abstraction invoked in popular science.” He concludes that the common caricature of ancient man, the brutish, uncivilized caveman, is unsubstantiated legend, and that the earliest available evidence of artwork points to a distinctively human nature. 

Chesterton’s point goes beyond the fact that artistic activity can only be carried out by creatures with rationally-informed will; the inherent desire to create art for its own sake—the “impulse of art” as he calls it—further highlights the distinctiveness of man. Unlike any other creature of the animal kingdom, man is a creator, not only for utilitarian purposes, but for the simple joy of celebrating the wider creation through artistry. Chesterton is convinced that, as part of a wide gulf of separation, “art is the signature of man.” With his trademark wit-laced wisdom he argues that:

The very fact that a bird can get as far as building a nest, and cannot get any farther, proves that he has not a mind as man has a mind…But when he builds as he does build and is satisfied and sings aloud with satisfaction, then we know there is really an invisible veil like a pane of glass between him and us, like the window on which a bird will beat in vain. But suppose our abstract onlooker saw one of the birds begin to build as men build. Suppose in an incredibly short space of time there were seven styles of architecture for one style of nest….Suppose the bird made little clay statues of birds celebrated in letters or politics and stuck them up in front of the nest…we can be quite certain that the onlooker would not regard such a bird as a mere evolutionary variety of the other birds…

As with the appearance of human nature, such a bird would be a true revolution, not just a slightly more advanced bird. Chesterton is not merely arguing that the lower animals don’t do what humans do, so humans must be special. He’s also suggesting that if the bird scenario occurred, we would think something dramatic had happened that had suddenly produced a very different kind of creature. This is the situation with man and any of his alleged precursors. 

The anthropological evidence that has arisen since Chesterton’s time further supports his argument about human distinctiveness and the sudden appearance of human nature. Prominent evolutionary anthropologist Ian Tattersall is convinced that no human ancestor “produced anything, anywhere, that we can be sure was a symbolic object” and “even allowing for the poor record we have of our close extinct kin, Homo sapiens appears as distinctive and unprecedented…there is certainly no evidence that we gradually became who we inherently are over an extended period, in either the physical or the intellectual sense.” The materialist explanation involves a sudden, dramatic genetic event that produced what some evolutionists have termed “the dawn of human culture,” an event which included the rapid emergence of language and symbolic activities such as art. Tattersall admits that how this “almost unimaginable transition” from hominid to human beings with symbolic capacities is a matter of pure speculation. Darwin claimed that man gained such cognitive aptitudes through a process of sexual selection followed by social and cultural evolution; but Tattersall points out that this “explains neither why the highly social apes haven’t developed a more complex theory of mind over the time during which they have been evolving in parallel with us,  nor why the archaeological record seems to indicate a very late and essentially unheralded arrival of symbolic consciousness in just one lineage of large-brained hominid.” (See Tattersall’s book, Masters of the Planet, pp. 142, 207, 213, 214.)

It seems that the materialist has only speculation to prop up a presupposition–that man is nothing more than a highly evolved animal. However, the Christian humanist can more fully account for the remarkable revolution that is mankind by way of the doctrine of the imago Dei, and this is precisely Chesterton’s point. Man alone, as the crown of creation, bears the image of the good Creator and thus has within himself unique capacities, including the ability to create beautiful, meaningful things for their own sake.