Thursday, 7 June 2007

Brief words about John Macquarrie

Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, who is referenced in the link in the title of this post, died on the 28th of May. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

I always found Macquarrie to have a blend that is rare in a theologian. His books combined strong knowledge of liturgy and sacrament with an unusual dose of common sense in pastoral application.

For all of my passion for the liturgy, liturgical scholars, focussing so on 'sign and symbol,' too often lost sight of that their supposition about what such symbols would actually mean in practise (based on their knowledge of history and so forth) could be far off the mark. John Macquarrie could seem to be stating the obvious in some cases, but actually he had the openness (I'm tempted to say courage, because going against the grain can make one seem less than in the know) to point out the gap there can be between theory and practise in worship.

For example, in the western Catholic churches (by contrast with the eastern Orthodox), that baptism, confirmation, and first reception of the Eucharist were separated rites was an historical accident. (I'll explain the history at another time, not to be diverted from my point now.) In recent decades, liturgical scholars, with a perfectly sound basis, were looking to make the 'sacraments of initiation' a whole. John Macquarrie was one of few who pointed out that, though the earlier Christian traditions in worship would have been different, and though Confirmation's being a separate rite, administered long after baptism for most of us, was 'accidental,' the value that Confirmation has come to have as a 'rite of passage' and affirmation of adult faith should not be overlooked.

He also was very open about how liturgists place such strong emphasis on baptism that they can fail to see that other Christians (including other priests and theologians) might not find this to be a useful perspectice. Indeed, baptism is crucially important, and participation in the Eucharist, for example, a privilege of baptism. Yet, speaking as one who saw an attitude of 'the only vocation is baptism' wipe out the richness of Roman Catholic consecrated life, I think Macquarrie (who of course was not speaking of that particular context) was spot on.

I therefore wanted to offer this small tribute to a man of great knowledge, insight, and candour, whose works I have enjoyed and found immensely enriching.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

This once, I shall quote Bertrand Russell :)

It assuredly is obvious that Bertrand Russell and I would have huge philosophical differences - though I do think that, had I been around in his day, I might rather have enjoyed having a pint with this rogue, and we at least could have had some common ground in politics and pacifism. How can I not admire one who did not back down despite being, as legend has it, the most hated man in London at the time? (Not, of course, that I'd ever wish to be hated by anyone, anywhere - but it's often a lonely world for me, because conformity, sadly, is valued much more than creativity. I would never compromise a principle, and loathe conformity - I have no respect for authority, but fear it too much to rebel.)

I was reading a Russell essay in which he asserted that "Belief in life after death comes from emotion, not reason." I believe there is an afterlife, of course, though I'd be hardput to define this - I'm wondering if Russell is anywhere now. But I identified a good deal with some of his irritable musing.

Russell sees part of the 'emotion' that inspires belief in an afterlife as coming from an exalted opinion of humanity. High opinions of mankind occur only in the abstract. "Of men in the concrete, most of us think the vast majority very bad." Russell has a point that abominations and ethical doctrines by which they are prompted hardly are evidence of an intelligent creator. However, I doubt that most of us think the majority of people are wicked. (I spent many years assuming that most people were striving to show virtue, love, and compassion... and I have the scars to prove this, because I naturally was taken for a fool.) Still, those abominations justified by supposed ethics or doctrine irritate me no less than my atheist friend here.

I have no desire to be an atheist - though I occasionally have admitted to an atheist friend that it must be restful at times. Being a theist can be very trying. :) I suppose that, if one believes in just a Ground of Being or something, or is a deist and sees a creator as setting the world in motion and then leaving it alone, at least the eternal problem of evil can be set aside. Those with classic Jewish or Christian views (including myself, of course) have quite a dilemma. We believe in a Creator God, who remains involved with this creation. I believe it was David Hume who commented that, if God wills evil, it is incompatible with his beneficence, but, if it happens against his will, what happened to that concept of omnipotence?

(Yes, I know all about Augustine and the 'absence of good.' I even know what he meant in context, and all about the dualism he was refuting and omnipotence he was responding. However, if anyone in a pastoral situation shrugs off the others' pain with 'but there is no evil - it is the absence of good,' I shall see to it that he gets forty years in purgatory - and don't think I'm not connected.)

Here is Bertrand Russell again: "The world in which we live can be understood as a result of muddle and accident; but if it is the outcome of deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend."

Well, I may disagree with that concept - because I believe there is some divine purpose, though I cannot define that any more than I can the resurrection or incarnation. (Such things make perfect sense only at prayer - reciting the Doxology and believing every word is a far cry from explaining the Trinity.) Yet I have often felt the same way as Russell did, albeit in a different context. I loathe how many Christians use the term "God's will", invariably to mean pain, punishment, suffering and evils.

Much as I have had the privilege of reading the best of theology, I also was all too exposed to the miserable concept of God that, having been absorbed in early childhood, was sufficient to conjure up goblins who still haunt me now and then. It was easy to get the impression that, though one may enjoy eternal happiness once one was dead (I'm still trying to figure out why 'eternity' only began once one was buried...), this vale of tears was a battleground between God and Satan, and the latter tended to win until some final conflict.

This world is largely terrible - please don't think I'm in some dream world. But God was handing out suffering left and right - whether to punish the wicked or try those who aspired after virtue. There was no concept of deification - only the escape of suffering in the next life. I'm thinking of a few very intelligent, learned priests I knew who nonetheless were delighted if a new undertaking led to someone's becoming ill, dropping dead unexpectedly, losing life savings - whatever. After all, if it was a good work, awful things had to happen. If it were not good, Satan would not try to stop it.

No, I haven't been drinking. Ask anyone who is fifty or older and has a good memory - or read James Joyce if you have the time. And please don't think I'm restricting this to Catholicism! I met some evangelicals who had a far drearier picture - as if they had the only way to Christ, most Christians were 'in error,' Satan was so busy deceiving Christians that most were unaware they were headed for hell... one had the impression that Satan was more in charge than God was.

Would anyone care to hear what I think about holy wars? No, I did not think you would... but the less reticent Bertrand Russell would comment, and I would agree, that 'moral sense' does not prove the existence of God or afterlife. Knowledge of right and wrong varies. "Are Christ or Nietzsche right – is the Christian or Hitler immortal?"

I think that concepts of "God's will" should be reserved for philosophical arguments, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were preparing when they used the 'evil is the absence of good' (clever arguments, by the way, in the Aristotelian fashion.) Yes, I believe God is active in creation - and that there well may be more miracles than any of us realise. But the term "God's will" is too often used without compassion, or, worse, to depict a God of suffering (acceptable, in my book, only when one is speaking of the Incarnate God on the cross - and even that came about naturally, because of human violence.)

Here is an interesting book on the problem of evil (from a Christian perspective) -

And, all right, here is Bertrand Russell -

Friday, 1 June 2007

All these I have observed from my youth...

Much as I sometimes enjoy participating on a theology forum (even if half the contributors seem more self absorbed than otherwise), I sigh whenever anyone makes reference to the incident of Jesus and the Rich Young Man. Discussions on that passage always lead to the usual "let me feel guilt rather than gratitude" diversions, ending with "we are just too comfortable..."

I had another thought, and one which may be far more realistic if less dramatic. It is not that I think the rich don't have that eye of the needle about which to be concerned, because all too much wealth was acquired through the suffering of others, injustice, even crime. (I do not see sanctity as necessarily all that easy for the poor, either, for some reason... maybe it's obvious.) Yet I doubt that Jesus was suggesting that everyone had to sell all he had and give it to the poor to achieve salvation. I believe it was aimed at the particular, smug little bastard to whom he was speaking.

Notice how, when RYM asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus mentioned the commandments (Lord, how banal...) :) , the young man replied that he'd observed all of them for his entire life. Now, that indeed would be quite an accomplishment - and it is a statement which, coming from anyone other than Jesus himself (who, being perfect in all virtues including humility, would find no need to mention), is an excellent example of when self absorption masquerades as self esteem. What did he expect Jesus to do? (Notice how, unlike most approaching Jesus, he was not asking for forgiveness or healing.) Declare the future of Judaism saved, open a bottle of champagne, and give him Swedish massage?

Jesus did have a very broad, Semitic sense of humour now and then - but I suppose he knew that this was one case where the RYM would not have caught the irony in "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Why bother? What repentance would be necessary for someone who'd managed to observe the commandments since his youth - and who had no reticence about advertising the fact?