Happy Birthday, Erasmus! You’re 550!
10/28/2016 § 2 Comments
I could say with Roland Bainton:
I have long been drawn to Erasmus on a number of counts. I share his aversion to contention, his abhorrence of war, his wistful skepticism with respect to that which transcends the verifiable; at the same time I am warmed by the glow of his piety… I relish his whimsicality and satire. I endorse his conviction that language is still the best medium for the transmission of thought, language not merely read but heard with cadence and rhythm as well as clarity and precision.
Like generations of schoolboys, I first met Erasmus in Latin class (reading “The Shipwreck”), where I was delighted with a living Latin, as conversation and repartee. Who was this guy? I soon found that he was more than a schoolmaster — as I was coming to terms with the draft, he was the first person to speak to me in spiritual terms about war, and helped me see that war among other things is a symptom, and part of a larger system of interests, motives, and values. It sharpened my ear for the 20th century voices that were telling the same story about my times, my world.
It took a few years more for me to hear what Erasmus had to say to me about the gospel. By then I’d found Friends, and was reading Fox and Woolman and other guides to that path. The battles that Erasmus fought for freedom of conscience, and (beneath all his passionate erudition) a “philosophy of Christ” that transcended party and forms, in a time of sectarian conflict, helped me think about ecumenism (Quaker and beyond). I was moved and inspired by his committed if sometimes petulant moderation, and his willingness not to know, not to rush to certainty. I came to treasure and learn from his trust in the divine wisdom, and in the knowledge that those who in some measure incarnate that living Wisdom will surely appear foolish and weak in the eyes of most people.
All this has been put in the past tense– but I keep learning from Erasmus, and from the many others who learn from him, and are stimulated by his example and his writings to look on their own times, tasks, and lives with fresh eyes.
On the occasion of his birthday, I re-read the “Paraclesis,” the introduction to his epochal edition of the Greek New Testament. Here is a snippet that I love, in which he invites the reader to learn the “philosophy of Christ” (I slightly modify John Olin’s translation). There is much Erasmus in this!
The journey is simple, and it is accessible for anyone….Only be teachable, and you have advanced far in this philosophy. It itself supplies inspiration, as a teacher which communicates itself to no one more gladly than to minds that are without guile. This doctrine in an equal degree accommodates itself to all, lowers itself to the little ones, adjusts itself to their measure, nourishing them with milk, bearing, fostering, sustaining them, doing everything until we grow in Christ. Again, not only does it serve the lowliest, but it is also an object of wonder to those at the top. The sun itself is not as common and accessible to all as is Christ’s teaching.