POINT OF VIEW: by B.A. SantamariaNews Weekly
, April 2, 1986
The American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once wrote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless, and yet be determined to make them otherwise."
Whether or not the average Christian believer possesses a "first-rate intelligence", the ability to hold two opposed ideas simultaneously in his mind is what is demanded of him during Holy Week, which began with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter.
In the Crucifixion on Good Friday, the imperial power of Rome seemed to have quashed forever Christ's apparent pretensions to Divinity. On Easter Sunday, for those who accept the historical reality of the New Testament narrative, the Resurrection of Christ from the dead provided proof of that Divinity. Those two totally opposed ideas, held in balance, have been the kernel of Christianity ever since.
And so, to Scott Fitzgerald's second sentence - "One should be able to see that things are hopeless, and yet be determined to make them otherwise." That requires courage of such dimensions as to constitute the central moral challenge which faces the believing Christian today.
To one who compares the bright promise of Christendom a thousand years ago - when its inspiration led a whole people to build the great cathedrals and monasteries and indeed the entire civilisation of Europe - with the Marxist-cum-nihilist triumph of our own age, courage does not come easily.
In these situations, which recur periodically throughout history, it is worth remembering that Christianity was not offered the way of human success, or the way of mass acceptance, even though for centuries it has been a religion of the masses. Christianity was not established in the imperial capital of the Roman Empire with a highly-capitalised corporate structure, administered by a well-heeled bureaucracy. It was based on a small and seemingly powerless group, in one of the most remote provinces of the Empire.
Approximately seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the great Hebrew prophets, writing in the work attributed to Isaiah, prefigured not only the hard existence of Him whom Christians believe to be the Messiah, but anticipated the experience of the 20th century Christian.
Albert Jay Nock recounted the central lesson of Isaiah's life in these words, which I acknowledge as his rather than mine.
End of prosperity
Isaiah's career began at the end of the reign of King Uzziah which was about 740 BC. It was roughly at the same time as Solon, the law-giver, ruled in Athens, and centuries before the age of Pericles and Thucydides. Uzziah's reign was uncommonly long, almost half a century in length and apparently extremely prosperous. But the prosperity suddenly petered out and there was a resounding crash. The Western world, approaching the end of the 20th century, will not find that convolution so unfamiliar.
In the year of Uzziah's death, Isaiah claimed that God commissioned him to take on the responsibility of prophecy, to go out and warn the people of the disaster which lay ahead of them. To use Nock's transcription of biblical into colloquial English, God said, "Tell them what is wrong, and why, and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don't mince words.
"Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong, and keep on giving it to them.
"I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you," God added almost inconsequently, "that it won't do any good. The official class will turn up their noses at you, and the masses won't even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life."
Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job; in face, he had asked for it; but this prospect put a new face on the situation. If that was how it was going to finish, was there any sense in starting it? To which God answered, "You don't get the point. There is a Remnant there, that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganised, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up, because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society, and meanwhile your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant. So be off now and set about it."
So Isaiah set about first to discover, and then to work with and through the Remnant.
The experience of Isaiah with the Remnant showed him that three things made working with them worthwhile. First, the nucleus might be tiny but it existed. Second, if against the weight of public opinion, he kept on, the few who composed it would ultimately find him. And finally, as that other Hebrew prophet, Elijah, was to discover, its members turn out to be far more numerous than anybody realises, many of them only waiting for a fairer wind to blow before they disclose themselves.
The Remnant is always there and the future depends largely on the courage of its members. Charles Peguy's "Freedom is a system based on courage" can only refer to the Remnant. It is the existence of the Remnant which justifies Scott Fitzgerald's paradox "the ability ... to see that things are hopeless, and yet the determination to make them otherwise."
- B.A. Santamaria (1915-1998) was founder and national president of the National Civic Council.