Going to Church with Henry Adams

Going to Church with Henry Adams October 13, 2014


“Everyone’s on a walk to Chartres,” New York Times columnist David Brooks observed in a recent lecture. “On a walk toward something transcendent, even if they don’t know what it is”—that is, people remote from religion undergo joys and griefs in life that may pull toward church, whose gravity and beauty can make pilgrims of scoffers.

The pilgrim to trail is Henry Adams, who made the trip a little over a century ago, and recorded it in a singular travelogue,  Mont Saint Michel and Chartres.  Born in 1838 into one of America’s foremost families, descendant of two presidents, Henry Adams never was much moved by the Boston Unitarianism of his upbringing. Events midlife unmoored him: continued reflection on Darwin’s theories, tumult of Gilded Age politics—as much evidence as was wanted to doubt that evolution moved from lower to higher forms—and especially the suicide of his wife Clover. That disquiet drew him to Roman Catholicism of the middle ages. He shuttled around France’s great medieval churches, and pondered poetry and theology, to write a book intended for his nieces but useful for us.

Impressed at its splendor, its yoking of the lofty and humble, Adams pondered what Chartres might mean: “Like all great churches, that are not mere store-houses of theology, Chartres expressed, besides whatever else it meant, an emotion, the deepest man ever felt,— the struggle of his own littleness to grasp the infinite.”

What animated him in the cathedral at Chartres, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was not so much history as feeling. The art and architecture of the church converged in a purpose, “every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed.”  While in his own time power seemed to spin out chaos, in Europe’s middle ages, as he saw it, energy was drawn into unity. Adams elsewhere idealized this contrast of symbols as “The Dynamo and the Virgin.” His travel book records appreciation of medieval craftsmen and worshipers who offered their best and thought it mattered.

Adams did not convert to Roman Catholicism. He did not embrace the extravagant Marian devotion at which he marveled. But he did seek in the church some corrective to the perplexities of his time. Ducking into the colored light of a rose window was not for him, and is not for us, just an escape from the present age. A church visit might be an encounter with God.  Even when it is apparently not that, it can be an encounter with great questions about being human, and some others’ answers to the same.  How did you–men, women, children of a hundred, five hundred years ago–find understanding?  To reckon with our own smallness and disconnection, and not be ruined; to enter into the thought world of those who made the church—Chartres and others allow for this.  As Adams’s book demonstrates, those visits can echo long in the imagination.

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  • The problem with that is that is exactly what was predicted. Sin and corruption IS the love of the world over the love of God.

  • We’re all sinners, except those who choose atheism instead, and even they simply deny the existence of sin, calling it “invented nonsense”. It is impossible to live without hurting others- everything you do affects other people.

  • I did not say you were- but Daniel Quinn is, and while Robert Heinlein is not, he’s well on his way to that pantheism that is the jumping off point for atheism (the God Within that was so much a part of his Martian books).

    Your “rational definition” is the type of narcissistic nonsense that created the current genocide in the United States. Do no harm indeed. As if 56 million dead isn’t harm.

  • Pantheism then.. same thing, inventing easy to live with God’s instead of dealing with the hard reality that man was not meant for this world.

  • Jesus taught that He was THE son of God, not A Son of God. Are you sinless as He is?

    That is the very narcissism I am talking about, the sin of Pride.

  • If you were made for this world, why does death exist?

  • It’s part of his philosophy- and the philosophy of his whole generation of murderers.

  • The problem isn’t with the Bible. The problem is with your lack of belief in the human soul.

    But thanks for your answer, now I know what kind of evil pagan you are.

  • You gave the quote. He considers human life to be as wor th less as any other species. Standard malt husband reasoning applies, when a species breeds out of controll, culling is the answer. Read his book on Adam sometime.

  • I look to the Aramaic, not the Greek
    Greek was a second language for the Apostles. If you can find one of the Syriac exiles, ask them.

  • He was at one time one of my favorite authors. Then I tried the theology he recommended, and I quickly found the error in his thinking.

  • philipjenkins

    Did you notice how the passage you quote itself inserted a word into the translation, namely the indefinite article, “a” Son of God? The KJV translators inserted “the” because the original Greek cannot be rendered word for word into English, and you have to bring out the natural and obvious meaning of the text. That’s what makes the process “translation” rather than just word for word parroting. ALL competent translators render it “the Son of God.”

    When we start relying on Alan Watts for New Testament scholarship, we’re all in trouble.

  • You just have not read enough of his works yet

  • They were all written in “common Greek” , that is to say, not classical Greek, but in the rough and sometimes grammatically incorrect Greek of the foreigner. All four Gospels show signs of writers who first learned semi tic tounegs and gramnar.

  • Once he reduces human life to no different than the life of a flea, the conclusion becomes obvious.

  • philipjenkins

    Please consult all competent translations by real translators, many of whom have real doctorates, not honorary degrees.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Watts’s stuff, it’s often clever and very witty. He just knew nothing about New Testament scholarship.

    And critically, no, “the” son of God is not because of their theology. It’s based on their knowledge of Greek.

  • I’m not a Christian, I’m a Catholic. My church was founded by The Word Made Flesh, and is the only theology with the Fullness of Truth.

  • Animism. But when you dig through his works and really delve deeply into them, it’s really just the same materialism every other American Liberal has for a religion- completely hollow and empty.

  • Go try to live the way Daniel Quinn wants you to live. Get out of the city, into the wild spaces, and live like an animal for a while, then you’ll see the truth.

  • You might not advocate primitivism, but Daniel Quinn sure does. And you are accepting a philosophy that yields only primitivism- give up speech, and stories, and everything else that separates us from the animals.

  • I am an anti-materialist, because materialism leads only to narcissistic selfishness, not to civilization. And yes, I consider Thomas Jefferson to be a dangerous modernist whose thought led only to evil.

  • How is 2000 years of *consistent* teaching bait and switch?

    I suppose it might seem so for somebody ignorant of history.

  • Says the man who didn’t know that Catholicism was a relationship.

  • Only if you stop quoting people with modern ideas.

  • Yep. They were freemasonic cultists to the very end.

  • Modernism is primative, for it rejects the spiritual in favor of the mundane and authority in favor of chaos.

  • His philosophy is free masonic, regardless of his membership.

  • There are no pagan origins to Catholicism, and the Christ myth is an invention of Post so called enlightenment thinkers who got the world all wrong.

  • Yes. But perhaps I understand something you do not. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme.

  • I have read The Republic, and while some elements are the same, two authors writing about Truth need not be copying one another.

  • I am sure it is a muddle to a small miND that fails to realize that the peak of human civalization passed over a thousand years ago.

  • Mainly because it was. The dark ages were not dark to those who aren’t seeped in 19th century American Revivalist propaganda.

  • Except, that’s not what happened.

  • What evidence? What a few people translating Plato notices as “similarities” between the cult of Mithras and the Christians? Except, there’s one slight problem. Mithras lived after Christ!

  • Except for none of them preached what Christ preached. Try again.

  • philipjenkins

    I hate to interrupt Mr. Kane in mid-rant, or to introduce a dose of reality into the proceedings, but curiosity forces me to ask: where does he get the intriguing factoid that “People were even calling themselves “Christians” 200BCE”?

  • Except Catholicism does not wor ship a solar diety nor is it a mystery religion. All of the knowledge is perfectly available to those who want to learn as opposed to those who have closed minds. Try again.

  • Christmas has never actually been on the winter solstice, in either the Julian or Gregorian Calendars, so there’s another fail for you.
    Likewise, the Christian Easter has never been on the vernal equinox.
    Want to try again? So far, you’re just repeating the lies of a 19th century revivalist who was kicked in the head by a horse.

  • philipjenkins

    Aha, I see. We have a choice. We accept this drivel from youtube, or the collective wisdom of a couple of centuries of scholars and historians, Christian, Jewish, agnostic, and other. Hmm, now let me decide. ….

  • You failed to take into account the lams in the field, indicating springtime, but nice to know where you are coming from- a Seventh Day Adventist background. All of that is madequate up 19th century propaganda that did not even exist in Roman times.

  • philipjenkins

    By the by, this is why the “argument from authority” issue is not a logical fallacy. If you say, for instance, that the moon is made of green cheese, I do not intend to begin a research program to test that fact, culminating in a moon landing in 2030. I say, rather, that the composition of the moon has been studied for many years, there is a vast scholarly literature on the subject, and at no point has anyone come up with the slightest evidence to support the Lactic theory, which is self evidently ludicrous. If you wish to advance it, the burden is on you to advance extraordinary evidence to support an extraordinary claim. The “Serapis/Christ” notion is of the same outrageous quality as the Green Cheese Theory, so demands extraordinary proof (ie not just something on youtube). Was that simple enough for you?

  • I know how it is calculated, and it has nothing to do with the vernal equinox. It is entirely based on the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar, not a solar, calendar.

  • It did, but not EG White’s version, which is what you have been using whether you know it or not.