Sunday, 31 August 2008

Idols are silver and gold

Actually, that's not the world's best heading - it just came into my mind. I am under huge stress at the moment, so I'm not likely to be at my most creative. No - I'll not mention the source of the stress here, not only because that is not my style but because, over my life, I have found that asking others for support of any kind is more likely to lead to further trouble than to assistance. There are too many out there who, for example, have to hear of a problem and pile on all the further worst case scenarios - or who delight in saying they know better (one acquaintance of mine, now deceased, couldn't speak a sentence without a 'put down') - or who have to enumerate how what happened to you could not happen to them (because they are so afraid it would...)

I'm just going to share an old meditation I wrote for a prayer network. I didn't know that some of my best contributions (one that I cannot find, which related to how speech and other elements of our faculties were mirrors of God's creative power, among them) were never used. It's more a spot where people spout about how a scripture reading reminded them of housecleaning or baseball - and my readers know that's not any place where I'm likely to excel. So, for those who are interested - here's a meditation that came to me, some time ago, about the readings quoted at the top of the entry. (I make things look too easy - meditations take me a minimum of six hours to compose.)

Ezekiel 2:1-5 – Mark 6:1-6 – II Corinthians 12:2-10

"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

One eternal truth which is common to our lessons today is that divine revelation is not likely to find a ready ear in the congregation – whether its messenger is a visionary prophet, an apostle witnessing to the Risen Saviour, or the Incarnate Word Himself. Often, this is not for a lack of initial enthusiasm. People clamour for the exotic quality of the 'mystical' or miraculous, and indeed may be self-congratulatory (only in the interests of sharing the good news, of course) for having an association with those who manifest such gifts.

Mark, not being one for angels or Magi, makes clear at the outset that Jesus’ own earthly vocation was to proclaim the kingdom by preaching repentance. (In earlier chapters, we see Jesus exercise authority over various human ills, demons, and even death – but we shall see in chapter 7 that the apostles he commissioned, despite their glorying in the delegated authority, did not grasp his message much better than the home town boys whispering about the carpenter’s kid.) Ezekiel was God’s voice to those, caught in the power and tumult of the Babylonian empire, who had descended into pagan ways, and needed to be turned back to trust in God and to worship. Paul, whose own demonstrations of charisma were assuredly beyond the amateur class, was addressing ardent Christians who were a pastoral nightmare. The word of the prophet is always a summons to repentance – that is, to constant transformation. Indeed weakness is the strength, for it is only in being stripped of self-deception and recognising the limitations of one’s own vision that one may respond to grace.

The Corinthians provide pastors of any era with a capsule course in idolatry, gnosticism, false mysticism, iniquity, and internal discord. They were an impossible lot – and, judging from Clement of Rome’s epistle a generation later, so they would remain. In his delightfully insightful Paul: A Critical Life, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor notes that "Virtually every statement (Paul) made took root in their minds in a slightly distorted form, and from this defective seed flowered bizarre approaches to … the Christian life."

II Corinthians is a combination of two epistles. The total number of Paul’s letters to Corinth, allowing for those to which he refers for which we do not have extant texts, was five. The bane of Paul’s existence were the 'spirit people,' a group whose members believed that their superior wisdom made them perfect. The preoccupation with wisdom had led them to theism, and Paul needed to remind them of the importance of Christ. Their belief in the irrelevance of the physical (hardly a viewpoint in accord with the Incarnation), led them to shrug off such small matters as incest or eating meat which was sacrificed to idols. The wealthy clique were feasting, leaving only the bread and wine for those less fortunate. It appears that they saw growth in the spiritual life as a matter of achievement and power rather than metanoia. The Corinthians had seen ample manifestations of healing, prophecy and the like in Paul’s own ministry – indeed, one has the sense in this chapter that he is being rather ironic about those who stole his thunder – yet these had become distractions for them rather than leading them to worship of the Author of the gifts.

Idols come in many forms – and one may not worship at the altar of the true God if one is offering homage to one’s false self. It is unlikely that many of us are building temples to Ba’al, but our own idols are the more dangerous, perhaps, in being less easily recognised. One affliction of the devout is that we can come to see our weaknesses or sins as virtues, our distractions as evidence of unusual commitment.

Benedict of Nursia:

"If we are eager to be raised to that heavenly height, to which we can climb only through humility during our present life, then let us make for ourselves a ladder like the one Jacob saw in his dream. On that ladder angels of God were shown to him going up and down in a constant exchange between heaven and earth. (There is) this difference for us: our proud attempts at upward climbing will really bring us down, whereas to step downwards in humility is the way to lift our spirit up towards God. Paradoxically, to climb upwards will take us down to earth, but stepping down will lift us towards heaven. The steps themselves, then, mark the decisions we are called to make in the exercise of humility and self-discipline."

In II Corinthians 6:16, Paul had written, "Can there be a compact between the temple of God and idols? And the temple of the living God is what we are." Grace is a share in the divine life itself. We, the Church, are the temple – before the transcendent God emphasised in Ezekiel and the Incarnate Saviour who assumed and deified our humanity. Our offering is repentance – the disposition to hearing the truth which smashes the idols we create and leads us to the loving response which is transformation. Our sacrifice is to make our lives a Eucharist – a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

Paul, who had been privileged with contemplation, had a glimpse of the divine, transcendent glory, to which the natural accompaniment is an awareness of the limitations of one’s vision. Always a devout Jew, a Pharisee who saw Israel (and, later, the new Israel where all nations worshipped the true God) as a priestly people, he knew as well that even what is good in itself (such as the Law, or the charismatic gifts of the spirit) could become an idol.

His 'thorn' well may have been knowing, as pastor, that he was powerless to stop the factions in his community – or perhaps, as one whose zeal could exceed his prudence, that he had contributed. Paul knew that mystic consolations can become a distraction – and, since perhaps no other local church had seen more manifestations of charismatic gifts, the Corinthians were proof enough that these are no guarantee of virtue. He would not found his apostolic mission on calls to ‘the third heaven,’ but only on witness to the resurrection.

The temptation shall ever endure to build ‘altars’ to our own honour and glory, in memory of God. The idol can be, as at Corinth, a sense of superiority which excludes love, an attraction for the magical rather than the ‘banal’ actions of gratitude and worship, or a false idea of the life in Christ as ‘achievement.’ It is only in repentance, thanksgiving, and praise that we can assume our vocation as a priestly people – our calling to be the Temple. Humility, that is, truth, unvarnished by the distractions of the false self, must dispose us to see our ‘weakness’ and embrace the divine life of which we are offered a share.

Karl Rahner – “Current Problems in Christology,” 1954, Theological Investigations

"Ultimately, an individual human recognition of truth only makes sense as a beginning, a promise, of the recognition of God – and this latter, whether in the beatific vision or elsewhere, can only be genuine and a source of blessing when it is recognised at the point where the act of apprehension and the act of limitation specifying the thing known surpass themselves and move into what cannot be grasped and is unlimited. All the more does any truth about the self-revealing God open us up into what cannot be beheld: it is the beginning of what is limitless. The clearest and most lucid formulation, the holiest formula, the classical concentration of the Church’s centuries of work in prayer, thought, and struggle about the mysteries of God – these draw life, then, from the fact that they are beginning and not end, means and not goal, one truth that makes freedom for the – ever greater – Truth."

Switching gears - I ask anyone who reads this to pray for me at the moment. In a few weeks, if the problem I'm trying to resolve is 'fixed,' I comfort myself with the thought that I'll be able to turn a situation which has had me trembling for several weeks into a very funny story. :)

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

How do we speak the unspeakable?

I had the oddest memory today - and, as usual, it jarred rather unrelated reflections. It has been thirty years since I received my Master's in musicology, but, naturally, this means I once understood various modern languages. (I love languages - it saddens me that any fluency tends to disappear without regular usage. I cannot converse in any foreign languages any longer.) About ten years ago, I was on a flight from London to Rome, during which I had a brief conversation with an English speaking seat mate. Shortly afterwards, a German lady, who saw I was in the aisle seat and could access the overhead lockers, asked me if I could get her bag, which I was happy to do. (My lack of ability to converse in German any longer did not mean I did not understand.) The seat mate to whom I referred began to expound a theory that humans mainly communicate by telepathy... which I hardly think is proven by that one whose first language is English happens to understand German.

I often have considered how religious concepts can be confusing because of the limitations of language - and here I do not refer only to the limitations of our knowledge. In my recent Old Testament studies, and my continuing pursuit of philosophy, I have become aware of what I've always known but never considered. One who is a Christian, very Catholic in theology, has a faith based in Palestine (with much development of revelation before Jesus' time), philosophy rooted in Greece (and brilliantly used by great Christian theologians, though the ancient Greeks believed in no Creator God), a filter of everything through Latin (I understand no Hebrew, and my New Testament Greek is barely adequate - but the theological and historical works started out in Latin.... except for today, when everything challenging seems to start in German...).

I am far from expert in the philosophies of Eastern Asia (I don't know why, but in recent years it has become taboo to say "Orient," and, as with everyone who has been a theology student, when I say "Asian" the Far East is not what comes to mind.) I shall admit here that, when my philosophical studies take me into the realm of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism (and what a variety of those there are!), I am completely puzzled. I was reading a collection of Buddhist scriptures this week, and could not understand three pages. (I can read the works of 'mystics in love' of any tradition and feel a kinship - just as I can invoke the Trinity in every one of my prayers without being able to define what it means.)

I was thinking of what the Christian missionaries to China or Japan must have faced. (Even in our own day, acculturation at the time of Vatican II presented special problems. When Latin was no longer used in the parish Eucharist, there were often no equivalent, understandable terms for translation into Japanese.) The entire philosophical system of the East is another world from western philosophy - and, where priests may not be philosophers, let us say that they've had at least a smattering of Aquinas, Augustine et al through the years. I tend to apophatic theology in my own life, yet call my God by many names: Creator, Redeemer, Saviour, Holy Spirit, Trinity, Father, Spouse. For Christians and Jews, certainly the divine essence can never fully be known, but our God is personal, is Creator, is one with whom we seek eternal intimacy. I cannot understand the 'nothingness' of the East, but can sense that this and various other terms in Eastern philosophy probably have a vastly different meaning than they would for the western mind.

I remember hearing that, when Saint Francis Xavier was a missionary, he adapted the Latin term Deus to Deusu amongst the Japanese. It sadly bore a very close resemblance to a Japanese term for 'great lie.' Of course, Jesuits often confuse the best of us, and I can only imagine the difficulties my own Franciscans encountered! It's quite bad enough to have a great saint give the rule of the Order as "live the gospel," thinking everyone would know just what that meant (it is no accident that the Franciscans have by far the largest number of canonised and beatified saints and the most outrageous heretics.) Then again, and here it is only an educated guess, I could easily see Franciscans using some version of any term that appealed to the masses.

There are many lifelong Christians (from backgrounds in Europe and what I call Asia) who would be hard put to even explain what the Eucharist is. (I don't mean the 'how' - I mean even the 'what,' which should have been imparted to them by age 6.) I can only imagine how utterly confusing the new terms, foreign approaches in proofs and arguments (which the East eschews), and catechesis derived from scholasticism must have been for those previously stepped in Confucius.

Of course, my own studies of Buddhism, Hinduism and the like are for a breadth of philosophical knowledge - purely academic, and not intended as a source of religious practise or faith. (My social conscience also reminds me, when I read some moving writing of a Hindu mystic, that I should hardly like to be in a position where caste was determined by past lives, and one could therefore treat the poor like ... in Italian we call it "pig's food." Not that many Christians do not do the same, but at least there's a vague sense that grace can reside in Galilean carpenters, tent makers and fishermen.) My Old Testament studies are fascinating, the more in that I often have been required to 'shelve' millennia of Christian thought and read the rabbinical commentaries, redactions, etc., to capture a glimpse of what these texts meant, and still mean, for those who did not, for example, see the Suffering Servant as Jesus. But that is quite another matter, for all the new territory I had to explore, because my own faith had its roots in Judaism.

I defy any Christian or Jew, unless his familiarity with Eastern philosophies is lengthy and broad, to not be humbled by his lack of understanding when first encountering the East. Humility, nonetheless, is a concept valuable for all and particularly needed by man of us with a passion for theology, so I see an immediate benefit. It is the 'other direction' that fills me with awareness of how concepts and language can limit us. I respect all faiths - but cannot help but wonder if we Christians forgot the limitations of language, did not sufficiently develop how to present the gospel in a manner understandable to those from drastically different traditions, and therefore left the East with a very small Christian population. (Rice runs out... one has to speak to the heart.) I would be less saddened if it were merely a case of honourable men (who more so, for example, than the Dalai Lama?) remaining faithful to ancient traditions and worshipping in a fashion I do not understand in depth. What pains me is that, in recent decades, China was largely left to Mao and atheism.

Footnote: This is no denial of the constant and heroic efforts, and enormous self sacrifice, of the many missionaries to China and Japan! I am just wondering if the limitations their cautious superiors imposed (however good the reason in theory) were excessive. In Christianity, those who believe God's essence cannot be known do not mean that he is 'nothing' - but that He is "My God and my All." Buddhism is not credal but philosophical - they will put no name to God, but I don't know that 'nothing' means for the Buddhist what it does in the west. Christians may have needed the ability to adapt beyond how they were able to speak to the hearts of some who later ended up with a real "nothing," atheism.

I've been too sombre today, so I shall add an anecdote. One of my friends, Anne, taught English language and literature to pupils who were about 12-13 years old. A daily feature of their class was to have a brief, 'fill in the blanks,' test of vocabulary. On one very rainy Tuesday, it happened that one question was "what a (blank) to sleep on a rainy Tuesday morning." Anne was concerned because most of the kids, rather than picking 'luxury' from the list, had chosen 'fallacy.' As you may have guessed, it indicated no deficiency in her pedagogy. As several explained, they indeed knew the meaning of fallacy - and chose this because "you never can!"

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

All things to all people?

All things to all people

I was reviewing some of my notes regarding the nineteenth century Church situation today. With hindsight, I can see where controversies popular at the time led to misunderstanding, confusion, and conflict which is a perpetual situation since the first Council of Jerusalem, where Paul won out over the highly fallible (and vacillating) Peter over the mission to Gentile Christians. (Most of us would consider Paul's 'victory' to be highly providential...) Just a cursory glance at the 19th century condition shows an odd potpourri! Tractarians were favouring 14th century liturgical practises and patristic theology. (I second the motion.) Modernists, such as the French Alfred Loisy, had a high Christology and great focus on the sacraments, but were trying not to undermine the magisterium but to refute Adolf von Harnack - whose image of Christianity had far too personal a focus. (Loisy wanted the pope to determine how doctrines evolve - the pope declined, but one in the near future would not only condemn Modernism but require all Roman clergy to take an oath against its ideas.) Evangelical Anglicans, who tended to focus on family but also to be what today might be termed fundamentalist in regard to scripture, saw emphasis on apostolic succession, as with the Tractarians, and Modernism as undermining the revelation in the bible.

I think it is important, when we read the works of theologians of any era, to recall that, more often than not, they were actively seeking to refute contrary ideas. As the simplest example, though Augustine's "evil is the absence of good" makes me shudder today (it must have been a small comfort for those thinking of Auschwitz...), Augustine was refuting dualism and defending omnipotence. Philosophical arguments are indeed valuable and essential, but they can be pastoral disasters.

I cannot recall the source now (I had quite a library of books from the earlier 20th century once upon a time), but one Roman Catholic work spoke about how Pius XI's condoning of 'natural regulation of births' was a dilemma for many Catholics - and in a way which would be unlikely to strike a mind today. Where we would be more likely to think of Catholic couples as either opposing the Church's position against artificial contraception, or a minority as promoting "natural family planning" as "marriage enrichment" (devout Catholics burn with no less passion than anyone else, but there is one variety which never speaks of physical desire, only of overwhelming need to express love in imitation of the Trinity.) The very devout, as this work indicated, were troubled in a totally different fashion. Previously, they had seen their vocation as including bringing new lives into this world to honour God (not that this is not a great blessing!) With Pius' allowing 'natural regulation,' and this including consideration for reasons to space or avoid births, they were faced with puzzlement - in their previous thinking, the more souls for heaven, the better, regardless of either hardship or advantages for their families. Those with such an approach well may have had an admirable sense of vocation, self sacrifice, and poverty according to state of life - but they now had to ponder whether their practise, previously lauded, might involve new ideas of what is right and wrong.

Obviously, I am no authority on married life, so let me move into the realm of liturgy - a more comfortable domain. I spent enough years in parish and archdiocesan ministries to know that, even in worship and sacrament, it is impossible to be 'all things to all people.' Westminster Cathedral, where the music and liturgy are impeccable, everyone does not sing everything, certain parts are in Latin, and the preaching tends to be quite rich in content, is packed even at weekday Vespers and Eucharist - but many a Catholic would insist that their approach didn't 'get the people involved' or was not 'relevant.' It might be considered too highbrow, though the congregation hardly consists entirely (or mainly!) of the wealthy or highly educated. I have personally known of parishes who did not want good musicians - it would make the people unlikely to sing (not that they were much ones for doing that in the first place), and 'getting the people to sing' is the highest of goals since talk of salvation went out of style.

In the Church of England, it was long a common custom for children to leave the Eucharist after the gospel for Sunday school (and for them not to receive communion until after Confirmation.) If a church established a creche for the little ones (even though there is no obligation to attend, and many of the children look forward to it all week), there will be those who think it marvellous, others who resent having the children not worship with their families. Some priests aim everything at children, hoping this will bring families into the congregation - some of us, myself at the top of the list, deplore what we find to be an aesthetic and intellectual wasteland.) Liturgists would see barring children from Communion as deplorable excommunication. Others might believe that admitting them to communion would mean insufficient respect and understanding. (The Council of Trent barred the little ones because they had not reached "the age of reason," and didn't need the forgiveness of sin of which the Eucharist was a source. That's rather a dismal opinion in my book.) Some of us cherish Evensong - others see it as not really being prayer because the choir sings the psalms.

Those of you who, like myself, survived the "youth liturgies" of the 1960s-70s, will verify that anyone who doubts there was penance in those days never sat through endless choruses of "Kumbaya." Yet they were popular, because of an entire youth culture of which they were a part. Those in attendance often made the mistake, ten or fifteen years later, of both thinking that what our generation found appealing at that age would still be popular and, worse, urging the kids to bring and sit with parents! None of us would have been there in 1970 had parents been necessary baggage.

I have no deep insights for any of you today. :) I'm only writing this (and, believe me, I could write reams were I to go beyond liturgy to social events, workshops, discussion groups, welcoming committees and the like) to reassure those new to churchgoing that liturgy is our greatest treasure and our eternal headache. But I comfort myself, having that idealism which only those who sat on liturgical committees thirty years ago can have, that, in the patristic era I so admire (and which supposedly was to be revived in the New Order of Mass, chopping out all the Carolingian and Gregorian additions), one was not likely to have Basil, Gregory, or Irenaeus in the next pew.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Distorted views of "God's will"

I doubt any of you will be surprised that, most days of the week, I am not likely to be quoting John Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg. I have no taste whatever for The Jesus Seminar approaches, for all that I shall concede that, however much one disagrees with his conclusions, Crossan's scholarship well may be the most important research on first century Palestine available. Nonetheless, there are some very enriching points in the Crossan and Borg work, "The Last Week," which focuses on the depiction of Palm Sunday through "the first Holy Week," based on the Gospel of Mark. For example, I very much liked the explanation of how flawed many later notions can be of "atonement theology," since I myself prefer the Eastern emphasis on deification.

What image, for any devout Christian, is more vivid than Jesus' time in Gethsemane? In "The Last Week," there is a very worthwhile quotation: "Jesus prays for deliverance. He prays that this hour might pass from him...Both 'hour' and 'cup' refer to his impending torture and cruel death..Yet he hands himself over...'not my will, but thy will be done.' It is important to add that this does not mean that Jesus' death was the will of God. It is never God's will that the righteous suffer. It was not God's will that Jesus Christ died, any more than it was the will of God that any of the martyrs before and after Jesus were killed. Yet we may imagine them handing themselves over in the way that Jesus did, from Peter and Paul to Thecla and Perpetua to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the nuns in El Salvador. The prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but a trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances."

Fortunately for most of us, martyrdom is not likely to be ahead. That does not erase that the general view of "God's will" is dismal. Once, when I was speaking of Julian of Norwich, I mentioned that I rarely have heard anyone say "God's will" unless someone was dead. (Of course, in Julian's time and place, just about everyone was dead.) It is never used for any happy, joyous occasion, but only when there is great tragedy, or rejection, or heartbreak.

"Trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances" - that is an image which I can find beauty. (I am not suggesting that it is anything for which I have a knack, more's the pity.) There is no question that there is much that we cannot understand, or that we do not have divine minds, or that our glimpses of God are so short of his true nature that we can speak of a divine plan only in the vaguest of terms. I can strongly subscribe to cosmic redemption, without having the slightest notion of in what this consists specifically. As I have indicated in previous posts about religious philosophy, we have no answers to the problems of evil.

But how did it happen that "God's will" became an image of inevitable pain? Why don't we ever use that term in relation to Creation, redemption, grace? I've yet to hear anyone say to a repentant sinner (that's all of us, my friends - and what a great joy it is...) "you know, it's not what we want, it's what God wants..." As everyone who has known the joy of repentance may be aware, at a point when it was not what we wanted (or at least didn't recognise), the Good Shepherd was coming after us before we even knew we wanted to return. (No, sensationalist sorts, I do not happen to be anyone of whom you would read in tabloids... Sin comes in many varieties, and each of us has had points of major conversion in one way or another.)

I shiver to think of some of what I've heard described as God's will - usually to people who are in the midst of terrible pain. A mother whose child has died does not want a little saint in heaven - she wants her baby! Much worse, I'd like to give forty years in purgatory (and don't think I'm not connected) to those who refer to the untimely death of someone's spouse, child, or other very close loved one, 'reassuring' the bereaved that God may have taken him because the deceased otherwise may have fallen into mortal sin and ended up in hell.

The full scope of God's will is not something I'm about to claim to be able to grasp (nor can anyone.) Yet, if we think of him, for example, as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier - we don't know what all of that means, either, but continuing creation, redemption, and sanctification is rather a better picture than one who has some puzzling, always painful plan (unknown to the sufferer, of course) - a trickster who loves to slam doors in people's faces - or (thank heavens, this isn't Catholic, so I haven't heard it much) who has some secretive formula for "accepting Him," which, if not recited, means He'll thrown his children into hell.

I'm not at my best today, admittedly. Trust is far from my strong point - and, since love requires trust, my own love for God is not the "white hot" I wish it were. Just to refer to Crossan and Borg once more - martyrs were most valued as witnesses (to the resurrection, I must add.) I have no doubt that they would much have preferred not to have been tortured and killed, though it normally involved, as with Jesus, a reaction coming from quite natural causes (often political.) The earliest bishops, for example, were largely faced with either totally denying the faith (and compromising the faith of their flocks) or execution.

The trust itself must be the gift of divine grace - the response imitating Jesus in great love. Human wickedness is not God's doing - he does not need evil to be the Creator of Heaven and Earth! (A role which he did not abandon on the 7th day described in Genesis - he is the eternal Creator.) God did not turn to Judas, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and push a button. In his humanity, Jesus of Nazareth had the vocation of a prophet and of proclaiming the kingdom - and this led to his execution. (Those who sent him to the cross had no notion that he was the Second Person of the Trinity - that may sound like saying 'the grass is green,' but I'm afraid that all he was to them, in the second and last quotation from Crossan of my life, was a "peasant, nuisance nobody.") I don't doubt He indeed could have summoned the twenty legions of angels - but his assuming our humanity precluded such actions (not to mention that, as history proves, displays of power tend to be more destructive than otherwise.)

If I weren't so weary, I would have written today's entry (also one with total puzzlement) about how this miserable world is one in which Jesus tells us "the kingdom" had already come. I'm not that ambitious for the moment. Still, if we think of resignation to God's will in terms of trust, without thinking he cooked up the trouble in the first place, it may help us to get through the veils of our own weakness, anger, fear, and such.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Little thought about Anne Frank

Just this week, I had the good fortune to see an excellent documentary film entitled "Anne Frank Remembered." (This not to be confused by Miep Gies' book of the same title.) It featured various people who had known Anne and her family, and I very much enjoyed seeing how this 'fleshed out' the picture of Anne. For example, one old friend, laughing, said that Anne had been her school mate, and that "God knows all, but Anne always knew better." Another family acquaintance mentioned that Anne had been quite a naughty child, though her beloved papa was one to make allowances for her. The film naturally went into varied details about Anne's eventual imprisonment and death, but today is not one in which I care to dwell on horrors such as the Holocaust. I'm just recording some random observations - since there is a certain detachment one can have when one is not a parent, and is neither an adolescent nor at the age when one's kids are only 13 (and, as many parents do, one falls into the trap of totally forgetting youth and thinking that teenagers fall at parents' feet in homage and invariably praise their brilliance.)

I had read Anne's diary some years ago, and, once I saw the documentary, thought I might wish to do so again. I searched a bit on Amazon (both sites... well, two out of three, since I'm too weary to try to remember my rusty German for Amazon Deutschland). Since most of what I've studied about Anne Frank herself (rather than the Holocaust in general, with which I had a terrified acquaintance long before) was in adulthood, it had not entered my mind that many teachers must use the book in classes where pupils are adolescent. I was amused that certain reader reviews seemed wary about exposure of kids to the book (which I'd think inspiring in many ways) - not because it deals with the Holocaust, nor because the ending is tragic and might frighten readers. The concern was that Anne spoke disrespectfully of her mother and other adults in the Annexe.

I obtained a copy of Anne's diary this week, and had several impressions directly related to that last 'fear.' I noticed, in the very beginning, that Anne mentioned having rather poor grades in her school work. (I did laugh when she spoke of punishment homework for being a Chatterbox.) I wasn't surprised. Much in the diary shows a girl with high intelligence and exceptional literary and analytical ability - her poor grades obviously did not stem from poor academic ability. Yet her candour and sophisticated knowledge of human nature (at least in relation to the 'old folks,' if not to Peter) in the diary, which showed promise of her being a great writer, would not have endeared her to teachers (or indeed to most adults.)

Whether Anne said things outright or not (and somehow I cannot imagine her being reticent), the older crowd well may have been uneasy knowing she could 'see through' them. Certainly, one must allow for that Anne was of an age when one would be unlikely to see 'all sides' of a problem; that the fright and confinement would intensify emotions; and that what she perceived, for example, as her parents' 'loveless marriage' may reflect the limited knowledge one has of love at 13. Still, I am inclined to think some of her assessments were spot on. (In fact, I was less offended by her treatment of the 'old' than of her cheeky evaluations of her class mates - and her sense that all the boys were enamoured of her.)

Even John Henry Newman received his degree with only third class honours... Those with top grades often are not the most brilliant students. Intelligent, yes - but those who have top marks in everything often know just how to tell the examiners what they want to hear. Of course, Anne's diary was intended only for her own eyes - but I would imagine the elders who wanted to be respected could well sense her feelings and insights. The cheeky do not endear themselves to those in authority - yet, had Anne's life had anything like the span of Newman's, I believe her writings could have been really quite splendid.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Spare me the 'feminist ethics'

One of the frustrating parts of 'blogging' is that one tends to find oneself using the same ideas again - not intentionally, but because one's best blog work probably dates back to the blog's beginning. I shall admit that my Mars and Venus Balderdash post, to which I also linked in the header, is of better quality than what I'm likely to dash off today. That post will clarify, in case anyone wondered, that I most definitely cannot be accused of thinking that women are inferior to men. (In particular cases, my question would be 'which woman and which man, and in relation to what?')

I've always had an interest in moral theology, though it is not a topic I have studied extensively in the past. My overall approach is Thomas Aquinas (based on use of our faculties and to where the will is turned), heavily flavoured by Alphonsus Liguori (who treated, in some depth, the factors that could hamper knowledge or use of will.) I have not read much on the subject in recent years, largely because I am weary of everything focussing on sex (not because it is an obsession of moralists, who have their hands full already with medical ethics, but because it is the area about which people are most likely to ask questions or create tumult.) I decided that pursuing the matter in more depth, and incorporating the extensive writings of current philosophers and theologian, was overdue.

Undoubtedly, I shall write more of this along the way, but allow me to 'vent' once more. In case this was not apparent, I am hardly a shrinking female with any lack of confidence or initiative, who needs 'help' to realise that she is 'oppressed.' Yet, in recent decades, studies of any area of theology always have to include a 'feminist perspective' section.

In many of my varied theological studies, I've often found it interesting, with hindsight, that treatment of a particular area, which was perfectly sound in its context, was distorted when it was applied in other treatments. For example, as I've commented in other posts, frequently intriguing, even brilliant, philosophical arguments were used in a fashion which led to pastoral disasters. I'm even amazed at how instructions related specifically to liturgy and the sacraments were stretched out of all shape - a cope becoming a straitjacket.

At the moment, I'm studying some quite fascinating writings on Christian Ethics, and you'll hear about them soon. But I'd like to excise most of what was in the 'feminist perspective' section and use it to line the cat box. What I find tragic is that many women, exposed to such ideas in settings other than the academic (..I've attended many 'workshops' in the past...), can fall into two dangers if the speaker is sufficiently persuasive. First, there is the severe problem of seeing 'what isn't there' - and I don't mean visions. One popular attitude in the 'women only ethics' writings is that a woman's ultimate moral development is caring for her needs as much as those of others... as if all women put others first... I've seen great extremes in that department. I'm thinking of some women I knew well, to whom one could not so much as extend an invitation for a cup of tea without their thinking this was manipulation or some curtailment of their 'quality time,' not to mention a lack of acknowledgement for their enormous schedules. Or of one, whose beau is a charming and generous man for whom many unattached women would queue, who (in a manner I've seen on other occasions - this is merely an example) happened to be rather 'down' one week. When her beau invited her to go dancing on the weekend (a pursuit both of them love), and also committed the unpardonable crime of sending her flowers with a card reading "I love you," she screamed at him, "Don't fix me!"

I'm not suggesting that true manipulation is not to be recognised and avoided. Still, I think seeing manipulation in circumstances where there is none (one is always free to decline an invitation, nor will refusal of a cup of tea break hearts), much less seeing generosity as so inherently negative that it must be seen as brutal (oh, sorry, I forgot... only women are generous... please don't email me for the name of the man I mentioned in the last paragraph, whom I'd snap up in a minute were I in the market), is tragic.

Supposedly, based on these writings on 'ethics,' women sin against themselves denying their self hood (where it would seem to me that, in any life, those whom we love, or with whom we have other relationships, are very much a part of who we are.) Then again, some trends in ethics make it seem that women are guilty of sins only against themselves. Odd - some of the 'sins' condemned in the writings were not those I'd have thought unique to women. Believe it or not, I've known men who were sentimental (especially in the religious realm... I'd no sooner recite "Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue" than I would sing "Good-night, Sweet Jesus") - just as one example.

In the course of my life, I've been happy to know some people whom I would consider to be especially generous to others. Their personalities differed, of course, but there were two traits I noticed all of them possessed. They took joy in the generosity, and they had an obvious element of gratitude (for whatever they had... and if you think I necessarily mean health, wealth, and prosperity, none of which I possess, you must be new to the blog.)

Now on to what will make me lose half my readership.... The women I have known who were the 'martyrs' (and I do not at all mean this is universal) did not at all give me the impression that their 'sin' was 'thinking of their own needs last.' The exasperating ones not only placed their own needs (to play ego games, be honoured, control spouse or children, be known as saints, whatever) above all things, but needed to be sure everyone knew what enormous sacrifices every bit of giving involved. The worst were those who inflicted their 'sacrifices' on others - dragging children to 6 AM Mass and night vigils, for example, with the result that the kids grew up to want no part of church at all (oh, but didn't Mum love how the few people there beamed at her lovely little family.)

Of course, honesty forces me to admit that I've known my share of people, of both sexes, who unfortunately were taught in youth (in Catholicism flavoured by Calvin and Jansenism) that what God most wants is sacrifice. There always is the possibility, especially since everyone was taught the importance of 'good example,' that someone makes sure everything is 'sacrifice' and known as such. But where is the joy and gratitude of true giving?

The idea of 'you know my needs as long as we both are of the same sex' was treated in the previous post of mine, so I'll not expound here. I had not realised to what extent 'feminist ethics' dwelt on how women (apparently unlike men) are 'relational' because of their relationships with their mothers. (Funny - I thought far more women out there were in nasty competition with other females in the family.) The idea that all women understand all other women is absurd. Still, I wonder if the ideas about this approach to ethics, when they were in their infancy thirty years ago, indirectly influenced the disasters I saw when, for example, it seemed every other religious Sister I knew suddenly was promoting agendas by setting herself up as a spiritual advisor - her only credentials being her sex.

I doubt too many people of either sex devote much time to studying moral theology, and that those who do (who well may be confessors and spiritual guides) have a strong dose of pastoral theology into the bargain. Yet the very ideas I found so boring could feed into the 'pop psychology' culture you've often heard me disparage, and make selfishness and self absorption appear to be virtues.