Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Readings: from The Notebooks

When Kyle, the major-domo of Postmodern Papist quoted the French Catholic existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, here, it reminded me that one of my purposes in launching this blog was supposed to have been posting excerpts from notes I had taken in the course of my various readings. For the most part, however, new readings have prompted immediate postings, and the contents of my notebooks have gone untapped.

Well, Kyle reminded me that I had been reading Gabriel Marcel some months back, so I went to the notebooks to look for a pithy quote from Marcel in order to give it an airing here. I found several quotes, from two different texts, to choose from. As a consequence of the fact that I refer to myself as a “pilgrim” in the profile adorning Rodak Riffs, I offer the following from Marcel’s book, The Mystery of Being:

There is not, and there cannot be, any global abstraction, any final high terrace to which we can climb by means of abstract thought, there to rest forever; for our condition is this world does remain, in the last analysis, that of a wanderer, an itinerate being, who cannot come to absolute rest except by a fiction, a fiction which it is the duty of philosophic reflection to oppose with all its strength.

But let us notice also that our itinerate condition is in no sense separable from the given circumstances, from which in the case of each of us that condition borrows its special character; we have thus reached a point where we can lay it down that to be in a situation and to be on the move are modes of being that cannot be dissociated from each other; are, in fact, two complementary aspects of our condition.

There’s your pilgrim. And while looking for a good Marcel quote, I came across whole pages of notes that I had scribbled down while reading Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity. I find the excerpts quoted below to have particular relevance to the rather heated disputation in which I was involved in the comments section of What’s Wrong With the World here. And so, Kierkegaard:

That an individual man is God, declares himself to be God, is indeed the “offense.” …Can one demonstrate that to be a rational reality which is at variance with reason? Surely not, unless one would contradict oneself. One can “prove” only that it is at variance with reason. The proofs which Scripture presents for Christ’s divinity—His miracles, His Resurrection from the dead, His Ascension into heaven--are therefore only for faith, that is, they are not “proofs,” they have no intention of proving that all this agrees perfectly with reason; on the contrary they would prove that it conflicts with reason and therefore is an object of faith.

…the certitude of faith is something infinitely higher [than a “proof” from history]

Everyone who has the least dialectical training can easily perceive that the whole argument about consequences is incommensurable with the decision of the question whether it is God…whether he will believe that He is what He said He was; or whether he will not believe.

…”History,” says faith, “has nothing whatever to do with Christ…”

Jesus Christ is the object of faith; one must either believe on Him or be offended. For to “know” signifies exactly that the reference is not to Him. …Knowledge demolishes Jesus Christ.

Given that the discussion got a little bit hot at WWWtW the other day, it is probably just as well that I didn’t come across the following Old Testament tidbit at the time:

May the Lord strike you with Egyptian boils and with tumors, scabs and itches, for which you will find no cure. [Deut.28:27]

I feel much better now.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Readings: Mizu No Oto

Mizu no oto is the final line of a haiku by Bashō, the consensus choice as the greatest of the Japanese practitioners of the form. As most of you will know, a haiku is a poem consisting of three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5. Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto In English: The old pond: A frog jumps in – The sound of water. I was introduced to the haiku form, to an understanding of its relationship to Zen Buddhism, and to this particular haiku, by the writings of R. H. Blyth, decades ago when I was an undergraduate. I have “known” during all this elapsed time that Furuike ya epitomizes the genre. I had thought to be able to find words to this effect in one of the three books by R.H. Blyth that I have in my personal library; but I came up dry. It is possible that I gained this appreciation of Furuike ya from D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, or one of the other translators of, and commentators on, Asian poetry, culture and religion whose works I was reading back then, and continue to read today. Of Bashō, Blyth writes in volume one of his great multiple-volume study Haiku, Eastern Culture: There are three great names in the history of haiku, Bashō, Buson and Issa; …Bashō is the religious man, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist. Bashō is concerned with God as he sees himself in the mind of the poet before flowers and fields. Buson deals with things as they exist by and for themselves, in their own right. Issa is concerned with man, man the weak angel…” Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644. He was the son of a feudal lord. Bashō left the samuri service at the death of his father, when he was 23 years old. At the age of 29, he traveled to the capital, Edo. He spent most of his life on the road. In addition to his poetry, Bashō is the author of the often-translated Narrow Road to the Deep North, a diary in prose and poetry of his travels through the villages and mountain temples of Japan’s northern interior. I recommend reading Bashō and Japanese and Chinese poetry, in general, if you have not done so already. Asian art forms have a beauty that is distinct from those of the West; and it is a distinction from which there is much—very much—to be gained. But my real purpose in this post is to introduce the writings of R. H. Blyth. I own three books by Blyth: Haiku, volume one, Eastern Culture; A History of Haiku, volume one; and Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I highly recommend all three. Blyth was a genius, in my opinion, in synthesizing for the Western mind the elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen both in their historical and cultural context in Asia, and as they relate to Western ideas of religion, art, and culture. For this reason, I particularly recommend Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics as a text that will repay the effort put into finding a copy and reading it, many times over. Here are the opening sentences of his preface: The history of mankind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in peoples and nations. But they may be thought of as taking place simultaneously or rather, beyond time, and then they form an ontological description of human nature. In his introduction to A History of Haiku, volume one, Blyth writes: Haiku is an ascetic art, an artistic asceticism. Of the two elements, the ascetic is more rare, more difficult, of more value than the artistic. The preface to the book I most highly recommend, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, begins: Zen is the most precious possession of Asia. With its beginnings in India, development in China, and final practical application in Japan, it is today the strongest power in the world. It is a world-power, for in so far as men live at all, they live by Zen. Wherever there is a poetical action, a religious aspiration, a heroic thought, a union of nature within a man and the Nature without, there is Zen. Chapter 1 of the book is entitled “What Is Zen?” and begins: Consider the lives of birds and fishes. Fish never weary of the water; but you do not know the true mind of a fish, for you are not a fish. Birds never tire of the woods; but do not know their real spirit, for you are not a bird. It is just the same with the religions, the poetical life: if you do not live it, you know nothing about it. As an example of the practical application of Blyth’s critical sensibilities, I will quote a bit of his comparison of a haiku by Buson, whom Blyth ranks second only to Bashō, that is superficially similar to Furuike ya. Here is Buson: The old pond, A straw sandal sunk to the bottom: Sleet falling. In comparing this to Bashō, Blyth states: To put it in a word, Buson lived in the world of phenomena, and his inner life was thin compared to that of Bashō. … Bashō’s verse has a life within it, it has Life, whereas Buson’s verse is dead, in this sense. The dreariness of the scene with the straw sandal is not superficial, but it does not involve within itself all the dreariness of the world; it is the thing-as-it-is, but not the Thing-as-It-is. We choose one or the other, according to our character and mood. We all need, be we Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, be we even Marxist materialist or Logical Positivist, to be in touch with the Thing-as-It-is. As a Christian, I recall that St. Paul admonished us to pray constantly. I find that the writings of R.H. Blyth are an aid to understanding what Paul meant by that. The bibliography of books by R.H. Blyth on amazon.com is here.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Readings: Visual Versification

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the owners of the graphic referred to below seem to have made it unavailable. Too bad, as it was beautiful.

Having today off work, I was surfing around the blogosphere in a casual manner when, just now, I came across the graphic composition to which I will link below. It is an artifact, not an image of the "real world"; yet, it's just God-awful beautiful. It is, in fact, a poem in visual images. First read these lines from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

[dead link removed here]

Does it not recall these other lines of Eliot's, from the first of the Four Quartets, "Burnt Norton"?:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Which is to say:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done;
And there is no new thing under the sun.

~the Preacher

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, yo...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Reflections: The Verb "To Be"

Most people have seen all of the below, but perhaps not all in one place, at one time, and considered in conjunction. So, mix 'em, match 'em, trade 'em with your friends:

I am that I am.

Tat tvam asi.*

The Tao of which one can speak is not the true Tao.

Before Abraham was, I am.

Existence precedes essence.

The world is all that is the case.
*Thou art that.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


In a slight variation on what has become a Thanksgiving tradition in our nation's capital, President George W. Bush pardoned not one, but two, freakish white turkeys to celebrate the official opening day of the Christmas shopping frenzy.

Reached for comment, an unnamed White House spokesperson denied rumors that the names of the two turkeys pardoned were Karla and Faye.

"Pardoning birds is hard work!" Bush was heard to exclaim. "I'm all tuckered out."

On this Thanksgiving Eve:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures, here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost;

Reflections: 'Buked and Scorned

I have for the past couple of days been involved in a comment box “conversation” based on this post at What’s Wrong With the World. It hasn’t gone well for the Kid. Your host has been dissed and dismissed. The post links to a 60-plus page philosophical treatise which purports to make a “Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” and which is “Now Available in Draft.” No wonder I’ve always preferred bottles.

I, in fact, agree with all of the conclusions made in the article. My purpose in posing counter-arguments in the comment section has been to serve as the devil’s advocate. I tried to pose objections to the conclusions drawn by the authors that I felt could plausibly be made by a very sceptical non-believer reading the piece with a jaundiced eye. An introductory paragraph of the article states that, although philosophical arguments can tend to get rather sticky, it is possible for the skilled philosopher to pose an “argument that an educated non-specialist can readily grasp.” Rodak has, alas, failed, in that rôle, to provide the proof of these philosophers’ skills. After well more than a dozen exchanges with one of the co-authors of the article, my cumulative comments drew this observation from a lurking sage:

I don't think Rodak is up to following an argument on this subject. You've done your best, but he lacks the background required to get across the
pons asinorum.

Ouch. But this little snippet of dismissive grandiosity only betrays the fugitive truth that the article was never designed to be persuasive to a skeptical non-specialist in the first place. Rather, it is a gaudy clockwork canary of a piece, cleverly designed to whistle and trill as it dances along its gilded perch, evoking the hooting, foot-stomping kudos of the Byzantine lords and ladies of minor league academia. Well, hoo-rah.

Pons asinorum” indeed. Try “bridge to nowhere.” It seems that I didn’t come properly equipped. It’s as if some poor schmuck, his house a-blaze, called the fire department, only to have the Chief inform him brusquely that he and his men would be happy to come over and extinguish the flames, provided, of course, that the unfortunate home-owner supplied the hoses and ladders, the axes and pumps needed for the task.

Perhaps I’m just not equipped. Or, on the other hand, perhaps one could say that my intellect is just not so jury-rigged by hyper-edjumacation as to be susceptible to an argument that glitters and gleams like a gilded canary, but has no life in it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Readings: Luther - CRUX sola est nostra theologia!

I had resolved to post concerning the book Luther’s Theology of the Cross by Alister E. McGrath (referred to hereafter as LTC), once I finished reading it. And so:

It seems that the genesis of Luther’s Theology of the Cross was the existential angst arising from his contemplation of the question: How can a righteous God justify and accept a perpetually sinful human being? We recall that St. Paul experienced similar psychological/spiritual pain :

Romans 7:18 For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. 7:19 For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. 7:20 But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.

It must be noted that Luther was not operating in a vacuum, but within the context of a current of theological thought (the via moderna) which prevailed in the Augustinian Order in which he had been mentored, and was in the process of himself becoming a mentor. I’m not going to dwell on the inside baseball of late medieval theological discourse here, however. My purpose is only to outline Luther’s eventual conclusions as they arose from the combination of his study and his prayer. His quest was to be centered upon interpretation of Holy Scripture:

“For Luther, scripture was to be respected because through it the theologian had access to the Word of God: the phrase sola scriptura was to be interpreted in an exclusive sense, meaning ‘through scripture, and through scripture alone’. “[LTC, p.51]

Luther’s doctrine of justification developed into a concept in which the causality of justification was to be found in God gratuitously offering man a covenant, or pactum. Through the acceptance of this offer, the sinner, though not worthy in himself of salvation, is made worthy in the eyes of God. In Luther’s own words:

“Even grace and faith, through which we are justified today, would not justify us of themselves…without God’s covenant. It is precisely for this reason, that we are saved: God has made a testament…and covenant with us, so that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. In this covenant God is truthful and faithful, and is bound by what he has promised.”

This faithfulness of God to his promise is assured, despite the fact that God must even move to supply the sinner with the grace and faith which render the human acceptance of the offered covenant possible. On his own, the man can do nothing to effect his justification. It will be noted that, in order for this covenant to make sense, ideas of human justice, as embodied in Roman law, must be abandoned for an understanding of a counterintuitive divine justice, through the workings of which that which is unworthy is deemed worthy and that which is unsalvageable is nonetheless saved.

These ideas, as I have very simplistically outlined them, lay the groundwork upon which the Theology of the Cross can be erected.

The paradoxical nature of the salvific covenant offered gratuitously to the unworthy sinner, which was based on a concept of divine justice that reason and logic did not seem to endorse, caused Luther to contemplate the nature of a God who worked in these mysterious ways. As stated by McGrath, “Luther’s answer to this question…can be summarized in one of his most daring phrases: the God who deals with sinful man in this astonishing way is none other than the ‘crucified and hidden God’ (Deus crucifixus et absconditus) – the God of the theologia cruces.” [p.147]

In a disputation at Heidelberg, Luther made these essentially significant statements in Theses 19 and 20:

19. The man who looks upon the invisible things of God as they are perceived in created things does not deserve to be called a theologian.

20. The man who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross does, however, deserve to be called a theologian.

Per McGrath: “For Luther, the sole authentic locus of man’s knowledge of God is the cross of Christ, in which God is to be found revealed, and yet paradoxically hidden in that revelation. Luther’s reference to the posteriori Dei serves to emphasize that, like Moses, we can only see God from the rear: we are denied a direct knowledge of God, or a vision of his face (cf. Exodus 33.23). The cross does indeed reveal God – but that revelation is of the posteriori Dei…but a genuine revelation nonetheless.” [p.149]

The truth of this revelation is discerned only by the eye of faith. That God is revealed in the cross means that the faith of salvation corresponds directly to a recognition and acceptance of the abandonment and suffering of Christ Crucified: God makes himself known through human suffering.

McGrath again: “For Luther, God is active in this matter, rather than passive, in that suffering and temptation are seen as means by which man is brought to God. …In order that a man may be justified, he must first recognize that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. Before man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated – and it is God who both humiliates and justifies. ‘Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature…results in an action which belongs to his very nature: God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous.’ “ [p.151]

An interesting component of Luther’s thought is that, in God’s project of bringing about the sense of utter helplessness and humiliation that allows for man’s ultimate salvation, the devil is God’s instrument – an idea similar to that which I formulated earlier, with reference to the Fall of Man.

A crucial term here is Anfechtung: “For Luther, death, the devil, the world and Hell combine in a terrifying assault upon man, reducing him to a state of doubt and despair. Anfechtung is thus a state of hopelessness and helplessness, having strong affinities with the concept of Angst.” [LTC, p.170] It is a form of temptation meant to test man’s faith by ordeal: the last and only refuge from the wrath of God is in God’s mercy.

At this point, we might well say, Wha'?—we know some Lutherans, and none of them seem to be going through anything even remotely like this stuff! Ah yes: cheap grace; I’ve spoken of it before.

McGrath writes: “Anfechtung, it must be appreciated, is not some form of spiritual growing pains, which will disappear when a mystical puberty is attained, but a perennial and authentic feature of the Christian life. In order for a Christian to progress in his spiritual life, he must continually be forced back to the foot of the cross, to begin it all over again…”

(Albert Camus, call your office: message from a Mr. Sisyphus)

But, in fact, paradoxical though it may seem, this mystery of the cross, this on-going Anfechtung, is to be regarded always--through the eyes of faith--as an occasion for joy, since it is the one and only way to salvation.

“Everything which is concerned with the theologia cruces hinges upon faith. Only those who have faith understand the true meaning of the cross. Where the unbeliever sees nothing but the helplessness and hopelessness of an abandoned man dying upon a cross, the theologian of the cross…recognizes the presence and activity of the ‘crucified and hidden God’, …who is not merely present in human suffering, but actively works through it.” [LTC, p.175]

In Luther’s own words: “The cross is the safest of all things. Blessed is the man who understands this.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Readings: Backing a Winner

It has been announced that Denis Johnson's excellent novel, Tree of Smoke, has won the National Book Award. I don't like to brag, but I told you so...here and here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Reflections: The Loyal Opposition

I've been wanting to post something about the book on Martin Luther that I'm reading. The work traces the development over time of Luther's Theology of the Cross. The problem has been that Luther's been having a new insight every two or three pages, so anything I might write concerning today's reading would need to be revised tomorrow. As a result, I've decided that I'll wait until I've finished the whole thing to reflect on it.

Meanwhile I've been out roaming around the cybersphere, leaving my contrarian observations in the comment boxes of several other blogs:

I've been discussing the best way to talk to disbelievers in the comments section of the November 8th post, "My Latest for Catholic Exchange" at Catholic and Enjoying It.

At What's Wrong With the World I've been commenting sagely on the genetic basis of racism and its implications for a Brave New World scenario to come.

The owner of The Catholic Libertarian, a title which I have characterized as oxymoronic, has had to put up with my dubiety regarding his posts on the Jihad and Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul.

I've also been very briefly involved in a set of rather eclectic comments at Postmodern Papist.

Finally, I've been boycotting my former home-away-from-home Ragged Thots in a fit of pique. But you shouldn't. Go there and make yourself heard. Really. Just do it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mailer Photo: Take 2

Mailer's New York Times obituary offered a slide show that included this photo. I would have used it yesterday, if I had seen it on time:

Who says that there's no hope for Jews and Muslims to get together, eh?

Rodney King, call your office.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I have just read that Norman Mailer has died. In my estimation, he was a giant of American letters. As I am not fit to lace up Mailer's boxing gloves, I will leave it to others more capable than I to eulogize the man: the mensch. I will say, however, that if there was a rush this year to award the Nobel Prize for Literature one step ahead of the Grim Reaper, then the Nobel committee fucked up, big time. Doris Lessing, talented as she is, wouldn't make a patch on Norman Mailer's ass.

Graphic credit

Reflections: And Forgive Us Our Trespasses...

Among the titles listed here, which I am currently working my way through, is Catholic novelist Ron Hansen’s book, A Stay Against Confusion, Essays on Faith and Fiction. Last night I was reading his essay “Anima Christi”, in which he translates, and then comments on, each line of the title prayer. In light of an unpleasant exchange* in which I recently become involved in the comments section at Postmodern Papist, I was particularly struck by Hansen’s commentary as follows:

Ab hoste maligno defende me.

“From spiteful enemies protect me.”

I have translated this line to underscore that the writer is not talking about a devil (diabolus) or demon (daemon) here, as a great many translations would have it, nor is the host, or army, as pernicious and hateful as enemies that are malignant in the English way. Every definition of malignus indicates pettiness and unkindness. A hostis malignus is stingy, ill-natured, grudging, small, the grouch next door, the snipe up the street, nothing so grand as an Evil One, nor even a bête noire. And I love that about the prayer.

Jacques Derrida has pointed out that our enemies are persons we haven’t met yet; when we have met them, when we have done our best not to meet them and met them often and hour after hour, then our enemies are no more than maligno and too much like ourselves. How wise and practical of the “Anima Christi” to address the humdrum problems of Christianity rather than martyrdoms and persecutions: the frowns and jokes and put-downs, the belittlings and smirks.

~ Ron Hansen

‘Nuff said.
*UPDATE: This post originally included a link to the referenced post and subsequent conversation at Postmodern Papist. I find that the post has since been deleted, which is, perhaps, just as well. That said, Hansen's insights illuminate situations that we all regularly face, and remain valuable.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Interlude: Unsolicited Promotional(s)

I want to draw the attention of my huge community of readers to a blog that I recently discovered and by which I've been impressed: Postmodern Papist. The owner, Kyle Cupp, posts some timely and intelligent stuff that I find to be conducive to contemplation.

It turns out that Kyle also has a very talented wife, Genece, an artist, whose works can be sampled here.

You should visit Kyle's blog to become engaged in what's happening through interaction with an active, wide-ranging, and intelligent mind.

You should take a look at Genece's art because, as Simone Weil puts it in the pages on beauty in Gravity and Grace,

In everything which gives us the pure authentic feeling of beauty there really is the presence of God. There is as it were an incarnation of God in the world and it is indicated by beauty.
The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.
Hence all art of the highest order is religious in essence. (That is what people have forgotten today.) A Gregorian melody is as powerful a witness as the death of a martyr.

and because, as indicated by the following, beauty can be an occasion of detachment from the snares of the material world:

Beauty: a fruit which we look at without trying to seize it.

But do seize the links.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Reflections: Déjà Vu, All Over Again

I have started reading yet another of the books on the list that I posted last time, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, by Alister E. McGrath. It is a scholarly text, some of it soaring well above my pay grade, with its untranslated Latin terms, but it is instructive in placing the career of Luther within its historical, academic, and ecclesiastical context.

These sentences particularly struck me as I was reading this morning:

“How can a sinner enter into fellowship with a holy and righteous God? How can the troubled conscience find peace by discovering a gracious God? Luther was not the only one to ask such questions, and was not the only one to find himself confused by the variety of answers given. In practice, it may be noted that the questions which were to torment the young Luther and others so appear to have been asked but rarely in the later medieval period, the predominance of external (and, it seems, largely superficial) forms of the religious life tending to rob such questions of their force.

“Possessed of a tired spirituality, morally bankrupt, doctrinally confused, each succeeding study of the later medieval period confirms this depressing evaluation of the then prevailing state of the Christian church in Europe.”

I find myself similarly confused by the variety of answers being given to this perennial question today. Although there is supposedly great ferment taking place in the Protestant world, it seems that a large part of the excitement is over the involvement of evangelical, and other fundamentalist congregations, in right-wing politics. This often leaves their members supporting leaders such as George W. Bush, and following such men, like so many bleating merinos, into clearly un-Christ-like acts. How can it be that American Christians are even debating, for instance, the morality of torture?

Charity and brother-love among Christians in general, particularly with reference to the Other, be that Other of a different religion, different race and/or nationality, different religious denomination, non-heterosexual gender orientation, etc., seems to be at a premium today. Love of money, not for use in helping the afflicted, but for personal use in the pursuit of frivolous distractions from the quest of a troubled conscience to find peace, seems to be the cultural norm. For the most part, Catholics seem indistinguishable from Protestants in their, perhaps largely unconscious, idolization of this fundamentally nihilistic Zeitgeist; Catholics the victims of “cheap sacraments,” where Protestants are the victims of “cheap grace.”

Jesus said: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me."

I wonder: What did He mean by “my”? And what did He mean by “least”?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Readings: Prudence, meet Whimsy

From time to time I go online to check my account at the university library. It is my habit, at any given time, to be reading several books, of various genres, concurrently. I have found that the books communicate with each other, like, perhaps, several experts seated around the table of a multi-disciplinary symposium. I am their privileged and grateful witness.

But, I borrow so many books that I sometimes lose track of them. It is therefore prudent to peruse the online record of my borrowings. I found this morning that my current list of borrowings numbers nine, as follows:

1. Alone of All Her Sex, the Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary
~ Marina Warner

2. Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks
~ Simone Weil

3. The Quick and the Dead, a novel
~ Joy Williams

4. A Stay Against Confusion, Essays on Faith and Fiction
~ Ron Hansen

5. The Complete Stories
~ Flannery O’Connor

6. State of Grace, a novel
~ Joy Williams

7. Mary Today, the Challenging Woman
~ M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.

8. Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough
~ Alister E. McGrath

9. The Problem of Evil
~ Mark Larrimore, editor

Of these, I am currently reading numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, with the rest waiting “on deck.”

The following paragraphs are the result of a whimsical experiment by which I selected at random one sentence from each of the nine books above, arranging them in three paragraphs, each containing three of the nine sentences, in approximate order of length:

In other words, philosophic theism has always shown a tendency to become pantheistic and monistic, and to consider the world as one unit of absolute fact; and this has been at variance with popular or practical theism, which latter has ever been more or less frankly pluralistic, not to say polytheistic, and shown itself perfectly well satisfied with a universe composed of many original principles, provided we be only allowed to believe that the divine principle remains supreme, and that the others are subordinate. Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a headstrong Carmelite nun in the sixteenth century, would tear off her habit and flamboyantly embrace a statue of Jesus while crying out in an orgasmic way, “O love, you are melting and dissolving my very being! The paying customer saw not at all what had been promised or inferred, only a vague, grainy drift, an emptiness that with effort might suggest some previous thriving and striving, but all in all a disappointment.

That horse represented the life he loved and couldn’t get enough of—the gear and the parades and the good camaraderie and the dragging for criminals or fishermen who drowned off the keys or in the swamp. The intense controversy between Bizer and Bornkamm over this issue has served to demonstrate how intimately the two concepts are linked, rather than to resolve the question. The relationship of the cube, which, properly speaking, is never seen in the appearances produced by perspective, is like the relationship of the stem of the sundial to the shadows.

The prolific Luke is still credited with hundreds of statues and paintings all over the Catholic world (figure 43); and there are still many
acheiropoietoi images in Catholic churches. The past and the future were the same thing to him, one forgotten and the other not remembered; he had no more notion of dying than a cat. When we, in spirit, unite our yes with Mary’s, it becomes integrated with the yes of humanity that Mary is saying.

Okay, so I’ve got too much time on my hands. Things could be worse…

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Reflections: You Don't Know What Love Is

Luke 10:27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Love is central to the Christian religion. We say "God is Love." Jesus Christ charged us to love God, neighbor, and self, as the supreme commandment. Yet what do we really know of love? Love is sometimes seen as that which temporarily manipulates the mutual activities of a Kid Rock and a Pamela Anderson, for the titillation of the public. It is seen by some as the relationships that they have with their golden retrievers. Love is experienced by nearly every contemporary person as the jealous, competitive, co-dependent possessiveness which entangles mates and family members in nets of anxiety-ridden, yet voluntary, emotional slavery. So who knows what love is?

In her essay “The ‘Symposium’ of Plato” from the anthology Imitations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, Simone Weil quotes the following, from the discourse of the tragic poet, Agathon:

196b. The most important is that Love neither causes nor submits to injustice, be it among the gods or among men. For, when suffering happens to him he does not suffer by force, for force cannot reach Love. And when he acts, he does not proceed by force, for each one consents to obey Love in everything. That agreement which is made by mutual consent is righteous, according to the laws of the ‘City royal’.

Weil herself next comments:

“These lines are perhaps the most beautiful in Plato. Here is the very center of all Greek thought, its perfectly pure and luminous core. The recognition of might as an absolutely sovereign thing in all of nature, including the natural part of the human soul, with all the thoughts and all the feelings the soul contains, and at the same time as an absolutely detestable thing; this is the innate grandeur of Greece.”

Does this not speak directly to the power-plays at the heart of every domestic drama, or “family romance”—a stuggle between affinity and repulsion—the initial desire to be as one, which gradually morphs into a struggle to be oneself?

Weil continues:

“Today one sees many people who honor might above all, whether they give it that name or other names possessed of a more agreeable sound.”

Right, a more agreeable sound--such as “democratization” or “nation-building.”

“One also sees many, however, in rapidly decreasing number, who despise might. This is because they are ignorant of its powerful effects. They lie to themselves, if need be, in order not to learn about it.”

Here, I believe, Weil has her finger on the pulse of that evidently numerous variety of “religious conservative,” whose moral cognitive dissonance renders him at the same time hawkish, and, in his own mind, pious. He is unable to see the conflict between the coercive use of force against his neighbor, in pursuit of his creature comforts and personal security, and the commandment to love his neighbor.

“But who knows the whole extent of the empire of might and at the same time despises it? ...perhaps some Christians very near to saintliness, but seemingly few.”

Amen, sister. You got that right.