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Monday, October 30, 2006

Books! :-)

There was a recent post at the NT Gateway Weblog that mentioned Google Book Search. Here's part of what Mark wrote ...

I've been meaning to mention the great news that Google Books has made available hundreds of classic public domain books for downloading (e.g. see The Guardian, Stoa, rogueclassicism and BBC News):

Download the classics

"Starting today, you can go to Google Book Search and download full copies of out-of-copyright books to read at your own pace. You're free to choose from a diverse collection of public domain titles -- from well-known classics to obscure gems . . . ."

Now, allow me to share with you one of the glories of this new development. One of the things that I love about old books is the look of them, their character, the fonts, the quaintness, the sketchy referencing, but best of all the hand annotations made by users. I never write in books, but many people do, even in library copies, and one of the nice things about some of these new downloadable Google books is that they retain the character of the individual book that was scanned. Take Aesop's Fables, for example. The edition is "chosen and phrased by Horace E. Scudder" and just above the "E.", the librarian (I assume) has pencilled in "Elisha", a librarian who has long since departed this world since the book dates from 1885 ...

So, you have the option of checking out and downloading out of print books, but also can read "limited previews" of some newer books as well ... for instance, I found David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. As you probably know, you can do this same "look inside this book" thing with many of the books at at as well.

And here'you can see part of one of the full view book pages - one with the first stanza of a poem from John Donne ...

But as Wikipedia writes ... Through a variety of access limitations and security measures, some based on user-tracking, Google limits the number of viewable pages and attempts to prevent page printing and text copying. ... and this also means, among other things, that you can't copy the images of the book pages, unless you take screen captures.

For those interested, there are other places to go to read and sometimes download online books ... Project Gutenberg is one.

Now, here's the whole of that Donne poem, Song :-) ...

GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Grief, Rage and Prayer

Grief, Rage and Prayer is the title of a chapter in a book I'm reading by William A. Barry SJ - Paying Attention to God - Discernment in Prayer. One of the things I like best about Barry, who is a Jesuit spiritual director with a degree is psychology, is his insistence on honesty in healthy relationships. In this chapter, he discusses the "just world hypothesis" - an idea that gives us an understandable reason for why a bad thing happens (the victim deserved it) - and the damage embracing this theory can do to our relationship with Jesus/God. I saw myself in this chapter so often, that I thought I'd post some bits from it below ...


Often enough, when tragedy strikes, religious people either say to themselves, or hear said, statements such as these: "God knows best what is good for us"; "Offer up the suffering for the good of others" ....

Truth to tell, all of us have a built in bias which social psychologists have recently named the "just world hypothesis". In a just world the innocent do not suffer. Hence we tend to look for the cause of suffering in something the sufferer did ... the just world hypothesis is so pervasive that even victims tend to blame themselves.

It is small wonder that such a hypothesis holds such sway. In a world where tragedy falls randomly, I may be the next victim. Worse yet, there is no way to protect myself or those dearest to me. And finally, if the world is not just, then what kind of God created it? Indeed, if the world is not just, is there a God? Is there any meaning in life? Such thoughts can cause great anxiety. Thus, there are powerful motives for holding adamantly to the just world hypothesis ...

What is our inner reaction when we hear stories of the unjust treatment of others or even more when we are the object of what seems to us unjust treatment? Are we not filled with anger, resentment, even rage? .... And if we have ever taken seriously the opening chapter of the book of Job, then we must have felt a flaring up of resentment at the way Job is tossed to Satan by God. But of course, most of us quickly resort to "better" thoughts about God ...

I suspect that many of us are prevented from a closer relationship to God by the suppression of anger and resentment at life's sufferings or of the anxiety that rises when we begin to question the just world hypothesis ...

We know what happens in a close relationship when one party gets very angry at the other because of a real or apparent injustice but suppresses the expression of the anger because of fear of the loss of the relationship or for some other reason. Conversations between them grow more polite and bland because to touch on serious issues would require opening up the raw wound .... Because the injured party did not want to risk losing "everything", i.e., the whole relationship, the relationship may be doomed to stagnation.

This same dynamic often operates in our relationship with God, that is, in our prayer. The suppression of anger or rage at God or of anxiety about the justice and meaning of life may create a gulf between us and God in our experience. He may seem "a million miles away" just when we need him most .... Ultimately, what keeps us from being honest with our human friends as well as with God is our fear that honesty will destroy the relationship. No wonder God seems "a million miles away" ....

I have known people who cursed and swore at God, some who felt that they were handing him back their entrance ticket to the universe, as it were. It really was explosive, like a dam bursting. And yet they did not find themselves totally alienated and lost. They felt, at the least, relieved that they had finally told the truth and that God had listened. Some have felt a deep compassion embracing them in their pain as though they they had been striking in rage at a parent who not only did not strike back, but held onto them with love and care ...

Moreover, they had entered into a more intimate relationship with God. Their prayer life changes, and for the better ... They have been as transparent before God as they could be and God has not only accepted them but embraced them ...

If we understand prayer as personal relationship and follow through on the consequences of that definition, then we will find that strong emotions, even strongly negative or painful emotions, are not foreign to prayer ... we will not know how deep the mutual love and trust is between God and us until we let him see us as we are. Only then, too, will we know that death and resurrection are one experience.


I still don't understand why bad things happen or why God doesn't always seem to intervene to fix them. But it's a relief to have one person with whom I can be completely honest, even if what I reveal is deep anger. When I do so, sometimes it feels like Jesus/God goes away, but he always comes back.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Some time ago I posted something about the famous medieval pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, so when I came across this post at the Oxford University Press Blog, it caught my eye ... Greetings From A Vanished World, During a 500 Mile Trek.

The article is about Chris Lowney, the author of A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain, who is undertaking a 500 mile pilgrimage to raise money for charity. Here's a bit from the post ...

It's my pleasure to contribute my first post to the OUP blog. It marks two related events. The first is the imminent publication of my book, A Vanished World, in paperback by OUP. The book explores the triumphs and tragedies of medieval Spain's Christians, Muslims, and Jews. At the dawn of the 21st century, we three faith groups (and civilization at large) have gotten ourselves into a terrible predicament, and my book draws lessons learned from our ancestors who lived together so long ago in Spain. Together, they utterly revolutionized the west---how we count numbers, the food we eat, even cowboy culture! Sadly, their civilization finally dissolved in jihad, Crusade, and inquisition. A Vanished World tells these stories.

This post also coincides with the 500 mile walking trek I've just started along the famous medieval pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela that is profiled at length in my book. For a thousand years, Christians have trekked to Compostela, and I´m doing the same over these next 30 days. I've already climbed up the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, and down the other side.

I hope to keep reporting to OUP readers through this blog as I make the trek, and I look forward to your comments either on my book or on the trek.

Chris is blogging his pilgtimage ... read about it here and see an interactive map of his travels here.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Richard Dawkins Interview

I saw a post the other day at Catholic Sensibility about Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, and I thought I'd post bits from one of the many online interviews with him - I chose this one from because I liked the title ... The flying spaghetti monster :-). First, for those not familiar with Dawkins, here's a little of what Wikipedia has to say about him ...

Clinton Richard Dawkins (born March 26, 1941) is an eminent British ethologist, evolutionary theorist, and popular science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University .... Dawkins is an outspoken atheist, humanist, sceptic, an enthusiastic bright, and – as a commentator on science, religion and politics – is among the English-speaking world's best known public intellectuals. In a play on Thomas Huxley's epithet "Darwin's bulldog", Dawkins' impassioned defence of Darwinian evolution has earned him the appellation "Darwin's rottweiler"

I haven't read any of Dawkins' books, nor heard him speak, and this interview was my first exposure to his views. I'm still not sure how I feel about him.

On to some out-tskes from the interview ...


What is so bad about religion?

Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant. Plenty of people never get exposed to the beauties of the scientific explanation for the world and for life. And that's very sad. But it's even sadder if they are actively discouraged from understanding by a systematic attempt in the opposite direction, which is what many religions actually are. But that's only the first of my many reasons for being hostile to religion.

My sense is that you don't just think religion is dishonest. There's something evil about it as well.

Well, yes. I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die -- anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed -- that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that. Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically -- the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York -- all in the name of faith.


Now, there are an awful lot of people who call themselves religious -- or some people prefer to use the word "spiritual" -- even though they don't go to church. They aren't part of any organized religion. They don't believe in a personal God. Some don't even like the word "God" because there's so much baggage attached to that word. But they still have some powerful feeling that there is a transcendent reality. And they often engage in some spiritual practice in their own lives. Would you call these people "religious"?

That's a difficult question. I probably would call them religious. It depends on exactly what they do believe. The first chapter of "The God Delusion" talks about Einstein, who often used the word "God." Einstein clearly was an atheist in the sense that he didn't believe in any sort of personal God. He used the word "God" as a metaphoric name for that which we don't yet understand, for the deep mysteries at the foundation of the universe.

But I think most people would call Einstein a deist. He suggested that God may have created the laws of nature, the laws of physics, to get the universe started.

Some people have maintained that position. My judgment, reading what Einstein said, is that he was not a deist. He certainly believed in some sort of deep mystery, as do I. And it is possible to use the word "religious" to describe such a person. On that basis, one could even say that I am a religious person or Carl Sagan was a religious person. But for me, the divide comes with whether you believe there is some kind of a supernatural, personal being. And I think deists, as well as theists, believe that. By that criterion, I don't think Einstein was a deist. He certainly wasn't a theist, although the language he used might lead you to think he was. I think it's misleading to use a word like "God" in the way Einstein did. I'm sorry that Einstein did. I think he was asking for trouble, and he certainly was misunderstood.

Your definition of religious belief seems to involve a personal being. I think a lot of people would disagree. They may consider themselves strongly religious, but they would regard the whole idea of a personal God to be an outdated notion of what religion is.

Well, then I would want to know what they did mean by it. I would take my stand on whether the god or the being -- whatever we're talking about -- is complicated and improbable and has those attributes of a person -- intelligence, creativity, something of that sort. If you believe that the universe was created by a designing intelligence, whether you call that personal or not, that seems to me to be a good definition of God. That's what I don't believe in. And that's what Einstein did not believe in.

Once you get past the biblical literalists, I think most people assume that science and religion are actually quite compatible. Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that they were "non-overlapping magisteria": Science covers the empirical realm of facts and theories about the observable universe, and religion deals with ultimate meaning and moral value. But you're very critical of this argument, right?

Yes, I think religious belief is a scientific belief, in the sense that it makes claims about the universe which are essentially scientific claims. If you believe the universe was created and inhabited by a supreme being, that would be a very different kind of universe from the sort of universe that wasn't created and does not house a creative intelligence. That is a scientific difference. Miracles. If you believe in miracles, that is clearly a scientific claim, and scientific methods would be used to evaluate any miracle that somebody claimed evidence for.

Suppose, hypothetically, that forensic archaeologists, in an unlikely series of events, gained evidence -- perhaps from some discovered DNA -- which showed that Jesus did not really have an earthly father, that he really was born of a virgin. Can you imagine any theologian taking refuge behind Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria and saying, "Nope, DNA evidence is completely irrelevant. Wrong magisterium. Science and religion have nothing to do with each other. They just peacefully coexist." Of course they wouldn't say that. If any such evidence were discovered, the DNA evidence would be trumpeted to the skies.


I want to turn to what you would call "the real war" -- the war between supernaturalism and naturalism. A lot of religious people call you a reductionist and a materialist. They say you want to boil everything down to what can be measured and experimentally tested. "If you can't measure it, if you can't test it, it's not real."

The words "reductionist" and "materialist" are loaded. They have a negative connotation to many people. I'm a reductionist and a materialist in a much grander sense. When we try to explain the workings of something really complicated, like a human brain, we can be reductionist in the sense that we believe that the brain's behavior is to be explained by neurons and the behavior of neurons is to be explained by molecules within the neurons, etc. Similarly, computers. They're made of integrated circuits. They're nothing but a whole lot of ones and naughts shuffling about. That's reductive in the sense that it seems to leave a lot unexplained. There is nothing else in computers apart from integrated circuits and resistors and transistors. Nevertheless, it's a highly sophisticated explanation for understanding how the computer does the remarkably complicated things it does. So don't use the word "reductive" in a sort of reducing sense. And ditto with "materialist."

But this seems to discount personal experience. It discounts the mystical experiences that people talk about -- that oneness with something larger. Are some of these things just beyond the explanatory power of science?

As I've said, the brain is highly complicated. And one thing it does is construct remarkable software illusions and hallucinations. Every night of our lives, we dream and our brain concocts visions which are, at least until we wake up, highly convincing. Most of us have had experiences which are verging on hallucination. It shows the power of the brain to knock up illusions. If you're sufficiently susceptible and sufficiently indoctrinated in the folklore of a particular religion, it's not in the least surprising that people would hallucinate visions and still small voices. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it happened to me.


A lot of what we're talking about comes down to whether science has certain limits. The basic religious critique of your position is that science can only explain so much. And that's where mystery comes in. That's where consciousness comes in.

There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist's way is to see it as a challenge, something they've got to work on, we're really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There's something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label "religion" to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we're not really arguing. We're simply using a word, "God," for that which science can't explain. I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It's simple confusion to say science can't explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that's confusion. And it's pernicious confusion.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Jesus the Ill-Advised

Sometimes I visit Mere Comments, a blog for the online journal Touchstone. Both are really pretty conservative, so I don't usually bring stuff back from there to here, but just the same, what is there can sometime give me a different slant on things. The journal and blog are from The Fellowship of St. James, a non-profit org. Below is the first part of the latest blog post at Mere Comments - kind of interesting ...

Jesus the Ill-Advised

As Christians we are called upon to “speak the truth in love.” This is commonly translated to mean that if you have something unpleasant to say to someone by way of correction, you must say it nicely—gently and kindly. There is something to that interpretation, and we will never go wrong if we enlist gentleness, kindness, good humor, and the golden rule as guardians of our speech and writing.

But that, of course, is not all there is to be said on the matter. The gospels provide us examples of our Lord’s intercourse with many different kinds of people. He is presented, if we may say it, as a deeply serious man who always had everyone’s highest good—their salvation—in mind, saying and doing what was needful, no more and no less, to deliver his point. This means he usually appears to our eyes as gentle, for the souls that were open to him were most often injured, damaged by sin and sorrow, and clearly the Lord followed the physician’s maxim primus non nocere—first, do no harm. With the prostitutes, the used camel salesmen, the lay sectarians, the petty bureaucrats, the soldiers, the average folks, struggling to get by in the world, the prosperous for whom something was missing, he showed himself grave, caring, and kind.

There was a class of people, however, for whom speaking the truth in love—for we hold his speech, by definition, to be truth and love--often involved delivering some of the rawest, most vitriolic insults and condemnations that literature has ever recorded coming from someone (as Bertrand Russell pointedly observed) purported to be a good man. These were delivered exclusively to men of his own class—the religious leaders--the bishops, denominational officials, the seminary professors, the certified teachers of and writers upon religion. It is hard in our day not to regard ancient Semitic locutions like “brood of vipers,” and “whitewashed tombs” as colorful and quaint, thus missing the original force of the epithets on the hearers, for whom no more crude or insulting, not to mention unkind and unhelpful, words could be imagined.

The fundamental problem was their teaching. They were not only theological innovators, misinterpreting and misrepresenting the ancient law, but to increase their own status, power, and advantage, they had established, bureaucratized, and sacralized their innovations, ruling the people over whom God had given them charge by making him into an idol in their own service. This was true of all their parties. (That is why it is difficult to apply “liberal,” “conservative,” or “sectarian,” in the sense we normally use these terms to this group, taken as a whole, for they combined elements of each.)

It was this doctoral class of which Jesus would have been a member, and in which he would have been careful to remain collegial, had he been more concerned for his place in the world. While he recognized its office as divinely ordained, for that very reason he consistently denounced the doctrine and conduct of its incumbents in the strongest imaginable terms.

Alas, though, had he been more practical, he would have recognized that attacking the church leaders in the way he did was apt to throw faithful into confusion. He would have contented himself to raise the standard of truth, trusting they would recognize and flock to it, without the highly questionable and deeply problematic expedient of deposing, for all practical purposes, a large, powerful, and highly influential portion of the magisterium. He would have understood the importance of church unity better than he evidently did--that given the choice between heresy and misconduct on one hand and schism on the other, the former was preferable. He wouldn’t have been so apparently enamored of the notion that one should do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may ...
- read the rest of the post here

- cover art from The Fellowship of St. James website

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kevin Vanhoozer

Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Ph.D. Cambridge), considered one of the leading younger evangelical scholars, is a Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, U.S.A., where he has been since 1998. Prior to his arrival at Trinity, Dr. Vanhoozer taught at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland for several years.

Dr. Vanhoozer has also written several works, most recently The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, which won the Christianity Today 2006 Book Award for best book in theology, and has edited several others, including the "Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible" and "The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology".

- Wikipedia

Just looking up online Vanhoozer stuff, came across this exchange at Reformation 21 and thought any fans of his might be interested. I've just posted the beginnings of each article ...

1) Helm's Deeo by Paul Helm ...

In recent times Charles Hodge has come in for a drubbing in connection with his remarks on the nature of what he calls theological science, as these are set out in the first seventeen pages of his Systematic Theology. (See, for example, Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy set the Theological Agenda, (Valley Forge,Pa. Trinity Press International, 1996) p.42-3); Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era , (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2000 pp.71-3) ; John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: A Postconservative Evangelical Approach. (Baker, 2005, pp. 88-9).

- Charles Hodge

Hodge's advocacy of an 'inductive' method in theology is said to embody all the wrong things. He is accused of being a 'foundationalist', 'positivistic', ‘empiricist’ and ‘individualistic’. These traits are said to reveal him as expressing the mentality of the Enlightenment, 'the assumption of modernity', in his pursuit of objectivity, a mentality perhaps fostered by the influence upon him of one of the most notable figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Thomas Reid, and perhaps by the dreaded ‘Reformed Scholasticism’. By implication, in our postmodern era Hodge's theological method is to be avoided like the plague. Another nail in the coffin of Princeton theology.

The latest of such accusations is in a piece by Professor Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 'On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World' (in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology ed. A.T.B. McGowan (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2006). This is part of a book in which various contemporary theologians of broadly Reformed sympathies sketch out their agendas for reformingtheology (by Scripture, one presumes). When the usual charges are leveled against Hodge, but this time from a highly-regarded theologian in the Reformed family then it's high time to set the record straight ...

2) Vanhoozer Responds to Helm by Vanhoozer ...

I’ve been reading just about everything Paul Helm writes with great enthusiasm since I first encountered his The Varieties of Belief (1973) during my days as an undergraduate. Moreover, I almost always find myself agreeing with him, even when he champions positions that are no longer popular (e.g., divine eternity, divine impassibility). So my first inclination after reading his deconstruction of my “distorted and partial account” of Charles Hodge’s theological method was to fall upon my pen and never write another unjust word.

Authors are entitled to have their views fairly presented - no argument there (along these lines, I have some thoughts about the recent review of my Drama of Doctrine in Reformation21, but that’s another story). I have spent no little part of my professional life arguing just this point in the lion’s den of postmodern hermeneutics. I further believe that it is part of our Christian witness as scholars to display the intellectual virtues - not only justice, but humility and charity as well - in all our scholarly work. I work hard - though apparently not hard enough! - to do justice to each person’s position, Christian or non-Christian, out of a conviction that we need to go the second academic mile to get it right, especially when we ultimately disagree with “it.” ...

3) Helm Responds to Vanhoozer by Paul Helm ...

I thank Kevin for his kind personal references, and for his lengthy response to my piece. But it doesn’t get to the point, does it?

Of course Kevin is not to be tarred with the brushes of Franke, Grenz and Murphy. Each has his or her own theological picture to paint. Nevertheless they and Kevin , and also David Clark and John Frame, perhaps - I haven’t read them - are all members of the class of ‘Hodge-distorters’, and on the matter of Hodge’s theological method they paint very similar pictures. What may motivate someone to read Hodge in such a distorted way doesn’t come into it. What is relevant is that the industry of Hodge-distortion has the tendency to encourage Christian pastors, preachers and theologians to add their copies of Hodge’s Systematic Theology to the pile of items ready for the yard sale. A bad thing, in my view ...

Brother Astronomer

A book I've been reading lately is Brother Astronomer - Adventures of a Vatican Scientist

The book is written by a Jesuit brother, Guy Consolmagno, who works as an astronomer for the Vatican Observatory.. He spends about half his time at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence outside Rome, where he studies the meteorite collection of which he's the curator. The rest of the time he works at the Vatican's detached facility, an observatory on Graham Mountain in Arizona, in connection with the state University.

- Br. Guy

In the book, he describes his education (degrees from MIT and U of Arizona), his stint in the Peace Corps (in Africa), his call to become a Jesuit, and his work at the observatory. One of the parts I was looking forward to reading about - I had already read of it in Wikipedia - was his trip with ANSMET to Antarctica on a meteorite hunt ...

... there's something so wonderfully mysterious about Antarctica ... Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness ... John Carpenter's The Thing ... the Atlantis base in Stargate SG-1 ... but I digress ...

Here below is a little bit from Br. Guy's arrival in Antarctica ...

In front of us, my inexperienced eyes could only see a blank, featureless, white plain stretching out without relief to an infinite horizon under a piercing blue sky. The emptyness was stunning. In this hollow land, the wind blew through my parka, and through my soul ...

Six hours. Then we came over a crest and saw ... It looked like the deepest, bluest lake I had ever seen in my life. The white snow ran down to the shore like a carol beach, with the blue so deep and bright it hurt our eyes as it stretched out beyond us, rippled and carved like waves frozen in time. We had arrived. It was beautiful ...

- Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic Mountains

The book is worth a read ... Brother Astronomer confirms the idea that science and religion need not be atagonists but can actually compliment each other, and Br. Guy makes concrete the Jesuit maxim of finding God in all things.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Hart and Crossan on the Soul

About a month ago I sent away for two books by David Bentley Hart, and still they haven't arrived. So, scavenging online, I found an article by him that I hadn't yet read - The Soul of a Controversy from the Wall Street Journal (2005).

The subject of the article is the death of Terri Schiavo, but Hart writes not of euthanasia but the soul. Here's some of what he has to say ...


Terri Schiavo has now died, but of course the controversy surrounding her last days will persist indefinitely .... I heard three people on the radio last week speculating on the whereabouts of her "soul."

One opined that where consciousness has sunk below a certain minimally responsive level, the soul has already departed the body; the other two thought that the soul remains, but as a dormant prisoner of the ruined flesh, awaiting release. Their arguments, being intuitive, were of little interest. What caught my attention was the unreflective dualism to which all three clearly subscribed: The soul, they assumed, is a kind of magical essence haunting the body, a ghost in a machine.

This is in fact a peculiarly modern view of the matter, not much older than the 17th-century philosophy of Descartes. While it is now the model to which most of us habitually revert when talking about the soul--whether we believe in such things or not--it has scant basis in either Christian or Jewish tradition.

The "living soul" of Scripture is the whole corporeal and spiritual totality of a person whom the breath of God has wakened to life. Thomas Aquinas, interpreting centuries of Christian and pagan metaphysics, defined the immortal soul as the "form of the body," the vital power animating, pervading, shaping an individual from the moment of conception, drawing all the energies of life into a unity.

This is not to deny that, for Christian tradition, the soul transcends and survives the earthly life of the body. It is only to say that the soul, rather than being a kind of "guest" within the self, is instead the underlying mystery of a life in its fullness ....

Granted, it is easiest to sense this mystery when gazing at the Sistine Chapel's ceiling or listening to Bach. But it should be evident--for Christians at least--even when everything glorious and prodigious in our nature has been stripped away and all that remains is frailty, brokenness and dependency, or when a person we love has been largely lost to us in the labyrinth of a damaged brain. Even among such ravages--for those with the eyes to see it--a terrible dignity still shines out.

I do not understand exactly why those who wanted Terri Schiavo to die had become so resolute in their purposes by the end .... Of this I am certain, though: Christians who understand their faith are obliged to believe that she was, to the last, a living soul. It is true that, in some real sense, it was her soul that those who loved her could no longer reach, but it was also her soul that they touched with their hands and spoke to and grieved over and adored ....


Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is not alone in this idea of the soul - even Jesus Seminar fellow JD Crossan agrees ...

... one of the most fundamental decisions we have to make, going back to dear old Plato, is whether the human being is a dialectic, in the same sense as before, of body and spirit, or if somehow that spirit or soul is only temporarily, possibly even unfortunately, joined to what is either a flea bag hotel or a magnificent palace called the body. But in either case the soul is only temporarily embodied until it goes home to its true spiritual abode. I think that this is the most radical question in Western philosophy. Whichever way you come down on this question, everything else will follow. If you think that human beings are actually incarcerated, entombed spirits, that we're simply renting bodies out, then everything else will follow. But if you think along with the Bible that somehow or other the body/soul amalgam is a dialectic, that you can distinguish but not separate them, then everything else will follow differently ...
- link

An interesting page on the soul from the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science lies here

Monday, October 23, 2006


- The Lord's Epiphany, Kaftoun, Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon.13th Century A.D.

- The Archangel Michael, 12th century, St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt's Sinai.

- Peter and Paul - Mount Athos
This icon is from the Monastery on Mount Athos of Karakallou. The icon depicts Sts. Peter and Paul a loving embrace. The two weren't always in agreement with one another, and they often argued about many things, but they never lost the love that they had for each other as brothers in Christ. And they never lost the zeal that kept them preaching the Gospel of Christ to all nations. For this reason, the Orthodox Church celebrates their memories on June 29th. This particular icon is over 1000 years old. It was once thrown into a fire by iconoclasts (people who hate icons). Much to their dismay, it never burned!

Sunday, October 22, 2006


It's getting close to Halloween, so it's not a surprise that a number of horror films are to be found on late night tv. Tonight I saw one that was made from a novel I'd once read ... The Wolfen.

The novel is by Whitley Strieber, who has written some interesting books, including The Hunger, a vampire story, which was made into a movie starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. Strieber is a Roman Catholic and was a fan of the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff and Peter Uspensky, but he's probably more notoriously known for being a self-confessed alien abductee ... his book Communion and the movie made from it (starring Christopher Walken) tell the tale.

But back to the Wolfen movie - made in 1981, it has some really decent actors - ... Albert Finney (Tom Jones, The Dresser, Under the Volcano, Miller's Crossing) .... Broeadway actor and dancer Gregory Hines ... Edward James Olmos (Blade Runner, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Mi Familia, Battlestar Galactica). Below is Roger Ebert's review of the movie ...

An intriguing film named WOLFEN, which is not about werewolves but is about the possibility that Indians and wolves can exchange souls, has crept stealthily into several Chicago theaters ...

The story begins with the mysterious killing of a politician, his wife, and their chauffeur. There are lots of suspects and lots of motives, but the clues are puzzling: the bodies were slashed to ribbons, but apparently not with blades of any known metal. Could the wounds have been caused by teeth?

Albert Finney, a cop with assorted psychological problems, is put on the case, teamed up with another officer (Diane Venora). They begin to gather a fact here, a hunch there. Could wolves have done this damage? Scientists discover wolf hairs on several of the dead bodies that begin to turn up. But wolves are supposed to be extinct in the East, and certainly within New York City.

The movie intercuts the police investigation with imaginative scenes shot from the wolves' point of view. These are fast-moving tracking shots; the camera swoops down streets at the eye-level of a wolf, pausing, taking cover, following one track and then another. Wadleigh suggests a wolf's senses with special optical effects in which objects with a scent also seem to shimmer.

The movie's narrative style is brooding. Finney comes into contact with an assortment of eccentric people (scientists, cops, morgue attendants, pathologists), and the trail eventually leads to a group of American Indians employed as high-steel workers. There is a breathtaking confrontation to top of a bridge. What do the Indians know about wolves? Is it possible that they practice ancient rituals to turn into wolves? Or do they just share spiritual communion with them?

WOLFEN develops a strong, angry theme about ecological and human waste. We learn that the wolves make their headquarters in a ruined section of the South Bronx that resembles a bombed-out wasteland. Their original victim, the politician, had just visited there for a groundbreaking ceremony, vowing to "renew" the area. In killing him, the wolves are merely exercising their territorial imperative.

What is perhaps most interesting about WOLFEN is that the story remains plausible - given its basic assumptions, of course. This is not sci-fi, fantasy or violent escapism. It's a provoking speculation on the terms by which we share this earth with other creatures.
This seriousness reportedly did not impress the releasing studio, United Artists, which would have preferred a sleazy exploitation picture (and is releasing WOLFEN as if it were one). That's a shame. Love, thought, care and craftsmanship have gone into this film, which is now, so to speak, being thrown to the wolves.

I did like the movie, and a thought occurred as I watched it ... wolves, both in the movie and in real life, tend to target as prey those who are marginalized, the ill, disabled, elderly. So do we humans, but we're a lot less honest about it.

- Gregory Hines

I've Got Rocks In My Head

I spent my day reading about meteorites ... part of it was a walk down memory lane, most was new territory, but all of it was interesting :-)

A few years ago, I read a novel, The Ice Limit by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. It tells the tale of a group of people who sail to the Cape Horn islands south of Tierra del Fuego, to find and excavate and bring back to New York the heaviest known meteorite (5 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower). The plot and characters were only so so, but I learned a bit about meteor hunters.

- Tierra del Fuago

Remember the movie Contact? The 1997 science fiction film starred Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerrit, and was directed by Robert Zemeckis. It's one of my favorites and tells of a scientist working on the SETI program who intercepts a message from outer space. One of the interesting things about the movie is that it uses a real-life clip of President Clinton ... in the movie, he seems to be discussing the alien message, but the clip is actually from a statement he made in 1996 regarding Mars meteorite ALH84001.

- radio telescope at Arecibo, as seen in the movie

As it turns out, Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, wrote a book probably based on that same meteorite - Deception Point (2001). What makes this meteorite so special? At the time, it was believed that it contained fossils of bacteria-like life forms from Mars ... extra-terrestrial life! It's thought by most now that the fossils were actually earthly contaminants.

- fossils found on ALH84001

One of the places I'd most like to visit if I ever go to New York, is the Natural History Museum. They have quite a meteorite collection, including pieces of the largest meteorite ever found ... Cape York. It fell to earth nearly 10,000 years ago, landing in Greenland, and is over 4 billion years old. An Inuit tribe used the meteorite as a source of metal (and some say as a sacred object) but it was eventually hunted down in 1894 by Arctic explorer Robert Peary, who removed it from Greenland, selling it to the museum for $40,000. The neteorite is in several pieces, and one of the smaller ones is named "Thule" ...

... which makes me think of the book The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna (see review in The Guardian) and an anonymous poem from the 1500s (says Wikipedia) ...

Thule, the period of cosmography,
Doth vaunt of Hecla, whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Etna's flames ascend not higher.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.
The Andalusian merchant, that returns
Laden with cochineal and China dishes,
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

- the fantastical island of Thule

Friday, October 20, 2006

Kenyon's Husband

A couple of poems by Donald Hall ...

White Apples

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in bed

and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes

Distressed Haiku

In a week or ten days
the snow and ice
will melt from Cemetery Road.

I'm coming! Don't move!

Once again it is April.
Today is the day
we would have been married
twenty-six years.

I finished with April
halfway through March.

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

Will Hall ever write
lines that do anything
but whine and complain?

In April the blue
mountain revises
from white to green.

The Boston Red Sox win
a hundred straight games.
The mouse rips
the throat of the lion

and the dead return.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Literature and Theology

A journal I'm always promising myself I'll read over but never seem to get to is Literature and Theology from the Oxford University Press. Next best thing .....

One of the blogs I visit - Faith and Theology - had a list today, and a list from a past post, of novels worth reading for those interested in theology (or not :-). I've read most of the books on the first list, but I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any on today's list (see below) which were all published in or after 2000. Here are links to the books, and also to the writers, some of whom are pretty interesting ...

1. Kazuo Ishiguro ...... When We Were Orphans (2000)
2. Salley Vickers ...... Miss Garnet's Angel (2000)
3. Ian McEwan ...... Atonement (2001)
4. Yann Martel ...... Life of Pi (2002)
5. Douglas Coupland ...... Hey Nostradamus! (2003)
6. Khaled Hosseini ...... The Kite Runner (2003)
7. Valerie Martin ...... Property (2003)
8. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ...... Purple Hibiscus (2004)
9. Orhan Pamuk ...... Snow (2004)
10. Marilynne Robinson ...... Gilead (2004)

Monday, October 16, 2006

What Happened to the Jesuits?

In looking over the other entries in the poster contest, I came across one that shows a painting of a black-robed early Jesuit missionary, and the words ... The Jesuit Order - what the heck happened? :-)

One of the things that "happened" to the Jesuit Order was Pedro Arrupe and the idea of "faith that does justice", which brought about the Jesuit Refugee Srevice. Here's a little about it from Wikipedia ...

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is an international Catholic organization that aids refugees, forcibly displaced peoples, and asylum seekers. JRS operates at national and regional levels. JRS's international headquarters are located in Rome. Founded in November, 1980 as a work of the Society of Jesus, JRS was officially registered on March 19, 2000 in Vatican City as a foundation. The impetus to found JRS came from the then father general, Pedro Arrupe, who was inspired to action by the plight of Vietnamese boat people.

JRS has programs in over 50 countries. The main areas of work are in the field of Education, Advocacy, Emergency Assistance, Health and Nutrition, Income-Generating Activities, and Social Services. In total, more than 376,000 individuals are direct beneficiaries of JRS projects.

Over 500 workers contribute to the work of JRS, the majority of whom work on a voluntary basis, including about 100 Jesuits, priests, brothers, and scholastics, 85 religious from other congregations, and more than 300 lay people. These figures do not include the large number of refugees recruited to take part in programs as teachers, health workers and others.

JRS is also involved in advocacy and human rights lobbying.

JRS contributes to refugee research at the University of Oxford and the University of Deusto, Bilbao. At Oxford, the "Pedro Arrupe Tutor" overseas research undertaken in the name of JRS as well as facilitating the formation of personnel at JRS. At the Institute of Human Rights, University of Deusto, Bilbao, JRS and the Loyola Jesuit Province are joint sponsors of the newly established Pedro Arrupe Tutorship. The main tasks of the Tutorship include conducting research, teaching and consultancy concerning refugees and forced migration for church agencies, other non-governmental organizations and for governments ...

And here below is the first part of an article about the work Fr. James Martin SJ, of America Magazine, did with the Jesuit Refugee Srevice in Africa ...

GRANTED, I'm a sucker for all those nature specials on TV, had seen Out of Africa a few times, and more or less followed what had been going on in the continent . . . but like most Americans, I was not particularly interested in going there. Too dangerous, too dirty, and too far." he continues.

Care to guess where Fr. Martin spent his regency, a part of his Jesuit training? You're right. He worked in Nairobi, Kenya, with the Jesuit Refugee Service's (JRS) Mikono Centre. There he helped refugees--Ugandans, Rwandans, Ethiopians, Sudanese, among others--who had been forced to flee violence in their home countries. The center gave many of them seed money to set up small businesses, such as bakeries, chicken farms, and tailor shops, and bought arts and crafts from others to sell at the center and at bazaars. The Mikono Centre's mission was to help these refugees help themselves in a country foreign and at times hostile to them.
Martin with refugee

Author Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, inspects the handiwork of a Rwandan refugee at the Jesuits' Mikono Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. The markets that the center creates for such hand-produced goods give refugees the opportunity to better their lot.

The two stories below come from Fr. Martin's This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey With the Refugees of East Africa, a chronicle of his experiences there. The most important of those experiences was inculturation, Fr. Martin's desire and struggle to understand the foreign culture that surrounded him so that this former businessman-turned-Jesuit from Boston and a dirt-poor East African refugee could recognize and give witness to the humanity in each other ....

I believe the early Jesuit missionaries would be proud of their present-day brothers.

- a Jesuit Refugee Service team member searches for victims in the wake of the tsunami

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Jane Kenyon Poem

Notes from the Other Side

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Poster Contest

Steve and his great poster of Oscar Romero has inspired me to enter the poster contest too. Below is my entry ...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

James Alison Interview

I read an interview with theologian James Alison in The Christian Century - Violence undone
James Alison on Jesus as forgiving victim (Sept. 2006)
- and thought I'd post part of it here. It's long, so I've just snipped out a few of the questions and their answers ...


Your first book was an examination of original sin—not, for most people, a topic connected with joy. But the title of the book is The Joy of Being Wrong. What joy is associated with original sin?

It's the joy of not having to get things right. The doctrine means that we are all in a mess, no one more or less than anyone else, and we can trust the One who is getting us out of the mess, who starts from where we are. If it were not for the doctrine of original sin, which follows from the resurrection—just as a parting glance at who we used to be follows from seeing ourselves as we are coming to be—we would be left with a religion requiring us to "get it right," and that is no joy at all .....

You've thought a good deal about the place of violence in social and religious life and have made use of the work of René Girard on the formative power of violence. Could you state briefly how Girard's work has been helpful to you as a theologian?

First, Girard has made alive the work of the cross—how Jesus gave himself up to a typical human lynching so as to undo the world of violence and sacrifice forever. Second, Girard, through his understanding of the mimetic nature of desire, has made it possible to glimpse the nonrivalrous nature of God, and thus to understand the life of grace as one entirely without "ifs and buts." Third, Girard has given me back the Bible as something I can read. His elucidations of scripture are utterly luminous and fecund. Finally, he has made available an understanding of all the major themes of theology—an understanding that is resolutely anthropological (without reducing everything to anthropology). That is, his theological themes always make sense at the level of human relations ....

Girard is famous for exposing the way a "scapegoating mechanism" works in culture and religion—something he thinks Christianity was the first to expose. Yet when Christians talk about Jesus' death they often use some form of scapegoat language: Jesus died for our sins, for example, or Jesus bore our sins. In other words, he really was a scapegoat—and this was a good thing. Can Christians escape invoking the scapegoat mechanism?

That Jesus died for our sins, or bore our sins, is the exact truth. And it is made comprehensible precisely because the one who was considered guilty was shown to be entirely innocent.

Our difficulty with the language is that it is much easier for us to imagine Jesus being offered to the Father as a sacrifice, or indeed the Father getting Jesus to offer himself as a sacrifice to the Father, than to imagine the exact reverse: Jesus being empowered by the Father to stand in the place of a typical sacrificial victim of ours—God sacrificing himself to us. The idea of someone doing something generous for us which undoes our complicity in lies and violence while itself being a completely nonviolent act takes a lot of getting used to. At its best, liturgy gives us the space to do this ....

One of your books is titled On Being Liked. What does it mean to say that God not only loves us, but likes us? Why do we need to hear that?

The word love, alas, is so abused. In my book I wanted to remind people that sometimes being told that we are loved really means: "My love for you is so strong that I wish I could suppress all the bits about you that don't measure up to my standards. In fact, if you become someone else, then I might actually like you and enjoy you as well." If someone views us in that way, though saying he or she loves us, we sense that that person is lying or pulling a fast one and is being controlling.

We pick up very quickly when we are being liked; we relax and are happy to be who we are in the eyes of the other. And curiously, as we relax, we find that we are much more than we thought we were, and become much more, starting from where we are, and with no sense of being bullied or made to fit into schemes which really have nothing to do with us.

I thought it worthwhile trying to tease this out, especially as a resource for gay Christians, who so often are told by other believers that "because we love you so much, you must become someone utterly different." As it happens, not a few straight people have told me that they could completely identify with what I was talking about ....


More about historian, literary critic, and philosopher, René Girard atWikipedia

An article on Girard at First Things - Girard Among the Girardians

An interview with Girard on Pope Benedict XVI at New Perspectives Quarterly

Friday, October 13, 2006

Why Bart Wrote The Lost Gospel of Judas :-)

I saw a post at Hypotyposeis recently ... OUPblog: Why I Wrote The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. It was interesting not just for the info on Bart Ehrman and his book, but because it pointed me towards a blog, that of the Oxford University Press. Publishing house blogs can be informative ... I sometimes visit Insight Scoop, the blog for Ignatius Press - it's a little conservative for my taste, but that's not surprising for the Pope's publishers :-). Below is part of Stephen Carlson's post ...


The Oxford University Press blog has a piece by Bart Ehrman called, “Why I Wrote The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot” (Oct. 10, 2006) .... The OUP blog also has an interview called “A Few Questions for Bart Ehrman” (Oct. 9, 2006) .... fellow biblioblogger Rick Brannan has been blogging about this book too (Oct. 4, 2006).


Read more about the Gospel of Judas

Thursday, October 12, 2006

St. John Ogilvie

In a couple of days (Saturday), it will be the Memorial of St. John Ogilvie so I thought I'd post something about him. Below is the entry on the saint from The Jesuit Family Album ...

St. John Ogilvie, S. J. (Scottish: 1579-1615) is the Church's only officially recorded Scottish martyr. Since his father had conformed to the state-established religion, young John was brought up a Calvinist. Upon reaching his 17th year, he determined to become a Catholic and went to Louvain, Belgium, where he was reconciled with the Catholic Church. He later joined the Jesuits and was ordained in Paris in 1610. Sent to work in Rouen, he kept importuning the Superior General to send him back to Scotland in response to the entreaty for Jesuits from the Earl of Angus to the Jesuit General: "Send only those who wish for this mission and are strong enough to bear the heat of the day for they will be in exceeding danger." In earlier times wholesale massacres of Catholics had taken place in Scotland but at this time the hunt concentrated on priests and for those who attended their Masses. The Jesuits were determined not to abandon the Catholic laity, but to be with them and provide the consolation of the sacraments. When captured they were tortured for information, then hanged, and, while still alive, taken down and their limbs pulled out and finally cut up into quarters and each part placed on one of the four city gates.

At last Ogilvie's request was granted and he returned to his native Scotland in 1613 to begin a brief missionary career that lasted only 11 months and ended in martyrdom. In Edinburgh and Glasgow he worked underground avoiding the Queen's priest-hunters, disguised as a soldier by the name of Watson. Ogilvie was captured and put in prison where he showed his interrogators that he was not to be bullied into acknowledging the King's supremacy in religious matters. He refused to divulge the names of the Catholics who had attended his Masses, so they applied an extreme measure of torture. He annoyed his tormentors by not crying out in pain and in fact meeting their cruelty with humor. "I make no account of you and can willingly suffer more for this cause than you are able to inflict. Your threats cheer me; I mind them no more than the cackling of geese." Asked if he feared to die he said: "no more than you do to dine." No relic of his body remains. (Ban, Bas, Cor, Ham, JLx, Som, Tyl)

- While he was in prison, Fr. Ogilvie documented his experiences there, smuggling his writing out, page by page. The Relatio was edited using the testimony of his fellow prisoners, completed by John Mayne, and was published in 1615. A first edition copy lies in The National Library of Scotland.

Read more about John Ogilvie at American Catholic

Monday, October 09, 2006

Oh No!

And so it begins ... the endless hours spent scrolling through enumerable video clips ... movies, music, TV, video games, even the Dalai Lama's to be found if you care to look ... YouTube and Google Video. I balme Paila and Guillaume.

Below is a clip from the film A Hard Day's Night with the Beatles doing I'm Happy Just To Dance With You. The picture looks a little stretched, as if they'd taken a widescreen image and made it full screen, but it's still kind of fun to watch :-)

And one more ... below is Gabriel's Oboe from the movie The Mission (Ennio Morricone - Gabriel's Oboe from "The Mission" concert)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Today's Readings and Hans Urs von Balthasar

- Christ Blessing the Little Children - William Blake

Part of the gospel readings for today from Matthew ...

And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it." Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.

I've never really understood this, though I've read many interpretations. Below is one of those interpretations, which relies on the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, in an article - Becoming Children: The Hidden Meaning of the Incarnation by Nick Trakakis, Department of Philosophy at Monash University - from the Theandros Journal. I've posted much (but not all) of the article below, and added the footnotes too ...


... how do we, who are either well on our way towards adulthood or firmly established as adults, suddenly stop and return to the mind-set and attitudes of our beginnings? Why, even, would we want to make such a turnabout in the first place? Children are, of course, very often endearing creatures, but they do not always manifest the best qualities of human nature: they can be quite cruel to each other, they are supremely self-centred, they can barely think beyond the present or the present satisfaction of their needs, they live a sheltered and heavily protected existence, they are gullible, and so on. Why, then, should we want to become like children, and what does becoming a child actually involve?

The eminent Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), in his short but insightful book Unless You Become Like This Child, provides a searching discussion of these questions.[1] Von Balthasar points out that there are several things involved in the process that Jesus referred to as becoming like children, three of which I think are worthy of some reflection.

Firstly, the exhortation to become like children is to be understood in terms of the call to recover our childlike gratitude. Such gratitude, as von Balthasar explains, is reflected in the words and actions of Jesus, ‘the eternal Child’: "Thanksgiving, in Greek eucharistia, is the quintessence of Jesus’ stance toward the Father. ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me’, he says at Lazarus’ grave, conscious that the Father has given him the power to raise the dead (Jn 11:41)."[2] Children, likewise, are thankful for the gifts that are freely bestowed on them by their parents, whether it be food, clothing, protection, or Christmas presents. But as von Balthasar notes, plea and thanks in a child, the child’s dependency and its gratitude, cannot yet be clearly distinguished: "Because he [i.e., the child] is needy he is also thankful in his deepest being, before making any free, moral decision to be so. And when he grows older and we say to him, ‘Say please’, ‘say thank you’, we are not teaching him anything new but only trying to bring into his more conscious sphere what is already present from the beginning."[3]

Secondly, becoming like children involves recovering our childlike awe, our childlike sense of amazement. The ancients, it will be recalled, sought to ground their philosophical reflections in a sense of wonder, a wonder rooted in the experience of beauty.[4] This sense of wonder is also an integral part of childhood. Children are often amazed over everything that we take to be ordinary. A child, for example, will be overawed by all the things, great and small, that he discovers in his newly inhabited world, from the tiny insects he spots on the pavement to the starry heavens above. Unfortunately, this appreciation for the wondrous and mysterious qualities of life can be easily lost, as von Balthasar points out: "In the world of men, childlike amazement is not easy to preserve since so much in education aims at learning habits, mastering tasks and grasping automatic functions."[5] The problem is further exacerbated in western capitalist countries, where the emphasis on scientific inquiry and economic productivity, together with sprawling cities and the consequent alienation from the natural environment, quickly sap one’s ability to marvel at the splendour of the world.

Thirdly, becoming like children also means recovering our childlike attitude towards time. Unconsciously, and sometimes even quite consciously, we think that ‘My time is my own’. Our sense of ownership in general, but particularly as it relates to time, is perceptively analysed by C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters. In letter 21, the demon Screwtape instruct his nephew Wormwood on how to go about inculcating feelings of possessiveness in his human ‘patient’:

Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.[6]

However, the assumption that ‘My time is my own’ is an entirely absurd one, for as Lewis points out (through the mouthpiece of Screwtape), a man "can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels."[7] We are nonetheless led to feel a sense of ownership, not only towards time but towards all things. As Screwtape explains to his nephew, this is the result of both pride and confusion:

We [i.e, the demons] teach them [i.e., the humans] not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun – the finely graded differences that run from ‘my boots’ through ‘my dog’, ‘my servant’, ‘my wife’, ‘my father’, ‘my master’ and ‘my country’, to ‘my God’. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of ‘my boots’, the ‘my’ of ownership… We have taught men to say ‘my God’ in a sense not really very different from ‘my boots’, meaning ‘the God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit – the God I have done a corner in’.[8]

Such a possessive attitude towards God and time is completely alien to the person who has recovered their childlikeness. As von Balthasar eloquently puts it, "The child has time to take time as it comes, one day at a time, calmly, without advance planning or greedy hoarding of time. Time to play, time to sleep. He knows nothing of appointment books in which every moment has been sold in advance."[9] However, von Balthasar is quick to add that he does not mean to endorse an idle way of life where one’s time is squandered "like cheap merchandise". Rather, his point is that "we should live the time that is given us now, in all its fullness", where this is not to be reduced to such contemporary slogans as ‘enjoying life to the full’ or ‘making the most of it’. The point, rather, is "only that we should receive with gratitude the full cup that is handed to us."[10]

Only when we look upon time in this way, argues von Balthasar, can we find God in all things. In words that might resonate deeply with many of us, he writes: "Pressured man on the run is always postponing his encounter with God to a ‘free moment’ or a ‘time of prayer’ that must constantly be rescheduled, a time that he must laboriously wrest from his overburdened workday. A child that knows God can find him at every moment because every moment opens up for him the very ground of time: as if it reposed on eternity itself."[11] ......


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child, transl. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991). The German original was published in 1988 as Wenn ihr nicht werdet wie dieses Kind.

[2] Von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child, pp.47-48.

[3] Ibid., p.49.

[4] The principal text in this connection is to be found in lines 155c-d of Plato’s Theatetus, where Plato has Socrates say, "This feeling – a sense of wonder – is perfectly proper to a philosopher: philosophy has no other foundation, in fact" (trans. Robin A.H. Waterfield, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987, p.37).

[5] Von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child, p.46.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: HarperCollins, 1942), p.112.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.114.

[9] Von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child, pp.53-54.

[10] Ibid., p.54.

[11] Ibid., pp.54-55.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

She's quite a good poet ... for an American - Giles

I found an interesting article in Spirituality Today about Emily Dickinson - 'Experiment in Green': Emily Dickinson's Search for Faith. As the openning blurb says ... As shown in her poems, Dickinson's spiritual journey led her from naive nature-mysticism through disappointment, to a sacramental approach to God and further discouragement, culminating in a mature attitude of faithful unknowing. Below are some of Dickinson's poems from the article ...

A something in a summer's Day

A something in a summer's Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer's noon—
A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see—

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lets such a subtle—shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me—

The wizard fingers never rest—
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes it narrow bed—

Still rears the East her amber Flag—
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red—

So looking on—the night—the morn
Conclude the wonder gay—
And I meet, coming thro' the dews
Another summer's Day!

The Soul's Superior instants

The Soul's Superior instants
Occur to Her -- alone --
When friend -- and Earth's occasion
Have infinite withdrawn --

Or She -- Herself -- ascended
To too remote a Height
For lower Recognition
Than Her Omnipotent --

This Mortal Abolition
Is seldom -- but as fair
As Apparition -- subject
To Autocratic Air --

Eternity's disclosure
To favorites -- a few --
Of the Colossal substance
Of Immortality

Our lives are Swiss --

Our lives are Swiss --
So still -- so Cool --
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between --
The solemn Alps --
The siren Alps
Forever intervene!

These are the days when Birds come back—

These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake—
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!


And not related to the article, but something I learned from watching a Babylon 5 episode, and mentioned in Wikipedia too :-) ...

Because of her frequent use of common metre, many of Dickinson's poems can easily be set to tunes ... one can also sing many of her poems to the tunes of either "The Yellow Rose of Texas" or the "Gilligan's Island" theme song. While this novelty is entertaining in itself, it also demonstrates the connection between poetry and song embodied for centuries in the ballad.

Friday, October 06, 2006

James Alison and "Belonging"

I've just been reading one of the articles published at Fr. James Alison's site - Discipleship and the Shape of Belonging. It tells something of the identity of the self and the way it's received through the eyes of others , what belonging means to this identity, and beyond that, the way Jesus so upsets this balanced system of reciprocity. The article is long, so I've just quoted the beginning part in which Fr. Alsson gives himself as an example ... the example of a priest and theologian outside the "normal" rewalm of belonging. The article goes on to describe the kind of belonging discipleship can create when one is called into being by the regard of God.


I dare to call my work that of preacher, and teacher. My major undertaking over the last few years has been to try and come up with an adult introduction to the Catholic faith, an inductive, twelve-session course, following the thought of René Girard. I have been attempting to gave an account of our faith in such a way as makes it both attractive and easier to pass on, one that is entirely orthodox, and yet fresh. In fact I have given this course, still in the process of development, in a number of different settings, and hope to do so again before long. And naturally, there would be no point to such preaching and teaching if it did not lead to some sort of discipleship in those who hear it. Discipleship not of yours truly, but of the One at the heart of the preaching ....

Now anyone who takes some responsibility for this business of pointing another towards the way of Christ has to become aware that he or she can get in the way of the imitation, can get in the way of the discipleship, can become a scandal, a source of stumbling to the one who would follow Christ. And learning to avoid giving scandal to such potential followers is a great deal of what discipleship is about ....

I am a priest, but, as far as I can tell, am of no juridical standing. Which is an anomaly, since one is supposed to have juridical standing in order to function as a priest, some line of accountability. I wish I did have, but I don’t. And I don’t know where to start in finding a proper line of accountability. Then, I aspire to be a theologian, but effectively work as a freelancer. This too is an anomaly, since theology is an ecclesial discipline, presupposing structure, collegiality and oversight, so to be a “freelance theologian” sounds to me very much like a contradiction in terms. However, that is my reality: I inhabit not one, but two non-places. And I would be loath to think that I am trying to persuade any one to imitate me in this. I am well aware that I am treading on what might turn out to be quicksand, and I don’t want to encourage anyone to follow me onto it until it’s pretty clear that it is part of the safe space, the rock on which to build, offered to us by the Gospel.

My reason for inhabiting these non-places, for beginning tentatively to build on what may be a dangerously firm-seeming crust rather than the rock I hope it will turn out to be, is fairly simple: I have come, after a long time of search, study and struggle, to believe that the current characterisation of gay people held by the Roman Congregations is not true. Although this is not in itself a very important matter, it is one which does go to the heart of the way the clerical set-up runs in our Church. In my case, it means that I have discovered that, since my vows and promise of celibacy were taken at a time when I was bound by a false conscience, I have no valid vows or promises, but am nevertheless validly ordained, and indeed, love being a priest, a preacher and a teacher. I’m not sure that I can properly make such promises or vows within the juridical context offered by the Church while it continues to insist on what I regard as a false characterization of the one making the vow or promise. Which is why I think that the Vatican was probably right to say the Church should no longer try to induce gay men into priestly life, since it cannot at this time offer an honest gay man a limpid context for vows or promises. I agree with them that we should not lead people into double-binds.

And the same is true with relation to being a theologian. I take very seriously that becoming a theologian, and especially a priestly theologian, is an ecclesial vocation, and indeed hope that I show signs of being ecclesial in my writing and teaching. I don’t want to make a living by being a theologian in a secular faculty, where being a priest would mean nothing, and where the mode of production and system of rewards is determined by the regard of the Academy, itself just as full of rules, anathemas, rivalry and ambition as any ecclesiastical set-up. Others less suggestible than I have shown themselves able to avoid these temptations, but I fear that in my vanity I would be unable to avoid the temptation to “make a career” and to “become someone” in the eyes of my secular employers and colleagues, making of them, effectively, my “Church”. And that would be the death of my vocation as a Catholic theologian.

On the other hand, since I am open in my disagreement with what I take to be a third-order teaching in the Magisterium’s current hierarchy of truths, it seems to me fair enough that until, and unless, there is a sufficient clarity that my opinion is one which can legitimately be held by Catholic theologians without causing scandal to the faithful, or until I can be disabused of my opinion by evidence that it is not true, I not be invited to teach in a Catholic theological faculty, even though that is what I aspire to. So, I find myself hoping that my ecclesial vocation as a theologian will bear fruit through my accepting being a non-person in the regard of the Church for the moment, rather than aspiring to become a “someone” through the regard of those outside it. But that is my hope, nothing firmer than that .....


Read more of Fr. Alison's writing at his website