Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Hero as Priest

Man as Deity and Deity as hero were in the past. So was prophet, as in modern times men speak for themselves, not for God. So said Thomas Carlyle in lectures in the series On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Originally given in 1840, these were published in 1841, and were popular in their day. Among Carlyle’s many works, this book is as popular as any.

The hero as poet, it seems, survives into modernity, though I think Carlyle believed that all the good poets were in the past. Now he turns to the hero as priest. The priest, he says,
is a kind of Prophet; in him too there is required to be a light of inspiration, as we must name it. He presides over the worship of the people; is the Uniter of them with the Unseen Holy. He is the spiritual Captain of the people; as the Prophet is their spiritual King with many captains: he guides them heavenward, by wise guidance through this Earth and its work. The ideal of him is, that he too be what we can call a voice from the unseen Heaven; interpreting, even as the Prophet did, and in a more familiar manner unfolding the same to men.

So if I understand Carlyle correctly, he believes the priest functions almost as an under-prophet. The offices are much the same, with the prophet having a wider reach.

Many have presided “over the worship of the people” functioning as “a voice from the unseen Heaven.” Tens of thousands, nay probably millions, have done that even just considering those sanctioned by some higher-up authority to do so, discounting the many who, without having recognized credentials, have been intermediaries between God and man. What makes one priest a hero and another not? Carlyle settled on Martin Luther and John Knox as samples of the hero as priest. Why them? He tells us, in clearer language than he often does.
Yet it will suit us better here to consider them chiefly in their historical character, rather as Reformers than Priests. There have been other Priests perhaps equally notable, in calmer times, for doing faithfully the office of a Leader of Worship; bringing down, by faithful heroism in that kind, a light from Heaven into the daily life of their people; leading them forward, as under God's guidance, in the way wherein they were to go. But when this same way was a rough one, of battle, confusion and danger, the spiritual Captain, who led through that, becomes, especially to us who live under the fruit of his leading, more notable than any other. He is the warfaring and battling Priest; who led his people, not to quiet faithful labor as in smooth times, but to faithful valorous conflict, in times all violent, dismembered: a more perilous service, and a more memorable one, be it higher or not. These two men we will account our best Priests, inasmuch as they were our best Reformers.

So, the priest who serves in quiet times, who does nothing more than raise his congregation to new spiritual heights, who helps them to do good and avoid evil, is no hero to Carlyle. To be a hero you have to have served in tumultuous times and been the equivalent of a warrior priest. Luther certainly fits the bill. As the one who finally found a way to break the grip on the people of a corrupt Roman Catholic Church, he is generally considered the founder of the Reformation. Others had come before him: Wycliffe, Hus, even perhaps the Waldensians, are part of the Reformation equation.

But clearly Luther paid a huge price, as did Knox. Not that Hus didn’t: he was executed. Wycliffe was also persecuted, though I can’t remember his outcome. But those two didn’t have success to the extent that Luther and Knox did. Remember, for Carlyle to call someone a hero, they must first have accomplished some great thing, then they must be sincere in how they approach life and their accomplishments. Luther and Knox, about whom I know significantly less, fulfilled these criteria.

This was a good chapter, derived from what must have been a good lecture. I don’t want to get into this too much. My brain is trending toward mush right now, and I have many hours left in the day before I sleep. Possibly I’ll get back to this chapter and add another post. But if not, know that it’s well worth reading.


Gary said...

One element of Luther's character was his desire to teach the truth about God, exemplified by his writing of of the large and small catechisms (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther%27s_Large_Catechism), and to construct a path from ignorance to understanding.

David A. Todd said...

Good info, Gary. Thanks for commenting.