One of the more useful aspects of Anthony Esolen’s Ironies of Faith (see my review here) is that his exploration of Christian literature highlights the disparity between their worldview and our own.

At points, it becomes clear that Esolen has no sympathy for many of the modern intellectual bastions. Consider, for example, his analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost and its implications for modern feminism.

In his sympathetic defense of Milton’s depiction of Adam and Eve in the garden, Esolen contends that the hierarchical nature of male/female relations—“Hee for God only, she for God in him”—is a paradoxical relationship that entails the raising of women to the same status as men:

So if Adam is to rule like the Father, he must exalt Eve and give her authority next to, sharing in, and proceeding from his own. He must rule by love. Modern man, reversing Paul’s hymn to love, too often believes in nothing, hopes in nothing, and endures nothing, seeing in all love the machinations of power. But Christianity sees in true power the heart of love; for love, not power, is the defining ultimate for God: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

It is this paradox—that strength is displayed in weakness—that the modern world fails to understand (“out of the mouths of infants, though has declared praise”). It is in the weakness of flesh that God appeared—and it is this “weakness of flesh” that male/female relationships hang upon. Adam and Eve, after all, have an erotic relationship.

Yet in Milton’s account of the fall, it is precisely this dignified status of corporeality that Satan undermines. As Esolen points out,

Satan will tempt Eve not only to ‘usurp authority over the man’ (1 Tim. 2:12), but to scorn all creatures beneath her and, subtly, to scorn the physical basis of her union with Adam. For though Satan can see, as from the outside, the beauty of bodily things in Eden, he cannot feel it within him. He is like Lewis’s Weston in Perelandra, who idles his hours pulling apart the limbs of small animas because for the moment he has nothing better to do….Satan hates the animals, the plants, the rivers, the very dust he will be compelled to lick. He hates food; he hates sex.

In other words, Satan is too pure for corporeality. His pursuit of raw power—power, that is, not expressed in and through weakness—necessitates a rejection of the corporeal. And it is precisely this error, according to Esolen, that modern feminism commits:

I have long believed there is something antiseptic and sterilizing about feminism. The modern feminist critic, preoccupied with raw power, misses Satan’s contempt for the corporeal. So Satan describes what life was like, as a serpent, before he ate the apple. His thoughts, he says, were low (if we write “humble” here, we catch his prideful fastidiousness immediately), fixed upon food and sex. The first question Eve should ask is, “What is wrong with thoughts of food and sex?” What else should you be thinking about, if you are a serpent? For a snake, for any animal, those thoughts are what God has willed: they are innocent and blessed. How else should the animals be fruitful and multiply?

Esolen’s thoughts on this matter are clearly challenging. But as his reading of Milton shows, we are a long ways from his Renaissance worldview. Whether we have gone forward or backward in the subsequent years is probably an open question for most of us, but for Esolen the answer seems positively obvious.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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