Saturday, 29 August 2009

Hello from Earth

"When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?"

This towering monument to faith would seem to suggest yes. There is more faith here than in most churches. But faith in what?

One can't help but find things like this and SETI vaguely amusing. Huge efforts and great wads of cash are expended in pursuit of something which has no basis in reality and no evidence to even suggest its existence. This latest outworking of religious zeal is particularly bizarre, and strikes me as very redolent of the Twitter generation.

But one wonders, if indeed there were intelligent life on Gliese581d, what the reaction of those aliens would be to messages like "Stage fright! What do you say in an intergalactic message? Hello? Peace? What's the weather like? Know that we're here, we're waiting. Hear from you soon. Ally". Humans from a century or two ago would have been mystified by a message like that (come to that, so probably would a modern tribesman from Papua New Guinea). What would a non-human intelligence make of it? Wondering if this, a random pick, was a poor example of the kind of messages sent, I clicked on Top Messages to find out what the best ones were. The best, apparently, was "Hello Gliese 581d inhabitant. Can you help us humans travel through space and become smart like you. Please do not eat us we are a friendly race." And the CSIRO funded this?! Hmmm.....

Since one would assume, given the style and vocabulary, that most of the messages have come from children or young adults, it seems supremely ironic that Richard Dawkins and others of the New Atheism, while decrying religious education as "child abuse", turn a blind eye to stuff like this. Does it really seem more rational to them?

UPDATE: A commenter has pointed out that not all atheists ought to be tarred with the same brush on this point, and that there are indeed some who are sceptical about the benefits of programmes like this one. Some of these can be found in this thread on the Debating Christianity and Religion Forum.

St Augustine

Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.

O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever. He called out, proclaiming I am the Way and Truth and the Life, nor had I known him as the food which, though I was not yet strong enough to eat it, he had mingled with our flesh, for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy.

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Today is a hopeful day for sinners. Today we are reminded that the chief of sinners (in Bunyan's phrase) is in heaven. If God's grace can do that, there is hope for the worst of us.

Kiran has a nice reflection here.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

St Monica

God our Father, comforter of the sorrowful, You accepted Saint Monica's offering of tears for the conversion of her son, Augustine. Help us, by their intercession, to have true contrition for our sins so that we may receive the grace of Your forgiveness. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

One in Christ: A Walk Through Galatians

For those interested, here is the transcript (or at any rate, a link to the transcript) of the lecture I gave at Sydney University last Wednesday. With the addition- for those who were there for it- of those several paragraphs I had to skip because of time constraints and the next group wanting to get into the lecture theatre. (Note to self: do not agree to speak on an entire Pauline epistle in a single lecture again. Unless it's Philemon or Titus.)

One in Christ: A Walk Through Galatians

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Israel/Palestine- Glimpses from the Ground

Israel is one of those utterly insoluble human problems created by politicians with an agenda at a particular time which then creates strife and misery for generations upon generations afterward. Not unlike Northern Ireland.

On the one hand, the Jews ought to have a land of their own, after so many centuries dispersed (and still, amazingly, retaining a uniform cultural identity!) and especially after their ordeals during the first half of last century. On the other hand, the Palestinians also ought to have a land of their own, and the tragic thing is that they did up until fifty years ago. After the events of the last fifty years, and having dispensed with the anger and recriminations on both sides, the insoluble question remains, how can one recognise the rights of the one group without impinging on those of the other?

I have a former student with whom I have maintained touch for a while now (we take tea together- he practices English and I practice Arabic) for whom these are burning questions. He is from Jordan but his family originally lived in Jerusalem, and had for as far back as they could trace their family (several generations, so at least a century or more) until they were expelled after the 1967 war. Curious, I asked him once what he thought about the issue of Israel and what should be done, given his family's own experience. He thought for a moment and then told me that he can't see why they can't live together in one sovereign state with a party system, etc. although he admitted the Israelis would never go for that because, in that scenario, they wouldn't have a political majority, hence their political autonomy (the whole point of having a land of their own) would be compromised.

I become increasingly interested in these questions, and in what those touched by them think about it all, particularly since I will be spending some time in Egypt from next month, a country which has figured prominently in the whole debacle. Not so much because I have a vested interest (I have little sympathy with all those Leftist "Free Palestine" protestors, whose anti-imperial stance, I feel sure, obscures the endless ambiguities of the reality; nor, on the other hand, with those many Christians who see the state of Israel as some kind of fulfilled prophecy), but because behind the politics are human realities and human suffering on both sides, families and cultures and mutually exclusive histories and cultural narratives rudely and abruptly thrown into conflict with one another.

In that connection, while looking up some details about my upcoming trip to Egypt (specifically transport to monasteries in the Eastern Desert) I stumbled across this travel video by (apparently) an Israeli Jew posing as a British journalist. Of particular interest to me were the opinions of the man in the car at the beginning.

Friday, 14 August 2009

How Much He Must Suffer For My Name

Anglican David Ould has an excellent reflection on the little-noticed text of Acts 9:16 here.

Of particular note is this line:
This attitude to suffering is not masochistic or stoic but a quite
counter-cultural embracing of a whole lifestyle because it mirrors that of Jesus.

'Tis but a small step from that insight to monasticism.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Christ the Lord- Out of Egypt

I have been a fan of Anne Rice since I did an exchange to La Rochelle, France, eight years ago and reluctantly began to read The Vampire Lestat because it was one of the few books in English at the local public library and I needed an English language fix. I was at first put off by the simplistic and colloquial register (I was used to more descriptive and sophisticated prose) but was quickly sucked in by the atmosphere, the sensuality of the writing and the incomparable sense of historical milieu. Anne Rice has a way of writing that engages all the senses and thereby immerses you in the story. Moreover, Rice has an acute historical sense; fascinated by what other times not just looked like but felt like- how did people think and feel then; how and in what terms did they interpret their experiences, etc? She can capture the mentality and mood of a period like few others. And of course vampires are always fun.

It is difficult to read any of Rice's books without realising that she likes to ask and think about the deeper things. Whether it's Louis meditating on his alienation or Lestat disproving to himself the existence of God in a quintessentially Enlightenment-esque manner, issues of philosophy and religion are constantly bubbling under the surface and often poke their way through. So when I heard that Anne Rice had come to faith in Christ and had been reconciled with the Church, I was both surprised and delighted, but not entirely shocked.

Rice's first novel after her coming to faith is "Christ the Lord-Out of Egypt". It has been out for a while and I bought a copy about a year ago, but I only started reading it last month. I finished it just before the weekend, and thought to share some impressions.

Before doing that, however, a preliminary comment or two. In the same volume as the novel itself, Rice includes a short testimony to explain why she has written the book and how she has come to be where she presently is. This is an account which is very moving, and it forever dispelled any doubts that I had that her conversion might have been a publicity stunt or some kind of ephemeral self-realisation thing. She describes beautifully how she came to a point where all the issues she had with Christian beliefs (and there are several, mostly relating to feminism and homosexuality) could be surrendered to Jesus Christ because, even if she didn't know the answers or didn't understand why Christ's Church teaches what it does, He knew and understood- and He loved the people who were affected by these issues and was holding them, as it were, in His Hands. Here is genuine faith. Beautiful.

She also describes interesting points along her journey, such as coming to the realisation that most liberal scholars don't actually like Jesus and that this building a career on writing about someone for whom one's habitual stance is a sneer was utterly unprecedented in any scholarship on other historical persons; or her coming to believe the Gospels and Acts must be dated early because they don't incorporate an account of the Fall of Jerusalem, and that most scholars have not really grappled with why that is.

Now, to come to the novel itself:

1) The first thing one notices about it is that it is written in the first person from Jesus' point of view. I was extremely sceptical about how this would work when I started. How can you get inside the head of the God-man? I was reassured somewhat by Rice's firm statement at the beginning that the novel is written from a firm belief in the Hypostatic Union and is intended to express the reality of that doctrine. But I was still sceptical. Having finished the book, I'm still not sure if it was the best way to do it. But I think, insofar as one could write a novel from the perspective of Our Lord as a child while firmly believing in the Hypostatic Union, and precisely to that extent, Rice has done it. The merits of the approach can be debated, but, accepting it on its own terms, it is largely successful, and at times beautiful and moving. One thing that Rice does as well that I was also initially sceptical about is including miracles from the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, but I can see why she did. She wants to emphasise that Jesus was always true God and true Man, and that the divine nature was always present, rather than being, as it were, dormant until adulthood or Christ's baptism or whatever. One final thing on this note: it is wonderfully refreshing to read a novel (not a theology textbook, but a novel) about Jesus which takes the Incarnation seriously.

2) One of the things that came home to me in a big way while reading this book was how God works in converting individuals and saving them. I suspect sometimes we (or at least some of us) act with a certain implicit assumtion that when God converts someone, they become a new person, totally different from who they were before. The beauty of the reality of conversion is that God has created everyone as a totally unique and unrepeatable individual, and it is that individual that He redeems. Grace builds on nature. God doesn't what to redeem a person so that they turn into something different; He wants to redeem them, with all their baggage, their ways of thinking and feeling, their experiences, their virtues and vices, talents and weaknesses, so that they become what they, as an individual, were always intended to be. To me, Anne Rice bears witness to this, because I loved her writings while she was an atheist, and now that she knows and loves Christ, I can see in this book everything I liked in her writing already, now transformed and put at the service of something higher.

Specifically. The sensuality of her literary style. That ability to immerse you in an experience by imaginatively engaging all the senses, which made her vampire novels so memorable, is perfect for someone trying to express literarily the reality of the Incarnation. Reading this novel takes you beyond an abstract doctrine to something that attempts to approach the immeidate experience of the Incarnation. The feel of places, the small-town atmosphere of Nazareth, the sound of the wind and texture of the grass and the silence as Jesus, even as a boy, seeks solitude to pray, the bustle and crush of pilgrim-crowds at Jerusalem where you stand for minutes without moving forward because of the number of people. One is immersed into Christ's experience, not just intellectual experience but bodily, sensible experience. Then there is the historical milieu. But I shall give that it's own point.

3) Historical milieu. Rice has always been good at capturing a period's feel, and no less so here. Several impressions in this regard were notable for me. Firstly, family. In this novel, Jesus' family is huge. There are aunts, uncles, cousins and random family relations everywhere, both in Egypt and back in Palestine, and unless you make an effort to draw up a family tree while reading the first chapter, you won't be able to remember how everybody is related to everybody else. There is therefore a palpable sense of community, which maintains throughout the novel. The Holy Family here is not a Western, nuclear family. It is a Middle-Eastern family (and certainly gels with my experience of Egyptian families). Everybody supports everybody else; everybody knows everybody else. This has interesting implications, such as the way the Rabbi grills Jesus because everybody remembers that there was something sus about Jesus' conception and birth, or the way Our Lady keeps to herself a lot because she knows what people say about her. Joseph, on more than one occasion, has to defend Jesus' parentage to those outside the family, which of course is never openly questioned but simply implied to be not quite kosher. Joseph himself, by the way, all too often neglected among the saints, dimmed as he is by the overwhelming light of the Saviour and of Our Lady, comes out of this novel a winning portrait of a good man, following and trusting in God despite many odds and near total ignorance of God's purposes for his family. Here is a man willing to trust God in the dark and keep following Him no matter what.

The Jewishness of Jesus is constantly on display. Of particular note is the Temple. The way the Temple is described captured my imagination- this monolith of whiteness visible for miles, the gold pillars, the crowds, the market in the Outer Court, the whiff of incense almost overpowered by the stench of blood, the troops of priests gutting what amount to whole herds of animals, the sheer scale of the place, and how Jewish life is centred on it, so that even while miles away in Nazareth on Yom Kippur, the narrative leaves you with a palpable sense of the significance of the events happening simultaneously in the Temple even though the narrative doesn't actually place you there. Connected with the Jewish element, the practices and the whole culture of the Torah come to life. The sense of the Covenant as both a story telling us who we are and as a way of life is constantly in view. And there are some delightful touches. Like the way, when meeting someone knew, characters in the story rattle off their genealogy to several generations to introduce themselves. Or the way people know all the Psalms by heart (and this is totally taken for granted as completely normal within the flow of the narrative) and start singing them at random moments throughout the story (with the whole Psalm quoted or paraphrased in the text). Or the way Joseph tells the story of Jonah or Tobit like a grandfather telling war stories, with all the colour and vivacity (and audience participation) that implies.

One thing that is undeniable as well is the political upheaval. There is a point in the story which is quite shocking to the reader, when the family have departed from Alexandria, a lively but stable city, and have trekked to Jerusalem from Caesarea after landing there. Jesus sees the Temple for the first time and is awed by it, but as they move into it, it suddenly becomes clear a rebellion is imminent, and it breaks out while they are in the Outer Court of the Temple. There Jesus sees a man killed in front of him by a Roman soldier. They escape Jerusalem intact and travel north to Nazareth, but all around the sense of danger and political instability is palpable. Allegiances are shifting; you can't trust strangers; fires are seen in the distance. At one point, the leader of a rebel group threatens the family for money to support his cause, but Joseph talks him down. When they finally get to Nazareth, Jospeh forbids Jesus or the rest of the children to go onto the roof of the house, because if they did they would be able to see the crosses lining the road to Sepphoris in the distance. It's a worthwhile reminder, I suppose, that not much has changed, and perhaps a subtle admonition not to subconsciously whitewash what we read in the Gospels and Acts or what we assume about their context. It was a pretty gritty place and time.

These are the standout points for me, having just finished the book. At some point in the near future, I will move onto its sequel, "Christ the Lord- The Road to Cana". Overall, though, this book is a thing of literary and spiritual beauty, coming from a deep love and devotion to the Lord. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Two Ecclesiologies

I had dinner with Kiran tonight after Mass, and we got to talking about, among innumerable other things, the ecclesiology of various Christian groups. In the course of this discussion, Kiran came up with what I think is a very neat and succinct turn of phrase describing a whole host of differences in this area of theology and Christian practice. Having obtained his permission, I've quoted this below a) because for Kiran to say anything succinctly is a rare enough occurrence anyway, b) because he's unlikely to write it down himself, and c) I think it's worth filing away for future reference.

"For the Protestant, properly so called, the Church is a group of people who are Christians; for Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans, Christians are a group of people who are members of the Church."

Thursday, 6 August 2009

A Bit of Wright on Piper

I am going to get around to posting more on this subject, because I think it both interesting and significant. At present, however, I am in the process of negotiating my own way through all the issues in preparation for a lecture I will be delivering in a couple of weeks at Sydney University on Galatians. To which, if it's any good, I may even offer a link on here once it is finished. In the meantime, an update on David Schutz's blog pointed me in the direction of this brief summary/advert by Wright himself for his book responding to Piper.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Wi-Fi Brolly

Imagine for a moment that you are out walking in the country and it begins to rain. Naturally, you unfurl your umbrella. Then, as the rain continues, above the horizon, you notice a magnificent rainbow. It is one of those rare ones that is a full arc, touching the horizon at both ends with its peak high in the sky. Marvelling at this, you are further amazed, as the rain continues, to discern another rainbow, over and above the first. You are witness to a double rainbow- that rare and awesome sight! You wish that you had a camera to capture the beauty of it, but, alas, cameras are awkward to bring on a ramble and even if you had brought one, getting it out in the rain would ruin it. How are you to demonstrate to your friends and family what you have seen? How to express to them the majesty of this singular apparition?

Worry no longer! For the Japanese have come up with a device for just such an occasion. With a built-in camera in your brolly, you can capture that moment forever! Never again will you regret not being able to find quite the right expressive adjective to convey the marvellous sights that invariably present themselves to you on a rainy day!

And suppose (to continue the hypothetical anecdote) that on your ramble the mist suddenly obscured the two rainbows. You sigh to yourself- you wish you could go on looking at them but the moment has passed. Well, the Japanese have thought of that too. Not only can you send the pictures of the rainbow to friends and family via the Internet before you even get back from your walk (because, naturally, this umbrella has an Internet connection as well) but you can also project them onto the underside of your umbrella so you can continue to look at them while walking.

And then (to still further continue the story) suppose the mist became so thick that you couldn't see your way and began to lose your sense of direction. Well, of course, the Japanese, being the resourceful folk they are, have also thought of that eventuality, and have endowed this umbrella with a GPS system AND a digital compass.

Gosh, I'm glad there are people in the world who have taken the time to cater for those individuals who habitually see amazing and photogenic things on rainy days and can't wait to capture and share them with everyone on their Facebook page, and then get lost and can't find their way home. I'm sure this is a rapidly growing market and it's just as well at least one corporation is forward-thinking enough to respond to what is clearly a pressing need amongst consumers!

Mediaevals, Moderns and a Lamp-post

I came across this quote from G.K. Chesterton today. I think it sums up nicely the relationship of the modern world to the mediaeval world.

SUPPOSE that a great commotion arises in the street about something -- let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached on the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, 'Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good -- -- -- ' At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamppost is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmedieval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp we must now discuss in the dark. - G.K. Chesterton