Sunday, 25 November 2007

Meet you in hell before I stand you another...

Forgive me - This is one Sunday when I have no friend to meet in a pub, so I suppose my discouragement left me unable to resist quoting that old toast.

The Feast of Christ the King is a great favourite of mine. I can think of easily fifty themes on which a sermon for this feast could be structured... in fact, if my mind gets fully into gear, perhaps I'll compose one and post it later this week. I may not be John Henry Newman, John Wesley, or Benedict XVI, but I can guarantee that whatever sermon I composed would have to be an improvement over the travesty I heard this morning.

Most of the time, I attend churches where there is exceptional music, liturgy, and preaching (well, most of the time. I've never much favoured those of one young curate who always seems to include anecdotes about games he played as a child.) This morning, I was delayed, and ended up paying one of my occasional visits to a local Catholic church. (It shall remain nameless. There are many words of praise I can sing for this parish in other ways, so I am not going to refer to its name lest anyone think the bitter 'meal' of this morning's sermon, which still leaves me with some indigestion, is standard fare - quite the contrary!)

Not having been there recently, I had not known that the parish now had a Tridentine Mass. With Papa Benedict, whose motu proprio was long overdue, I love it, but clearly some people there did not, and many complained, on the way out, that they felt as if they hadn't been to Mass at all. A relatively young priest said the Mass impeccably (if one likes 1962 rubrics... it was a basic 'dialogue Mass,' but the people don't even recite the Credo and Lord's Prayer, and the canon is silent), though I doubt he had yet seen the light of day in 1962. His sermon killed the effect - for my readers to get the picture, it was the sort of sermon I indeed heard in 1962, and which James Joyce immortalised in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He preached entirely about Hell, and indeed read from Alphonsus Liguori's work on the subject, quoting passages about the physical torments of hell, especially for sins of the flesh! (I suppose I'm home free... though I have heard there are ten commandments... and something else about said commandments sealing a covenant, first at Sinai, which foreshadowed one which involved a Church...)

I have some sympathy with the great Alphonsus, of course. In fact, some of his writings on moral theology, which so allow for how one can be deficient in intention, will, or reason, are positively brilliant. Alphonsus, who was bishop of the diocese which neighboured on that of my parents, was dealing with people who had used 'the son of a bitch had it coming to him' as a defence for murder since the days of the Roman Empire - I once heard of a case where one man killed another (this in my parents' day, not Alphonsus') because the guy who was murdered was grandson of a man who'd stolen a piece of cheese from the killer's own grandfather (a cheese merchant.) I suppose that Alphonsus was trying to put a bit of the fear of hell into those in the congregation (not a majority, but surely those who paid for the stained glass windows) who might belatedly be expected to grow a conscience.

For this young priest, I had no sympathy! He kept going on as if Hell were our default location for the next life. Of course, when he mentioned that, with this being the end of the liturgical year, he's going to use Alphonsus' writings for his meditations this week, I could not help but think of how many more suitable writings I can think of to warm up for Advent... (If he's dead set on Alphonsus, how about the humane, pastoral, loving care for penitents?)

Christ is King of all creation... the judge who sends many of us to hell... charming picture... Cosmic redemption, anyone?

It is unfortunate that, in our teaching, sermons, and focus, including in some elements of worship, we have lost the awe which the earliest Christians had for the resurrection - and which was expressed in their liturgy. Just as one example, Martin Luther, who whatever his strengths did illustrate an uncommonly high degree of angst, was totally preoccupied for years with whether his contrition was sufficient. The prayer books, which many read at the Eucharist before the time of any congregational responses, focussed unduly on Jesus' death as a source of forgiveness (to the exclusion of little details like the resurrection, ascension, public ministry as prophet, hidden glory, coming in glory which we await...), and tended to consist of a string of prayers for mercy.

Catholics, for all their reputation for having excessive guilt, are extremely tolerant in doctrine. There is no idea that only Catholics (or Christians) have a chance at eternal joy in God's presence - or that God is a vengeful, or at best indifferent, judge who consigns most of his creation to hell! I've seen far worse in some other varieties of Christian, who seem to think that even baptised believers are headed for a fiery destination if they haven't pronounced the magic words of a second 'born again' formula.

I often wonder, if I were an unbeliever, if 'believe, and behave, and obey on all things, or head for hell' would do anything except get me running in another direction. I would not care to know a God such as that. I'm not denying the wickedness in this world, of course, nor am I minimising the obstacles to union with God inherent in our own sinfulness. (The heinous sins I personally do not consider to be the result of weakness - I'd call them demonic, because they are against even the instincts of our humanity. But note that I am referring to the Hitlers and Pol Pots, not to most of us garden variety Christians.) But our sins hamper the intimacy to which God calls us - and repentance opens us to this intimacy.

I never discourse on Hell! Yet I shall quote a reference from a sermon I heard, also recently, in response to questions about hell, which I greatly prefer. "You can go to hell - if you really insist!"

Presumably my readers would be more interested in the positive side of the afterlife (and may even believe that our life in Christ actually begins right here...), so I'll close with a quote from Papa Benedict. Would that I could write one paragraph of this quality before I die!

"Heaven, therefore, must first and foremost be determined christologically. It is not an extra-historical place into which one goes. Heaven's existence depends upon the fact that Jesus Christ, as God, is man, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself...It is by being with Christ that we find the true location of our existence as human beings...Christ is the temple of the final age; he is heaven, the new Jerusalem, he is the cultic space for God...

If heaven depends on being in Christ, then it must involve a co-being with all those who, together, constitute the body of Christ. Heaven is a stranger to isolation. It is the open society of the communion of saints, and in this way the fulfilment of all human communion."

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Who would want to be under 25?

The link in the title is to an interview with Imelda Staunton, who is one of my favourite actresses, and is related to her new role in Cranford (which features just about every living favourite actress of mine!) Imelda and I are about the same age - though, having seen (and loved) her in "Vera Drake," where she seemed much older, I sometimes have to remind myself of this. :) Though her interview was about acting roles for women who are beyond their first youth, I longed to borrow the title.

It often puzzles me why women in our age group (and many who are even younger) are often so preoccupied with looking younger, or being thought to be very young. I remember a conversation I once had with a well-known hairdresser (the sort who 'does' the famous), during which he was telling me that some 'makeovers' do not at all make the women look prettier - but that does not matter, because what they want is their 'new look.' I was all the more surprised to learn that even women who are 20 sometimes will do anything to change appearance, even if it is not flattering in the least, if they think it makes them look younger.

Looking back over my life, indeed I had great promise as a young woman - and I'll concede I bitterly regret that, with being forced into business jobs for sheer bread and butter, I never had any chance to fulfil that promise. I enjoyed my years of university and graduate studies (well, they are still going on... but I mean the first 20 years or so of my education), singing opera, writing, lecturing - and it would have broken my heart had I ever known I'd hit my peak at about 25 and then slide 'downhill all the way.' Yet I honestly haven't the slightest desire to be very young again!

I suppose that it would be different were my chief interests in, for example, athletics, or becoming a ballerina, or otherwise in areas in which youth is a huge asset. To pick one of my interests out of the sky, though young adults indeed can be knowledgeable in theology, truly innovative thought, wisdom, unusual insight, the skill to be a spiritual director, and other aspects require far more experience and time to mature - rather after the fashion of any good wine save that served in Cana. (Yes, I know that neither Jesus of Nazareth nor Francis of Assisi had long earthly lives, but Jesus is in a class by himself and Francis had many gifts, of which wisdom was not one.) There are various theologians, worthy of great distinction, who are in my age group - and, for that field, they are just beyond babyhood.

I would not be 20 again for anything on earth. Perhaps those who look back (in most cases - I certainly could understand if someone had a devastating illness or some other horrid problem later) are glorifying the memories.

I'm thinking of when I happened to meet a girl with whom I'd attended school. Though she did have much school involvement in those days, and I'm sure has genuinely happy memories of much of this, having known her at the time I am fully aware that she was a sensitive sort who seemed to spend about a third of her time crying in the loo. (I naturally would never remind her of this!)

Of course, those who did not have the good fortune to be able to pursue higher education have a very idealistic, even ridiculous, picture of what those years were like. (I was delighted when I received my degree - not so much so when a cousin told me, "This was fun - now you have to go to work.") The images of endless fun, carefree living, and so forth are very much off the mark - just ask any student preparing for finals, or trying to crank out a thesis, or juggling miserable jobs with massive studies.

My own memory is a video camera (which naturally did not exist in my youth), where many others have more of a photo album mentality. Think of it - a photograph of an occasion (even if it was nothing that wonderful) can make things appear splendid. Videos capture too much - that's their downfall. :)

So, I shall record this virtually useless entry mainly to record my puzzlement. (I also shall pause for a moment to think of the cast of Cranford - Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith et al - and doubt that anyone would say their acting ability is less than that of those much younger...) For me, 50 is about the brink of any possible age of wisdom. The early days are valuable training, formation, what-not, but looking back to them with 'rose coloured glasses' only makes us pine for what might have been (though what 'might have been' may have turned out no better), or picture a blissful lost age that makes us discontented with this one.

(That is allowed at the age of 80 only! I had no qualms about my mother and her friends speaking with fondness of the war years... even knowing that no one could picture their 20s as being a happy or idyllic era!)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Some brief thoughts on Richard Dawkins

It is odd what one can find in one's 'mail boxes' (electronic or real) on any one day when one maintains an Internet site. Within today's batch were an announcement of a presentation on Thomas Aquinas with the excellent and apt title of "How to Be Happy," which made me glad that people attending will (possibly for the first time in their lives) be exposed to the extensive emphasis Thomas actually placed on this. I also received an email from an irate evangelical, who was scolding me for including an essay on Chaucer's "Miller's Tale," which he saw as an endorsement of adultery and sorcery (astrology... I had not noticed that Chaucer exactly recommended listening to astrologers in his text, and the adulterer hardly fares well), because I find it to be an hilarious story. My mail also included a few with obscene subject lines - I did not open them, because they clearly were advertisements for pornography sites, but I dare say that whatever search mechanisms the originators use do not have the sophistication to distinguish between 'bestiary,' the mediaeval home of the unicorn, gryphon, and ant-lion, and a vaguely similar word which... has no connection with any practises I would be likely to embrace. I then received a highly unwelcome package from someone who clearly has not read my site (mediaeval spirituality) or most of this blog (which I'd hardly find a depressing spot), and who saw my infrequent, brief illustrations of points which referred to my convent life as imprisoning me in some form of bitterness and inaction.

Will someone please get me another gin? I'd best make this one a double... (Oh, heavens... now I'll be getting email about 'substance abuse' from those who have no understanding of irony...)

As my faithful readers know, I've been studying the philosophy of religion in great detail this past year. Never one to scimp on the scope of an area, I 'spent' this afternoon with Richard Dawkins (in the sense of reading his works, not having a gin - for all of our ideological differences, the man indeed has wit and intelligence, and I'm not sure a pub visit with him would be entirely unpleasant.) Now, I suppose that, in Dawkins' view, I am rather hopeless, if not stupid or lacking in intellectual integrity, considering his assertion that "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument." But we faith heads can take heart - his views of Yahweh are so hateful that, by contrast, we get off easily.

I am neither scientist nor philosopher, nor (with the study and writing schedule I have now) do I have the spare energy to refute Dawkins in the first place. Yet certain thoughts came to me when I was exploring his work. I know, from other (sincere and honourable) email in my inbox that a few of my readers think I am wasting time (which could be better spent with, let us say, scriptures or classic theologians... though it may be no surprise that I hang out with them quite a bit as well) by reading the works of atheists or 'Christians' of odd bent. My own source of strength (beyond divine grace - and I'm not about to try to explain just what that is) is very intellectual. There are current philosophers, historians, and even theologians, with whose conclusions I would disagree drastically, yet whose work is of value for other reasons than fostering faith, or who (as in Dawkins case) raise questions which theists are overdue in addressing, and which require further scholarly treatment. (This is not to say that no one is taking care of the latter - but the matters under consideration should have been reviewed in more depth centuries ago.)

"The God Delusion" is a rant, and frankly a poor illustration for one of Dawkins' clear intelligence and learning. (By contrast, I found his Blind Watchmaker to be an excellent and worthwhile refutation of the 'design arguments' along the lines of Paley's, which I have long found to be more problematic than inspiring.) One could receive the impression that all Christians are miserable souls who are haunted by guilt, longing for the liberating truths which Dawkins shall impart. (I know there are those who were exposed to miserable religious ideas and threats of hell - but the extreme examples Dawkins gives somehow remind me more of pathology than faith. I cannot recall any element of my own life, for example - whether presentation of catechesis, my essays, any part of my prayer, or any element of metanoia and conversion, which has the slightest connection with avoiding a fiery destiny. I never think of hell at all.) It is more irksome that Dawkins assumes that his own colleagues (scientists) who are theists are basically liars - pretending to a Christian faith to win acceptance, or that those who, for example, still espouse a form of teleological argument are in an "epistemological safe zone" where rational argument could not reach them.

Yet Dawkins work, as I see it, falls into two categories for a faith head like myself. Such scholarly works as "The Blind Watchmaker" have enormous value - just as, for example, for all my disagreement with John Dominic Crossan, I think his work on first century Palestine is ground breaking and valuable to any theologian. Books such as the "God Delusion" seem far more aimed at a popular market of those ill informed, or 'burnt' by past religious experience, or who smugly assume that no one with any intelligence (...I suppose that John Hick, Josef Ratzinger, John Polkinghorne, and countless other geniuses are in that category) could believe in theism.

Even books in the latter category can be valuable. Philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as even the most avid Thomistic philosopher today would concede, in many cases indeed are self contradictory. Others are obsolete in expression. Still others seem distressingly naif, today, because they are based on long outdated scientific or historical premises. There need to be fresh presentations, even when some are of ancient ideas (...Plato and Thomas Aquinas, or Augustine and Aquinas, or Augustine and Aristotle, were hardly contemporaries...). The mockery of one such as Dawkins, narrow though it is, can inspire exceptional Christian writings.

I must add that I agreed with a large amount of what Dawkins did say in refutation of certain ideas. (I'll not devote much space to that, considering hate mail and assertions of certain varieties of 'Christian' whom Dawkins mentioned, if I believed in capital punishment, which of course I do not, I'd string them up at dawn. But, in half a century of being a Christian, I must admit that, happily, I've rarely, if ever, met the likes of those who write such letters or have such limited perspectives.) Pascal's Wager (which I'd always assumed to be rather ironic, but who knows?) indeed does seem an inspiration merely to feign belief in God. Richard Swinburne, whose work I respect in various ways, irritates me with his harping on courage and suffering being fostered by evil - and anyone who can state that the Holocaust gave Jews a chance to show courage and the like, as if this were part of a divine plan, ought to spend his Purgatory shining Eichmann's shoes.

Dawkins also is woefully correct about how certain presentations of Christian doctrines can lead to images of a masochistic, punishing, thought-reading (and more... I'm too weary to quote it all) God. Of course, I always have an allowance for that inspired scriptures still were written with human pens, and basically strong images of a faithful Yahweh, for example, can drown in justification for human violence. I also know that Anselm, Augustine, et al - whose writings on atonement and original sin can make my skin crawl - presented ideas which, while essentially expressing images of divine salvation, revelation, and fidelity, need serious, contemporary treatment which preserves the essential while tossing a good deal of the wrappings.

The bitter Christians whom Dawkins mentions, and whose pain I would never minimise, are hardly representative of the species. For Dawkins, religious ritual is a ‘charade.’ He also focuses on extremes – and on those whom religion has made miserable, where many Christians (and believers of all faiths) have found their faith to be highly enriching. One could come away thinking that religious practise means inevitable misery and pain. My own experience has been based on a model a far cry from neurotic guilt! Even when one considers conversion (to which we all have a constant calling) when it actually means (running for cover at introducing a forbidden word...) repentance, it more often is a peaceful, warm, lovely experience of being aware of the embrace of divine love. For many of us, it stems from no fear of hell, but from awareness of an invitation to greater intimacy.

I've rambled quite enough for today, but I'll add one last thought which may surprise those of you who know that my own reflections are often intended either to inspire prayer or virtue (even if in unconventional fashion), or to clarify misunderstood doctrines (argue to doomsday, but at least base it on the actual point you wish to smash.) Long live controversy! The disillusioned readers to whom Dawkins is appealing are nothing new - they were common during the Enlightenment, and haunted every pub in Oxford (where Dawkins is) during the "Crisis of Faith" in the 1800s (even if the other students were crowding in to see Newman.) I'll take an honest atheist over a sycophant or a supposed Christian who has only his own motives in mind. But many of those in the Victorian crisis of faith mode, for example, probably never had any faith to lose! Their 'faith' was based on a glorified image of family, or on fear, or on duty.

One cannot come to a mature faith (in many cases - I've heard not everyone is interested, and that a few here and there never give philosophical arguments a thought...) unless one thinks, and challenges, and forms one's own viewpoints. One cannot build intimacy with God on 'obedience' and 'duty' - that is formation for a child (or perhaps a soldier), but not for the Christian calling - which is love. If one actually is not a believer (though many an atheist, some quite prominent Christians later, is not an unbeliever for life), I'd prefer being true to what one really believes - one cannot develop one's true self by its denial.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Perhaps this will enlighten me - excellent link

This is not one of my own 'blogging days,' but I just visited Father Gregory's blog, and the excellent article to which I've linked in the title not only makes superb points but just may get me to develop a slim grasp of the anthropic and quantum mechanics - both of which I've mentioned in recent entries.