Blog Archaeology 3

Thoughts

Telephone receiver

Ringing off the hook?

Sixteen years ago today (27th July 1998) I preached this homily to the crowd in Oakland for Sunday Week 17 of Year C (Gen 18:20-32; Col 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13). It has more than usual of me front and centre and it is a little painful to re-read it knowing that though the dissertation I talk about was finally written (at least as a good first draft) it was never submitted.

Since prayer is, perhaps above all, about honesty I need to be honest with you this morning. I find myself right now at a low ebb in the tide of my life. It’s all focused on my dissertation writing which seems to be going nowhere. I can’t bring myself to do what I need to do and I’m feeling stupid and lazy and full of shame over it. So I revert to long-ago patterns and do what I’ve always done when my personal tide is out: I withdraw, I hide away, and I don’t answer my phone calls in case any encounter might deepen the sense of failure.

Those unanswered phone calls are a perfect metaphor for my prayer right now too. It is as though God keeps leaving messages on my answering machine that I listen to but leave unanswered. It’s not that the messages are threatening — quite the contrary — they are messages of hope and devotion and life that even in my torpor can bring a smile to my face or tears to my eyes. Waking mornings, there are love songs on my lips. Sitting at the computer, a gentle touch on my shoulder offers a presence. Driving, an undeserved turn of sunlight brightens everything. No, the messages are good ones, messages a friend or a lover would leave. Earnest, concerned, faithful. But still I listen and leave it at that. Because maybe to answer is to ask for trouble. Because maybe I’m not too sure, in my deepest heart, that I should let God get my hopes up. Because God might not be all God appears to be.

But isn’t that the question with all prayer. Who is this God who wants to engage us in conversion? And why? If we knew no other tales than this most ancient one told today of Abraham and Adonai what would we know about God?

We’d know that this God is curiously like a human being but with an awesome power to punish — at least that’s how Abraham treats his mysterious visitor. We’d know from Adonai’s own lips that the cries of the innocent for justice have brought God here on the road to Sodom. Adonai is here to see for himself what his ears have heard. What else do we know? Very little. But after Abraham has finished with God we know a little more. Or we think we do. We discover that God can be swayed by the wheedling of a persistent patriarch. But how much of what we we’ve learned is the image of Abraham’s fear and how much is a glimpse of God’s self? It is, after all, Abraham who brings up the whole business of death, of smiting and sweeping away. If you could listen just to God’s words all you’d hear is the constant promise of life: while Abraham is playing patriarchs with God, God is simple and direct. “Fifty innocent people and Sodom is safe.” “45.” “30.” 20.” “Ten innocent people and Sodom is safe.” Among the posturing and politics, what does God say over and over again: “I will not destroy.” “I will not destroy.”

Now, Abraham is so pleased by his bold haggling with God that he doesn’t notice that how easily the bargain is struck. And, because he believes the worst of God and because he listens with fear, Abraham stops too soon. Why didn’t he go further and try and knock God down to five innocents or one or none at all? If Abraham had been listening to what God actually said he might have asked a different question altogether. What would we have found out about God then?

Jesus is the one who kept on asking. Who didn’t stop short. The one who refused to believe the worst of God. He learned it in his own life but he also learned that each one has to discover that trust for themselves. It cannot be taught because it never ceases to be a question: ‘who is God?”; “would God do this to me?” So Jesus asks the questions: “would you do that to your child?”; “well, is God better or worse than you?”

It is that last question that can get you into trouble. I guess you have to be careful who you ask. But Jesus kept on asking until someone took him seriously and nailed him and his questions to a cross. Would you do that to your child? Would God?

Well it depends on who you think God is. Does God sit there with his celestial remote-control waiting to press the smite button? Or does God sometimes not get what God wants? Does God ask and not receive, seek and not find, knock and have the door slammed shut?

Maybe sometimes God’s calls go unanswered. The messages heard but unheeded. Not out of malice. Not even out of fear. Sometimes the truth is too good to believe. Sometimes the offer of life is too embarrassing.

But, thank God, where I would have given up long ago God is shameless. The calls keep on coming. God still sings songs of love and surprises with a gentle touch and still lights up the sky of life. God still offers and hopes … and waits.

Add comment Print Version July 27th, 2014

Motion in the Cosmos?

Thoughts

moon and observers

The full moon observed by figures on skis

James Chastek, in a post at Just Thomism, starts out discussing absolute and relative motion …

We pulled into the gas station and I was amazed by the number of bugs that had flown into the grill of the car. But then it hit me that this was not the best description of what happened. Or was it? If you’ve ever driven in snow, you’ve had the sense that the flakes were flying into the headlights, but it’s probably silly to see it in this way. Making the car a stationary frame of reference would lead to an odd account of how snow fell; and doing the same to explain bug splatter gives us an odd account of how fast the bug can fly. For all that, he looked like he flew straight at me.

… but ends up in an interesting reflection on what constitutes a ‘whole’ and in particular what the ‘wholeness’ of the Universe could be …

But why are there cars, though? This is only because we can appeal to a unity of function or of intention: a car is a whole either because it is the best thing to act carwise or because some automaker intends it to be one thing. But in virtue of which of these is the universe one whole?

This caught my eye because one of my theological interests is in what cosmology might be as a way of thinking about the whole of creation as distinct from just talking about everything that is. What makes the Universe a Cosmos? What makes the whole a structured, ordered, beautiful, unity? Or is it indeed such a whole? And, either way, what is the view from within the whole like when we can resist the temptation to fantasize that there is a place to stand outside it? One of the reasons I admire the physical cosmology of Lee Smolin is that he explicitly eschews a view from outside in formulating his physics.

Add comment Print Version July 26th, 2014

Perplexed, but not driven to despair

Theology of Chronic Illness |Thoughts

Saint Guilhem-le-Desert

Scallop shell relief at Saint Guilhem-le-Desert: photo by Fritz Geller-Grimm

On this day, 25th July — the Feast of St James, in 1986 I submitted my DPhil thesis in Chemistry. I don’t remember the date of the viva which followed (somewhere in mid-August to allow me to enter the Jesuit novitiate in mid-September) but I do remember the submission day — not as a calendar date but by the Feast. I remember being amused at first and then moved when I saw the first reading of the day (2 Cor 4:7-15) — how apt it felt after all the struggle to write and the many setbacks! Indeed, I used it as a dedication to the dissertation. Here it is in the NAB version:

Brothers and sisters: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke, we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus
will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence. Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.

It resonates in a different way now as I read it from a place of diminishment due to chronic ill-health. I have just seen my new GP in Oxford. He happens to be the GP I had when I was a student all that time ago. He is — unfortunately — readjusting my medication routine according to his principles. He has every good intention but by adjusting drugs, changing dosages and removing others he is making my life more unpleasant. I am seeing old symptoms I haven’t seen for years. They aren’t going to kill me, they just wear me down a bit more. It is frustrating to be powerless to protect my well-being.

This experience of being at the mercy of others is not uncommon to people with ME or, from what I hear, people with chronic illness in general. Do I find meaning in it? Can I proclaim with Paul that I am ‘constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in my mortal flesh’?

Not really — or at least not directly. I don’t find nobility or anything like that in being ill. I don’t find I can helpfully align my sufferings with those of Christ. I don’t even truly believe that my being ill is God’s will (except in the way that everything that happens is) and certainly he has never intimated that it is his desire. I struggle to abandon myself to trust in providence — after all does God always get what God wants?

But ill or well he does intimate. Become intimate. Show up tenderly. I don’t think he does so more generously because I am suffering. But this is how I am and this is how he meets me. If anything because of my problems with attention and concentration I am aware of him far less than I used to be. But ‘I greet him the days I meet him and bless when I understand’. And that seems enough for him even when it isn’t for me. He is the generous one in this relationship. And the one with the lighter heart.

Add comment Print Version July 25th, 2014

The Problem of Modern Cosmology

Essays |Theology |Thoughts

moon-landing

A perfect picture of Modernity?

I was prompted by yesterday’s post about the anniversary of the moon landing to look again at something I wrote as part of my doctoral dissertation in theological cosmology. I used the Apollo 11 photo above to unearth some of the contradictions inherent in the idea of ‘modern cosmology’. I don’t know how much sense this excerpt will make out of the context of the original argument but here it is.

Defining the modern (and, hence, the pre- and postmodern) is notoriously problematic[1] but it is safe to say that, however the theory runs, Modernity has been obsessed with cosmology. Whether it is Galileo and his telescope, Copernicus and his orbits, Newton and his falling apple, or Columbus and his New World, Luther and his articles, Modernity has been wrestling with the question of cosmology—the nature of the heavens, the nature of the human being, and the way the whole of reality works. In this sense, to understand Modernity we must understand cosmology. The reverse, though, also seems to be true.

The very idea of cosmology has been reworked by Modernity in its own image. From its premodern origins, cosmology was, more than anything, a view of the whole and viewing the whole was understood to pose unique problems and offer a unique privilege. Where, for example, could you stand to have a view of all things? Granted such a vantage point, how could you ever know that “all things” form a whole, a cosmos, rather than just a collection of unrelated items?

Whatever cosmology has been in the past, in the modern age it has been whittled down to become one discipline among others, one science among others. Yet, as a science, cosmology claims as its domain the whole universe, its origin, evolution, composition, and behaviour. In this sense, cosmology is distinct from the physics, astronomy, and other sciences that are enlisted in its pursuit. It is also differs from the other sciences by having a unique object of study: this singular universe with its specific history. Can a natural science achieve this conjunction of maximal scope and particular method? How can a part of human understanding make the claim to encompass the whole? How can a specialization make the unique kind of claims, at once general and particular, which cosmology, even in its modern form, demands? It will become apparent, I hope, that, not only are “Modernity” and “cosmology” mutually defining, they are mutually deconstructing.

I want to pave the way for this claim by examining a striking image (above [2]) of an historic event in the human exploration of the cosmos. Even at face value, this photograph is both modern and cosmological. Here is the age-old dream of humankind ascended to the heavens. Here is the triumph of science and the soaring, human spirit expressed in practical skill.

But this is such a perfect picture of modern cosmology for deeper reasons. Here are portrayed such abstract notions, important to Modernity, as progress, exploration, and power, but also conquest, culture, and nationality. There are fracture lines just beneath the surface. Underneath the enormous, symbolic triumph of the endeavour, you have the extraordinary clash of two worlds: culture and nature; the human and the natural. What could be more emblematic of Modernity’s view of nature than the dead, mineral, airless, sterile face of the moon?[3] And what could better express the modern sense of humanity’s alienation from nature than this fragile, suited, and sealed human body relying on science and artifice to survive the moon’s unthinking hostility.The central vision of the modern era is of subject and object sundered; the knower and the known utterly unlike and only to be brought together by epistemological sleight of hand; mind and matter, one alive the other dead.[4] The fundamental construction of Modernity places the human outside the natural. By doing so it makes possible a certain kind of knowing of things as though all that were human could be left out of the picture. Errors of opinion are sidestepped, certainly—that is the intention of the great modern gamble—but also warmth, value, life. Now science, the official epistemology of the modern age, of course aims to include all such human characteristics eventually. Once the tractable, dead stuff of nature has been grasped and fashioned into building blocks it will be possible to construct life, the living, the human and so understand it in its turn. This is a strategy of delay—a diversionary tactic—and it has been remarkably successful. The aim is to deal with the simple questions first and leave the intractable ones until later. Here is another modern preoccupation, this time with method: if we only knew the proper method, we could understand the properties of all things. Method is born, with Descartes, in the struggle to evade doubt.

By a “method” I mean reliable rules which are easy to apply, and such that if one follows them exactly, one will never take what is false to be true or fruitlessly expend one’s mental efforts, but will gradually and constantly increase one’s knowledge till one arrives at a true understanding of everything within one’s capacity.[5]

Modern method divides to conquer: fact is easier than value; matter easier than mind; nature than culture. In fact, so many familiar methods are made over in the modern image, taking a distinctively modern form: for example, the ancient meanings of science, culture, and cosmology are all changed. But can such diversionary tactics succeed? Can what has been divided and conquered ever be reconciled in a final unity? What does our photograph reveal about the relation between mind and matter in the modern cosmology?

The gap between the two worlds is palpable. Matter, here, threatens mind. It is inhospitable, alien. But mind, embodied as human, leaves its footprints, and they remain. Nothing erodes them except the slow fall of moon dust. The human mark on nature is indelible. Bacon’s dream of nature conquered and forced to yield up her secret treasures has become a familiar, if ambiguous, fact of modern life.[6] Moreover, it is the way that matter becomes assimilated to mind: how the world is best comprehended. You can wax eloquent about the beauty or grandeur of the lunar experience but, appalled or elated, one false step and matter will erase mind in an instant. Values, poetry, feeling are secondary in the standoff with nature.[7] But they do not vanish. Exiled from nature they set up their own realm—autonomous, insulated.

How does the human leave its mark on the natural? In a sense, anyway it likes! Those footprints are inscriptions on a blank slate. What do they mean? The can mean anything—or nothing—at all. Un-moored from nature, human interpretations of meaning are free to splinter. Are these footprints simple, neutral, marks in dust or the imprints of “one great step for mankind”? Nothing expresses the diversity of interpretation as well as Modernity’s idea of culture. Focus for a moment on that flag. What better statement of human culture with all its particularity and evanescence? A flag asserts both belonging and exclusion by marking the double-edged boundary of cultures. Here, on the moon, that assertion is at its starkest. Here is a claiming of space, of land, of territory. Here is a marking out of ownership. The conflictual quality is clear—in a way that territorial conquest or cultural imperialism never manages to be on earth. No home is being claimed with that flag. On earth, there is always the possibility of a transformation that makes space into place, into home, into oikos, the first step in an ecology that weaves humanity into nature however much we might theorize otherwise. Here, however, the claim staked in the flag is for nothing but against everyone else. This flag is about the exclusion of other flags, other cultures, and other humans. There is a triple crisis of signification here.

First, Modernity’s vision of the human is fragmentary with human relatedness looming problematic. With the cultural boundary envisioned as impermeable[8] other human beings are, in theory, either inside with us or outside in impenetrable darkness, either just like us or utterly alien. Human relations of difference cease to have real significance.[9]

Second, the chasm, which Modernity has constructed between the knower and known, makes any relation between humanity and nature problematic. The lunar flag stakes a claim on nature’s space to make it into a place of human significance. But how do you own dead space? How do you create a bond of relationship between the dead and the living? Above all, how do you do it without it being purely artificial and arbitrary—merely an expression of who has the bigger army or better lawyers? The relation of difference between the human and the natural ceases to have real significance.

Third, by bleaching the natural of all humane qualities the significance of nature’s internal relations is jeopardized. What do we mean by “nature’s internal relations”? Science views itself as finding the laws that, at least, describe the behaviour of natural things and, maybe in stronger interpretations, govern it. And in that “maybe” lies a problem: a problem of location and power. A problem of location: where does a law of nature “live” and of what is it made? Sciences’ laws are remarkably like ghosts.[10] Is a law “in” nature itself or “only” in the mind of the scientist (or the scientific community)? Either answer sits uneasily in a modern mind. If laws are in the world what and where are they—our cosmology doesn’t seem to have room for them—and if they are simply in the mind how is their truth to be guaranteed? A problem of power too: if a law describes the behaviour of things why can’t the things themselves behave differently? If laws are not causal powers[11] the internal relations between natural things seem to be arbitrary. Yet, modern cosmology has no place for such causal powers. The relations of difference within nature cease to have real significance.

The flag signals other problems too. Traditionally, what has bound human beings together, the natural world into a whole, and the one to the other, has been a web of relations. The threefold disaster of difference spelled out above spells the failure of mediating relations. The notion of the in-between has been emptied. What stands in-between human beings giving significance to their mutual relation? What lies in-between the things of the world giving them pattern and order? And what connection can there be in-between the human and the natural worlds? We struggle to find categories offer significance to human relatedness, natural laws are of uncertain force, and between the human and the natural lies a self-created chasm. But it was not always so. In premodern times, all three kinds of relation were considered real enough to carry significance. Human society was bound together by relations that constituted a hierarchy—a sacred order. The relations of natural phenomena were governed by active causal powers or by their own inner entelechy. Moreover, the two realms were united in complex relations of real signification weaving together the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of the world.[12] Now to the modern mind, the premodern form of each of these realms of relation is distinctly distasteful. We distrust hierarchy, despise teleology, and fear superstition. We should be happy that the advent of Modernity banished these embarrassing ghosts. What was lost in the process, however, was any belief in the reality of relation, the quality of connection, or the chance of cosmic wholeness. How can we regain what has been lost without becoming haunted again by ancestral ghosts? What kind of cosmic connectedness will do justice to old and new?

Perhaps the central, if silent, symbol of the premodern web of real relations was the imagination. Lauded or despised, it still stood in between the worlds.[13] Between mind and matter, it was the glue uniting the knower with the known. Between natural and cultural, it was the complex medium of culture’s natural history. But there is nothing natural about our modern moon flag. Notice how it proclaims its own artifice. This flag flies where there is no breeze, can never be a breeze, by being made to appear to fly, to flap, in an imaginary wind that will never come. It pretends its own reality by imitating its own artifice. Here is the unravelling of the imagination, its death by parody, and the death of the signifying imagination is significant since without it there can be no wholeness, no cosmos.

 

[1] Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity (London New York: Verso, 1998) Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1983) Albert Borgmann, Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds., God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, The Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Merold Westphal (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999) Deely, New Beginnings John N. Deely, Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, Toronto Studies in Semiotics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001) Dupré, Passage to Modernity Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996) Michael Paul Gallagher, Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith and Culture (New York: Paulist Press, 1998) García-Rivera, “Cosmic Frontier.” Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) Lakeland, Postmodernity Levin, The Philosopher’s Gaze Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982-1985, afterword by Wlad Godzich, trans. Don Barry, et al., ed. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas, North American ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) Merchant, The Death of Nature John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) Nancey C. Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997) Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word Margaret A. Rose, The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial: A Critical Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) Toulmin, Cosmopolis Stephen Toulmin, Return to Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, ed. Joseph Fessio and John Kenneth Riches (San Francisco New York: Ignatius Press, 1983) Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (New York: Random House, 1998).

[2] “Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface. The Lunar Module “Eagle” is on the left. The footprints of the astronauts are clearly visible in the soil of the moon. This picture was taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, with a 70 mm lunar surface camera.” NASA Photo ID: AS11-40-5875 File Name: 10075262.jpg Film Type: 70 mm Date Taken: 07/20/69.

[3] Merchant, The Death of Nature;

[4] Levin, The Philosopher’s Gaze

[5] René Descartes, “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” 1628, trans. Dugald Murdoch, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 16.

[6]

[7] See, e.g., “The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its various techniques. … The intellect was not constructed to understand atoms or even to understand itself but to promote the survival of human genes. … Aesthetic judgment and religious beliefs must have arisen by the same mechanistic process.” Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 2.

[8] Tanner, Theories of Culture

[9] A relation of infinite possibility and signification is reduced to the binary categories of “same” and “other.”

[10] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (New York: Morrow, 1974).

[11] Rom Harré and E. H. Madden, Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975); Brian D. Ellis, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism (Chesham: Acumen, 2002).

[12]

[13] Kearney, The Wake of Imagination.

Add comment Print Version July 23rd, 2014

Moon Landing Memories

Thoughts

Apollo 11 print

Not a footprint

Patrick McCray over at Leaping Robot Blog has an interesting post prompted by the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission. (There is a great gallery of photos of the mission at The Atlantic too…)

He quotes his friend Roger Malina

In 2007, I went to Bangalore where we had organized a “Space and Culture” workshop. I was one of the keynote speakers and I gave an enthusiastic talk advocating the work of artists involved in space exploration. At some point, I showed the famous Apollo “footprint” photo. I began to wax eloquent about this iconic photograph and compared it to the drawings in prehistoric caves, Galileo’s drawings of mountains on the moon, or the paintings by Leonardo during the Renaissance.

As I paused for breath, a student in the back of the room raised their hand. I asked for the question. She said quietly: “But sir, that’s not a foot print it’s a boot print.” The whole room held their breath in sudden agreement and, just like that, the whole foundation of my talk shifted.

She was right. No one could deny that this was a boot print not a foot print. But does it matter? Footprint, boot print. Isn’t that just a matter of semantics? No. But why have we almost always described it as a foot print when it’s so obviously NOT?

He goes on to discus what a difference that difference makes. He concludes

Probing more deeply makes us ask whether humans are meant for outer space. We will never be able to walk barefoot on the moon, because the process of human evolution made us fundamentally ill adapted to the conditions beyond the earth. The moon is not just further than the frontier of the earth, it is someplace elsewhere entirely. It is a foreign, hostile place. To go there, you need boots, literally and figuratively. And the deep debates about the future exploration of outer space – people or robots? – are enmeshed in the dialectic of the footprint versus the boot print. There will never be footprints elsewhere in the solar system except on Earth.

I wrote something similar as part of my doctoral dissertation. I’ll post some of that next.

Add comment Print Version July 22nd, 2014

Are the Puzzle Pieces Coming Together Understanding ME?

Thoughts

Cort Johnson at Health Rising reports on the optimistic views of Dr Lucinda Bateman about an emerging understanding of ME/CFS (the video of her talk is embedded above) involving autoimmunity, brain inflammation, and the autonomic nervous system.

Add comment Print Version July 18th, 2014

Blog Archaeology 2

Thoughts

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fights the forces of evil

As I threatened, I am digging into the past for some homilies that might be worth re-exhibiting. This one is from this day in 1999 and uses one of my favourites, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to reflect on the readings for that Sunday (Year A week 16): Wis 12:13-19; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43. You will have to get to the end to see what it all has to do with the gospel!

It was written for the Sunday mass with the ‘cathedral’ community in Oakland. It also alludes to the shootings at Columbine High School, Littleton which had occurred a few months earlier.

As it happens, before I moved this last time, a friend lent me the full box set of Buffy and I am slowly savouring each episode once again.

Someone famous—whose name of course escapes me at the moment—someone once said that you should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Apart from the problem of not having enough hands to turn over the pages there’s something missing from that advice. No one ever says where in either publication you’re supposed to start.

I’m thinking of making my fortune by developing a personality test based on just that, because you sure can tell a lot about a person based on which page they first turn to in the morning paper. I have a friend who would sit at breakfast joyfully sad each morning reading the New York Times obituaries. All those obscure people, nothing to me, for him cast a light of celebrity and fame that warmed his day. You’d think he was on first-name terms with the famous dead—”oh, he was the leading Broadway choreographer of the 30s.” Many in my all-male household turn first to the sports pages. One guy goes for the op-ed page, another for the local news, yet another for the food section. It is left to me to go first to the pages for which the newspaper was invented: the TV listings!

Part II of my proposed personality test would have you list your top three TV shows. And then, when you’ve got the lies over with, to list your real favourites—cheesy and embarrassing though they may be. Hands up guilty admirers of “Days of Our Lives.” “Xena, Warrior Princess”? “Celebrity Death Match”? “Touched by an Angel”?

Well, this week saw a treat for we “turn-first-to-the-TV-guys.” In the middle of an ocean of re-runs there arose an island of originality—long awaited, unjustly delayed—the season (3) finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! Buffy is undoubtedly the best thing on TV—at least from a theological point of view. OK, the dialogue is as sharp and witty as you’ll find anywhere, the plots handle the serious stuff of life, from running away from home, or loving someone violent, to coming out to family and friends, or the difficult task of getting demon blood out of your new frock.

For those of you ignorant enough to know nothing about Buffy let me fill you in. Buffy Somers lives in Sunnydale, California, which just happens to be at the mouth of Hell, and as such has a higher than usual population of vampires, demons, and other nasties. Though she is still a high school student, Buffy has a vocation, she is The Slayer, the one called from her generation to fight evil. So each week she faces a new threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aided only by her friends, who happen to include a seriously cool werewolf, a brooding hunk of a vampire, and a witch in training. The season finale should have shown in the weeks after the Littleton massacre but was thought to be inappropriate. Now I ask you, just because the student body turns against the town’s mayor on graduation day and in the ensuing bloodbath the school gets blown to pieces. But, hey, the mayor had just turned into an enormous demon, eaten the school principal, and was about to snack on the new graduates.

Now there’s a question: is the high-school violence of Buffy related in any way to the real-world horrors of life? Does one cause the other, or what? But you’ve heard those questions before and are probably tired of them so let’s ask a theological question. The world Buffy lives in has two faces. On the surface it is bright and beautiful—this is Sunnydale, this is California—the lawns are neat, the PTA is active, and what families may lack friendship seems to supply. But when night falls all hell breaks loose: vampires rise for their graves, monsters roam and only Buffy is there to save the world for daylight. Buffy’s world, maybe the world of all young Americans, is like that. It is two-faced, prosperity built over violence. The richest nation in all history, at the peak of its cultural ascendance, but built on a hellmouth. If God made the world and God is all good then how come the world isn’t all good? How come there is poverty and pain and violence and betrayal? How come the rich oppress the poor? How come disease and death claim our lives? Theological questions.

And Buffy seems to offer both a diagnosis and a treatment. Let your eyes be freed from the illusion of ordinariness to see the unnatural enemies ruining our lives. Let your eyes be opened to see the violence on which our civilisation is built and hear your call to fight with your life. And there she is right and she is wrong. Right, because the world is stranger than we care to believe by daylight. Right, because we are called to take sides. Right, because the kingdom of heaven is built here … or nowhere. But wrong too. For Buffy’s world pits good against evil as though they were equals, as though the outcome were in the balance, and neither is true. And wrong because in Buffy’s world the vampire wears a nasty face and can be reduced to dust with a quick thrust from “Mr. Pointy,” as Buffy calls her favourite wooden stake. But in our real world the weeds among the wheat are pretty much hidden and modest. Hell! … half the time they look better than the wheat! Only time will tell them apart. Only the harvest.

And God gives this advice to would-be Buffys. “I know the pain, the violence, the heartache, yes and the sheer evil that hides in the heart. But I am not willing to risk a single good seedling to root out any number of weeds. Not one!” To which I say “stupid!” and God agrees … but adds, “trust me.”

Add comment Print Version July 18th, 2014

Experimental Theology and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy

Thoughts

Richard Beck at Experimental Theology has been posting a series of theological reflections on the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy.

A large part of Goldsworthy’s art, and what he is most notable for, is simply wandering out into the natural world and using natural materials–stones, thorns, leaves, flowers, branches, ice–to create a piece of art. Sometimes the artwork is a structure or sculpture. Often the art is a pattern, a bit of order imposed upon the randomness of nature. For example:

Andy Goldsworthy: rowan leaves with hole

Andy Goldsworthy: rowan leaves with hole

When I encountered Goldsworthy’s work my first thought was this: That is what the Christian life should be like. This artform is the perfect metaphor for how we should move and act in the world.

Goldsworthy’s art is fascinating and I like what Beck does bringing it together with his thoughts on transience in Ecclesiastes.

As a bonus Beck’s posts have some great images of the art. Others can be found very easily. There is also a wonderful 2001 documentary about Goldsworthy available on YouTube showing him at work.

 

Add comment Print Version July 17th, 2014

‘Comets and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide’

Thoughts

Comet West

Comet West

More from the Renaissance Mathematicus’ ‘Rough Guide’ series:

In the standard mythologised history of astronomy of the Early Modern Period comets are only mentioned once. We get told, in classical hagiographical manner, how Tycho Brahe observed the great comet of 1577 and thus smashed the crystalline spheres of Aristotelian cosmology freeing the way for the modern astronomy. That’s it for comets, their bit part in the drama that is the unfolding of the astronomical revolution is over and done with, don’t call us we’ll call you. The problem with this mythological account is that it vastly over emphasises the role of both Tycho and the 1577 comet in changing the view of the heavens and vastly under rates the role played by comets and their observations in the evolution of the new astronomy in the Early Modern Period. I shall deal with the crystalline spheres and their dissolution in a separate post and for now will follow the trail of the comets as they weave their way through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries changing our perceptions of the heavens and driving the evolution of the new astronomy. I have dealt with various aspects of this story in earlier posts but rather than simple linking I will outline the whole story here.

Add comment Print Version July 16th, 2014

Teaching Spirituality?

Essays |Spirituality

Ignatius, looking up

Ignatius, looking up

I am sitting here fruitlessly trying to write something for The Way. The October issue is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Heythrop College by focusing on the teaching of spirituality. That’s something I have spent a lot of time doing and thinking about but I am struggling to find a way in right now — something specific rather than rambling. So in the good spirit of procrastination (or maybe I am seeking inspiration) I’ve been looking over some of the things I have written for The Way before. The first thing I wrote, ten years ago, is in some sense foundational for me: Looking at God Looking at You. In a way, all I believe about teaching spirituality is built on the insight of Ignatius that all spiritual exercises are best begun with a moment asking how God is actually looking at me, then and there — and the confidence that an answer is to be expected — which says something about God and something about human being.

I suppose I believe that the teaching of spirituality is an experiential affair and that God is the best teacher. One phrase became a sort of mantra for me during my theology studies in Berkeley: how would we do this if we believed God were real? By ‘this’ I mean do theology, do spiritual direction, give the Exercises, teach spirituality, be a Jesuit — anything. And by ‘real’ I mean here, present, available for real interaction, really real.. More than that — initiating, acting, relating, desiring, responding — pick your verb.

There’s a kind of teaching of spirituality that deliberately takes a distanced stance — in theory you could study spirituality in this way as an atheist — and I can see its necessity. But I suppose what interests me is studying spirituality from the inside and teaching from that place. There’s a nest of activities that sort of stack together and influence one another. There’s spiritual accompaniment in all its range from giving the full Exercises to chatting at the bus stop with the central focus on exploring that question ‘how is God here, now, with me?’. That focus imposes a congruence between way one ‘learns’ and the way another ‘teaches’ — because both are listening and looking for the signs of God getting in there first. Half the things I have written for The Way have explored that focus and its relationship to the text and practise of the Spiritual Exercises.

Then there’s another level to the stack: how would we teach spiritual accompaniment if we believed God were real? Again the focus invites a congruence or exposes its lack. We start with inviting trainees to be always looking for God looking at them — and not just notionally but in spiritual exercises, then in demonstrations of spiritual accompaniment, and in observed practice. There is of course some theorising too, some looking at texts, some model-guided thinking — but the core skill we ‘teach’ is that of recognising God looking back when you gaze at God — and sniffing that out when the same thing is going on in others. In our way of seeing things that is the core Ignatian skill too — discernment of spirits.

Discernment of spirits — and getting better at it — also forms the focus of supervision as we see it. There are approaches to supervision that are agnostic about the kind of practice being supervised — therapy, direction, ministry, pastoral care, etc. But I believe in congruence — supervision of spiritual accompaniment best applies the focus of spiritual accompaniment to the practice itself. God doesn’t disappear when we move to a meta-level. We use discernment to bring discernment to the focus and see how God is acting in our accompaniment. And when we teach supervision too, the same congruence imposes itself.

Now, of course, we do not live in a society or culture particularly prone to respecting the possibility or worth of that central question. Indeed that initial paper for The Way was mainly spent exploring four ways that modernity leads us to ‘mind-blindness’ about God and how Ignatius, in this practice, resists each. Ultimately, it is experience that convinces. The spiritual director’s part (or the supervisor’s or the trainer’s) is to make some space — experiential and maybe theoretical — so that they can discover the real God looking back when they look God-ward. In this sense discernment is epistemologically basic, being its own way of ‘knowing’.

Why do I trust this focus myself? For three reasons (like the Spanish Inquisition the number keeps rising!). First, because I had a spiritual director who kept asking me the question and expecting me to be able to answer. At first I thought she was nuts but then surprised myself by being able to grope towards an answer, which she was able to teach me to trust and follow. Secondly by then using my theology studies to understand how what I could experience was possible! Thirdly by trying to articulate both those experiences to a groups of practitioners and trainers and finding it effective and teachable.

I guess I have found something to say, however cursorily. I wonder.

Add comment Print Version July 15th, 2014

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All Things Seen and Unseen?

Rob Marsh, SJ is a Jesuit interested in theology, spirituality, computers and the web. Here you'll find homilies, reflections, essays on theology and spirituality, some thoughts on chronic illness, and the odd bit of code. more...

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