Archive for December, 2011


Marilynne Robinson On William James

December 30, 2011

A review of a book I have on my wish list…Not the first time to post Marilynne Robinson. Selections from her On Human Nature here and here, if you wish to explore more. Years ago I first read Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, and it became a hugely formative work in my life and I look forward to revisiting James again after so many years and in the light of my conversion to Catholicism.


William James was born in 1842 and died in 1910. His contemporary, the philosopher George Santayana, said James “represented the true America, and represented in a measure the whole ultramodern, radical world.” He continues to be strikingly radical, and modern as well, though the richness of his vision creates a modernity that is as sunlight to moonlight, to borrow a phrase of his, compared with the wised-up and rather disheartened worldview we associate with this term.

Through the whole of his work, James elaborates, without repetition, a philosophic method that never becomes a system or an ideology. This is a conscious and highly meaningful act of restraint, one that paradoxically opens and enlarges the conceptual universe of philosophy. In his Principles of Psychology he says, “The only real truth about the world, apart from particular purposes, is the total truth.” This standard, though impossible in itself, permits and requires crucial inclusions that have not been characteristic of dominant schools of modern thought. He says, “The world contains consciousness as well as atoms — and the one must be written down as just as essential as the other, in the absence of any declared purpose regarding them on the creator’s part, or in the absence of any creator…. Atoms alone, or consciousness alone, are precisely equal mutilations of the truth.”

James insists that reality, philosophically understood, must include humankind and all it entails, notably thought itself, on equal terms with all other phenomena. The great ages in history, he says, “have said to the human being, ‘the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.’” This may sound to us like an optimism the culture has outlived. But he may only be describing an exceptionalism we dread to acknowledge.

James’s philosophy has the qualities of a lucid and deeply coherent vision that is not to be distinguished from his method. He says, “If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic — and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,” then a vision that is defective or thin fails as philosophy. He brings an aesthetic standard to bear on thought, discovering “a certain native poverty of mental demand” in the work of some contemporaries, admiring by comparison scholasticism and Hegel because they both “ran thick.” A great philosophy must create a conceptual world large enough for a vigorous mind to inhabit, and within which, and against which, it can exercise its powers. His “pragmatism,” his insistence that ideas are meaningful not for their internal logic or coherence but in the ways they are reflected in behavior, secures a central place for thought within phenomenal reality by underscoring its effect. For better and worse, subjectively and therefore objectively, ideas shape the world.

On no grounds whatever, our chastened worldview is taken to require the exclusion from philosophic thought of the human self as experience. Now, when our mingled nature is overwhelmingly an issue in determining the future of the planet, we fold ourselves into the natural order that only we can threaten, as if it were realism rather than evasion to minimize our singular gifts and propensities and to pass ourselves off as nothing more than the cleverest of the apes.

Like old Adam hiding in the Edenic underbrush, trying to deny that his presence has added any new element to the world’s being, we minimize the fact that we, alone in nature, can and do make choices whose consequences are profound, endless, unfathomable. Refusing our exceptionalism we deny its essence and mystery — the mind in time and through time, the ponderings of aged civilizations as surely as the sudden lonely insight. The openness of James’s method to the reality of everything human is sound and empirical. In this and in much else he represents choices we would do well to return to, options we would still find of use.

It is difficult for any selection to do justice to the thought of William James, and difficult as well for a reviewer to do justice to the seventeen fine essays collected in The Heart of William James. He is fortunate to have Robert Richardson as his biographer, editor and interpreter, a kindred spirit whose admiration for James is thoroughly compounded with his enjoyment of him. He makes the great man accessible as if he were presenting an honored friend, ready to step out of the way and allow a wonderful conversation to begin. And James is indeed a remarkable acquaintance, full of the pleasures of fine prose and humorous insight, and demanding all the same.

Thought, the continuous interior weather called thinking, was vitally important to James, for a number of years perhaps a matter of life and death. As a young man he passed through a profound and prolonged crisis, mental or emotional or spiritual, insofar as such distinctions can be thought of as meaningful to him. In retrospect he laid his despair to his loss of belief in freedom of the will. His depression was disabling to him physically, and the cures he sought out in Europe did nothing to relieve it. He struggled with thoughts of suicide. Then he read a book by the French philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier, who argued that one was made free by acting as if he were free. So began his convalescence, and after it an extraordinary career that made him internationally famous in his lifetime and a figure of continuing influence in American and world culture.

It seems reasonable to speculate that these dark years moved James to immerse himself in the study of the new science of psychology and also to develop a philosophy that emphatically foregrounds the mind. His experience of an idea as an entrapment may have moved him to develop his spacious, pluralist, open philosophy, which never subordinates the reports of consciousness to a system, and neither precludes new insight nor denies the authority of the context of individual consciousness that so largely determines issues of ambivalence or belief/disbelief. (For James these latter form one category, one settled state of mind.)

From our perspective, James’s account of his depression might itself seem questionable, since it does fall far outside the range of our understanding of such things, even calling up that ungenerous but respectable critical method rightly named suspicion. To chalk it up to genetics or chemical imbalance or to lay it to the complexities of his childhood and family might seem more plausible to the general educated reader.

We tend to undervalue the importance of thinking and of books in one part of our cultural mind, even while we live among great libraries and universities. One need only mention Newton or Darwin to make the point that ideas and books participate very deeply in reality — in Jamesian terms, they do indeed inform behavior — and therefore it seems fair to believe that James’s sufferings were as he described them and ended as he said they did, with his reading of Charles Renouvier.


“Will” was a potent concept in the thought of the time, and it is crucial to James’s thinking. In the first of these essays, “What Is an Emotion?,” though he makes no allusion to it, James is writing from a perspective rather like that he describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, of one looking back from the far side of a life-altering and wholly subjective event, in his case an overwhelming depression, and considering the understanding with which he emerged from it. He makes references in his treatment of emotion to the science of the moment, unsettled on the subject then as it is now.

What he proposes might finally seem to the modern reader to reflect critical thought less than it does a stoical nineteenth-century upbringing, perhaps reflecting class and gender. And this in turn might create a presumption against him that would diminish the pleasure of reading on. He is, however, entirely deserving of the reader’s trust.

James argues that emotion is not prior to its expression but identical with it, and that emotion can be limited by the decision to contain its expression. In his view, this would not mean its suppression, an idea that takes an emotion to be a fixed quantity that will either be expended in some proportion to its strength, or will be put out of sight, to fester or to distort the consciousness forced to contain it. Rather, he says, composure diminishes fear, calm dissipates anger.

Over time or from a little distance the nature of the emotion will change — “Refuse to express a passion, and it dies.” And, as a corollary, “if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate,” kindliness, cheerfulness and geniality, for example. He knows he is repeating a commonplace. He says, “there is no more valuable precept in moral education than this.” So he has no doubt seen instances of cold-blooded kindliness and probably dealt in it himself.

But the assumption that in this way the will can shape not only behavior but experience too means there is nothing false in this sort of feigning, though James’s language suggests he is alive to the humor of it. Skeptics might dismiss it as hypocrisy, but this would be the consequence of an assumption very foreign to his thinking, that the true self is another fixed quantity, that it has no role in determining its own character or shaping its own moral aesthetic.

Suspicions might arise because James is in fact proposing a regime of good manners, an assertion of the will relative to oneself that would involve tact and restraint, and would make one a better friend, a better citizen. If this seems at first a less thrilling notion than the will to power, also abroad in the world at the time, James’s implicit response is the power, magnanimity and embrace of individual human consciousness he enacts in his writing. He is the perceiver eager to grant the autonomy, the essential unknowability, of everything and anything.

The James persona, an affable presence, a voice thinking, always draws attention to itself as one perceiver, always speaking its mind, as they say, sometimes prying apart conventional associations to consider their workings, sometimes mildly and ironically overturning the world of great opinion, Kant, Hegel, Spencer, by appeal to an audience as fellow perceivers. The voice is personal and impersonal, singular and universal, like the voice of Walt Whitman, whom James sometimes quotes at length and whom he calls “a contemporary prophet.”

Freedom for James has a civil and moderated form, or a complex contextuality, for which America as an idea provides him with terms. Everything central to James’s work is a consequence of his refusal to countenance the idea that there is an ontological hierarchy that grants a greater degree of reality to any system or abstraction or anything objectively known or knowable than it does to thought and perception.

Completion or conclusion are no more appropriate to philosophy than they are characteristic of the universe of phenomena. On one hand he grants that the world exists for us only as we know it, and on the other hand he sees the individual consciousness as efficacious, active in the creation of a reality that is also objective, available to our knowledge in a degree that permits efficacy. In his words, the mind has a vote.

And he proposes a deeper liberty of conception in this new world. In the second essay, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” he says, “The principle of causality, for example — what is it but a postulate, an empty name covering simply a demand that the sequence of events shall some day manifest a deeper kind of belonging of one thing with another than the mere arbitrary juxtaposition which now phenomenally appears? It is as much an altar to an unknown god as the one that Saint Paul found at Athens.”

The Apostle saw, among the many shrines to the many gods of Athens, one dedicated to a deity whose name and attributes were unknown to the Athenians. Their intent in raising it may have been no more than prudent. But Paul makes the plausible suggestion that this is in fact the God behind all things, the god in whom “we live and move and have our being,” he says, quoting a Greek poet. Causality, in which we also live and move, is unexplained now, just as it was in 1884 when James delivered this essay as an address to the Harvard Divinity School, though all our certitudes depend on the pretense that there are no such radical mysteries underlying them.

Here James is making an argument for what he calls “chance,” his name for a proposed ontological basis for human freedom. But his argument figuratively extends emancipation to being itself, and literally asserts that being is aloof from forms of comprehension that yield determinism. Indeterminism “admits that possibilities may be in excess of actualities, and that things not revealed to our knowledge may really in themselves be ambiguous.

Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one become impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact.” Whoever uses his word “chance” “squarely and resolutely gives up all pretence to control the things he says are free…. It is a word of impotence, and is therefore the only sincere word we can use, if, in granting freedom to certain things, we grant it honestly, and really risk the game.”

The centrality of the observer in a universe of indeterminacy is a concept with a very modern sound. James describes “a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene.” The physicist Stephen Hawking says, “Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history.” And he says, “We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” This would seem to enhance the efficacy of the observer, since James’s “impotent” human perceiver concedes and in some sense apprehends that a million unencountered potentialities inhere in any experience.

James’s discipline of tact would not allow him to endorse Hawking’s interpretation of our circumstance that it “makes us in a sense the lords of creation.” But James’s model of reality asserts an equally essential role for the observer. Unlike Hawking, James proceeds from profound attention to the actual workings of consciousness. He is the mind’s observer as he is the observer of other reality, in order to engage the epistemological problem to which consciousness is central. In this James is not modern at all, though his approach seems eminently sensible. Hawking takes what is now the conventional view, that intelligence is an artifact of the complexity of physical reality, and free will an illusion. He seems not to find it strange that the lord creator of the glorious cosmos should itself be of marginal interest to the study of the reality it makes and has made.

James does not exclude categories of thought or feeling from among the data that are of interest to the perceiver, and therefore from the fact of the given world. He says, “If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand for uniformity of sequence, for example; the one demand being, so far as I can see, quite as subjective and emotional as the other is.”

Subjectivity is for him profoundly human, honorable, distractible, fallible — indeed indistinguishable from a thinking self. In his acknowledging its centrality he assumes that what matters in human and subjective terms matters in fact. That is to say, the phenomena of perceived meaning are for him a fully legitimate part of the universe of things. He says, “To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance.”

This is quoted from the essay titled “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” The blindness he describes is precisely the failure to perceive and value the interior universe that is the reality of any other life, any other mind. Awareness of it, he says, “absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.” His epistemology yields a social and political ethic because he takes seriously the observer as a phenomenon within the phenomenal world.

Even if one grants the harmony of this ethic with democracy and with the consciously American identity James chose for himself, nevertheless his keeping the reality of the observer, and its human character, active as a factor in his thinking is entirely warranted, not only from the perspective of philosophy and psychology but also from the perspective of the science that follows him in positing its centrality. Physicists use the term “observer” in ways that are special to the discipline and defined by context. A molecule can be said to “observe.” But however the term is used it clearly describes something continuous with human awareness or attention — of an experimenter, for example — and Hawking uses it only in this sense.

Yet his observer is a disembodied potency, collectively lord of creation, free of the tedious burden of mortal limits. This vision has much in common with mysticism, and might be seen as a vindication of mysticism, of Solomon’s “Wisdom, the fashioner of all things” who is “more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars.” James, on the other hand, gives the observer flesh and particularity, phenomenal this-worldliness, complicating every problem Hawking’s abstraction passes over. Words like “beautiful” and “excellent” inevitably become subjective and elusive precisely because they are factors in any actual humanly embodied construction of reality.


The controversy that engrosses certain of us at present, called, however accurately, the argument between science and religion, is a good illustration of the precedence vision takes over logic in these matters. The brilliance of the physical world, the superb intricacy of the cell, the antic indeterminacy of the electron, are used by one side to prove there must be a Creator and by the other side to demonstrate that nature is sufficient unto itself and God an unnecessary hypothesis.

Both theists and atheists feel their case is made, on the basis of exactly the same evidence. This is interesting in its own right. The vision that pre-exists their logic is surely determining in the great majority of cases, “logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards.” Looked at directly, this common feature of the thinking of the two sides should yield significant insight into the workings of the mind, and should in any case alleviate the rancor that comes with so many years of mutual incomprehension.

James deals with this old controversy in the essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” The dispute, he says, is not really about “hair-splitting abstractions about matter’s inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; theism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men are men, it will yield matter for serious philosophic debate. Concerning this question at any rate, the positivists and pooh-pooh-ers of metaphysics are wrong.”

If human presence in the cosmos has the centrality James — and Hawking — claim for it, then “this need of an eternal moral order,” which “is one of the deepest needs of our breast,” is not to be dismissed. Such intuitions could as well reflect our incomprehensible (though struggling and error-prone) ability to comprehend the universe as physics and astronomy. Scientific materialism, says James, is “not a permanent warrant for our more ideal interests, not a fulfiller of our remotest hopes.” For scientific materialism, our ideals and hopes have nothing to do with the nature of things and will die an absolute death.

In James’s understanding, it is theism that places us in the cosmos whole and wholly human. “A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.” But metaphysics is only half the conversation, so “as long as men are men,” as long as we are human, there will be voices in this vast, cold universe debating ultimate things. And this is also beautiful.


A New Kind of Revolution – N.T. Wright

December 29, 2011


Pietro Lorenzetti (or Pietro Laurati; c. 1280 - 1348) was an Italian painter, active between approximately 1306 and 1345. He was born and died in Siena. He was influenced by Giovanni Pisano and Giotto, and worked alongside Simone Martini at Assisi. He and his brother, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, helped introduce naturalism into Sienese art. In their artistry and experiments with three-dimensional and spatial arrangements, they foreshadowed the art of the Renaissance. Many of his religious works are in churches in Siena, Arezzo, and Assisi. His last documented work is the Nativity of the Virgin (c. 1335-1342), now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. His masterwork is a tempera fresco decoration of the lower church of Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, where he painted a series of large panels depicting Crucifixion, Deposition from the Cross, and Entombment (shown here). In these works, massed figures display emotional interactions, unlike many prior depictions which appear to be iconic agglomerations, as if independent figures had been glued on to a surface, with no compelling relationship to one another.

First, it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people “how to get to heaven.” That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’ public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave “earth” behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on “earth”; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality.

In particular, we must be clear what is and isn’t meant when Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, speaks about the “‘kingdom of heaven.” Many have wrongly assumed that he was referring to a “kingdom” in the sense of a place called “heaven” — in other words, a heavenly realm to which people might aspire to go once their time on “earth” was over. That is simply not what the phrase meant in the first century — though, sadly, it doesn’t seem to have taken very long within the early church for the misunderstanding to creep in, doubtless because within a century or two the original Jewish meanings of Jesus’ words were being forgotten.

Within Jesus’ world, the word “heaven” could be a reverent way of saying “God”; and in any case, part of the point of “heaven” is that it wasn’t detached, wasn’t a long way off, but was always the place from which “earth” was to be run. When, in the book of Daniel, people speak about “the God of heaven,” the point is that this God is in charge on earth, not that he’s a long way away and unconcerned about it. “The God of heaven” is precisely the one who organizes things on earth (Dan. 2:37) and will eventually set up his own kingdom there (2:44; see also 4:37; 5:23).

Second, was Jesus, then, mounting some kind of quasi-military revolution? Some have thought so. Many, fed up with the way contemporary churches have colluded with corrupt and wicked establishments, have been eager to find in Jesus a different dream, a dream that perches uncomfortably halfway between the Sermon on the Mount and the sermons of Karl Marx. Attempts have then been made to ward off this proposal by insisting that Jesus’ message was “spiritual” rather than “political.” This has been, in my view, another dialogue of the deaf.

The case for seeing Jesus as a would-be revolutionary bent on overthrowing the Roman order (and the Jewish aristocrats who functioned as Rome’s local puppets) and establishing himself and his followers as rulers in their place rests on one very solid foundation: Jesus’ announcement of God’s kingdom. As we saw earlier, first-century Jewish revolutionary movements used “God’s kingdom” as one of their major slogans. They didn’t want other rulers; they just wanted God himself to be king. From some points of view, Jesus does indeed look a bit like Judah the Hammer, going around with his little band of loyal followers, gathering support, managing to stay out of trouble, and eventually going up to Jerusalem, palm branches waving, to “cleanse the Temple.”

From some points of view, Jesus even looks a bit like Simon the Star, mounting a three-year kingdom movement in which the “kingdom” had indeed already begun (remember the year on Simon’s coins), while the great battle and the proper rebuilding of the Temple remained in the future. Jesus, like Simon, seems to have practiced and taught a severe way of life in which Israel’s ancient law was intensified; for Jesus, anger and lust were as much off limits as murder and adultery. And there are some signs in the gospels that people were eyeing Jesus, during his public ministry, to compare him with Herod Antipas. The sources suggest that he was giving his followers instructions on how to behave now that they were living under his rule. There are enough analogies there for us to say that Jesus really does belong on the map of those kingdom movements.

The parallel with Simon the Star is particularly striking, showing how easy and natural it was in that climate to speak of something having already been well and truly inaugurated — the coins, again — and also of something that had yet to be accomplished. Jesus’ way of combining present and future sayings about God’s kingdom has long baffled scholars who were trying to understand him without reference to his Jewish context. Once we put him back in that world, the problem simply vanishes. Of course he believed that God’s kingdom had already begun. Of course he believed that it would take another great act to complete the job. These are not in tension. They belong together quite naturally. The combination comes with the territory.

We can of course see why, faced with the Jesus-the-Marxist theory, many scholars and preachers have reacted in horror. It wasn’t just their possible right-wing sympathies, though those may have come into play as well. It was that the whole thrust of Jesus’ public career, insofar as we can reconstruct it from passage after passage in the gospels, seemed to be going in a very different direction. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t a violent revolutionary. We have already studied his commands to love and forgive and we have set them in their first-century political context. He warned at one point that, if God’s kingdom was breaking into the world, the men of violence were trying to muscle their way into the act (Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16). He just wasn’t the sort of freedom fighter we have come to know rather well in the last hundred years or so.

It won’t do, then, to suppose that what Jesus was doing was simply advancing a kind of human revolution, a proto-Marxist movement in which the poor would overthrow the rich. Jesus has plenty of harsh words for the rich — far more than for anyone else, in fact. But, just as, to the dismay of his own imprisoned cousin, he showed no sign of launching a movement to oust Herod Antipas and set his prisoners free, so he showed no sign either of joining one of the various already existing resistance movements or of starting his own.

Those movements, clearly, were using the same language as he was, since they too spoke about God becoming king. But what Jesus meant by that, acted out in a hundred vivid demonstrations of God’s sovereign power, and explained in a hundred parables that told the ancient stories in a new way, was quite different from what the ordinary revolutionaries had in mind.

Nor does that mean, of course — in the light of the first point we have just made — that Jesus was saying, “Forget revolution. Go to heaven instead.” It was about giving up the ordinary kind of revolution, in which violent change produces violent regimes, which are eventually toppled by further violent change, and discovering an entirely different nay instead. “Don’t resist evil,” he said, and the words he used didn’t mean, “Lie down and let people walk all over you.” They meant, “Don’t join the normal `resistance’ movements.” The Marxist or quasi-Marxist option simply has too many elements of the story running against it. Clearly, Jesus was not apolitical — how could he be, talking about God becoming king in first-century Palestine? — but his “politics” don’t seem to fit the molds into which many have tried to squash him.

Nor was Jesus simply advocating a clever, philosophically savvy way of living courageously within the present evil world, a way by which his followers might be able to attain some kind of detachment. After the failure of earlier attempts to make Jesus into a Marxist hero, we have seen more subtle attempts to make him a Cynic hero, looking out on the follies and failings of the world with an ironic smile and teaching his followers how to rise above it all. No doubt there are echoes of Cynic sayings and attitudes here and there in Jesus’ words, just as his voicing of the Golden Rule (“Whatever you want people to do to you, do that to them,” Luke 6:3 1) is echoed in many cultures and traditions. But he wasn’t teaching his followers how to rise above the mess of the world. He was training them to be kingdom bringers. As Marx himself said, the point is not to understand the world, but to change it.

Third, and most important, we must avoid jumping to the conclusion, from all that has been said above, that Jesus was doing things that “proved his divinity” — or that the main point he was trying to get across was that he was the “son of God” in the sense of the second person of the Trinity. Here we must be careful. I have already hinted strongly enough, I think, that Jesus saw his own work, his own public career, his own very person, as the reality to which Temple, Sabbath, and creation itself were pointing.

That is, or ought to be, a clear indication that, in terms of the “God” of first-century Jews, Jesus understood himself to be embodying this God, doing things whose best explanation was that this was what God was doing, and so on. My problem with “proofs of divinity” is that all too often, when people have spoken or written like that, it isn’t entirely clear that they have the right “God” in mind. What seems to be being “proved” is a semi-Deist type of Christianity — the type of thing a lot of Christians in the eighteenth century, and many since then, have thought they should be defending. In this sort of Christianity, “God” is in heaven and sends his divine second self, his “Son,” to “demonstrate his divinity,” so that people would worship him, be saved by his cross, and return with him to heaven. But in first-century Christianity, what mattered was not people going from earth into God’s kingdom in heaven. What mattered, and what Jesus taught his followers to pray, was that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.

Jesus’ powerful acts of healing, then, together with all the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity.” If you see them like that, they prove too much and too little. Too much: other people had, and still have, remarkable gifts of healing. That’s always been a feature on the edge of religious movements, and sometimes in the center of them. But it doesn’t mean that the person doing the healing is “God,” just like that.

Were that to be the case, there would be quite a lot of gods. Equally, too little: those who have seen Jesus’ powerful acts as “proofs of divinity” have often just stopped there, as though that was the main thing one was supposed to conclude from a reading of the gospels. They have then allowed the “right” answer to the question about “divinity” to shut down the question the gospels are urgently pressing upon us — is God becoming king?

A considerable amount of “apologetics” to this day, in fact, has consisted of arguing for the “right answers” to two questions. First, asks the apologist, did Jesus do these things? Yes! Second, what does it prove? That he was God! QED! And off goes the apologist in triumph, a day’s work done.

And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would call the apologist back. Sorry, but you’ve just scored a home run when you should have scored an end run. You’re playing the wrong game. The gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” They are about how God became king on earth as in heaven. The good is the enemy of the best. From one point of view it’s good to see the intimate connection, throughout the gospels, of Jesus with Israel’s God. If you’re trying to score a point against a Deist opponent who sniffily suggests that Jesus couldn’t possibly have been “divine,” because no sane human being could imagine that he was God incarnate, you may end up winning that game. But you may then lose the real one.

Plenty of Christians, alas, have imagined that a “divine Jesus” had come to earth simply to reveal his divinity and save people away from earth for a distant “heaven.” (Some have even imagined, absurdly, that the point of “proving that Jesus really did all those things” is to show that the Bible is true — as though Jesus came to witness to the Bible rather than the other way around.) It has been all too possible to use the doctrine of the incarnation or even the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture as a way of protecting oneself and one’s worldview and political agenda against having to face the far greater challenge of God taking charge, of God becoming king, on earth as in heaven. But that is what the stories in the Bible are all about. That’s what the story of Jesus was, and is, all about. That is the real challenge, and skeptics aren’t the only ones who find clever ways to avoid it.

Once we begin to see beyond these three distracting angles of vision, then, and grasp the story in its own terms, we find ourselves compelled forward into the narrative again. If the time is fulfilled, what will happen to bring even this fulfilled-time moment to its proper conclusion? If Jesus is behaving as though he were the Temple in person, what will this mean both for the existing Temple and for his followers? And if, through his work, new creation is breaking into the world, how is it going to make any headway against the apparently still all-powerful forces of corruption, evil, and death itself?


A New Creation — N.T.Wright

December 28, 2011

The Transfiguration by Rubens

The theme of new creation that bubbles up from these stories emerges in our third category: matter (Space and Time the other two). Reality. The physical world in all its complexity and glory. Here today’s readers of the New Testament have to take an even deeper breath than before. We have been schooled to believe, as a bedrock principle in our worldview, that the material world is relentlessly and reductively subject to the laws of physics, chemistry, and the more specific sciences of astronomy, biology, zoology, botany, and the rest. But as with geography (space, the temple) and chronology (time), so here also the Jewish worldview begs to differ.

The world of matter, no less than those of space and time, was made by the creator God. It was made not only to display his beauty and power, but also as a vessel for his glory. Again and again the prophets and psalms hint at what we might conceivably have guessed from the story of creation itself: the material world was made to be filled with God’s glory. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk. 2:14). Suppose that isn’t just an extravagant way of speaking? Suppose it means what it says?

What prevents us from thinking in these terms, I believe, is the long and often unrecognized triumph of the movement called Deism — a modern version of the ancient philosophy called Epicureanism. As long as we are thinking in that way, with God or the gods a long way away and earth trundling on entirely by its own steam, we will never glimpse that vision. As long as we are still in awe of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, who declared that miracles don’t happen because they can’t happen, we will not only find it difficult to believe in the ancient Jewish worldview. We will find it difficult even to understand what it was about.

If we do try to believe it, we will be forced to treat it simply as fantasy, a pretty idea rather than rock-bottom reality. That is the curse of the false either/or that has been wished on scholarship these many years: either robust skepticism or grit-your-teeth conservatism. Back to our first perfect storm. It’s time for both of those false reactions to be confronted by first-century reality.

Space, time, and now matter. In this last respect too the prophetic visions of the ancient scriptures suddenly acquire new dimensions. Jesus’ announcement that God is now in charge, that God is becoming king on earth as in heaven, means that we can glimpse, fitfully and in flashes, something of what this prophetic vision might mean — in where Jesus is and what he is doing. We can see the material world itself being transformed by the presence and power of Israel’s God, the creator.

We see it already, to be sure, in the healing stories. In them the physical matter of someone’s body is being transformed by a strange power, which, in one telling scene, Jesus feels going out of him (Mark 5:30). But then, to the astonishment of the first onlookers and the scornful skepticism of Epicureans ancient or modern, we see creation, as it were, under new management. The professional fishermen who caught nothing during the night are overwhelmed with the catch they get when Jesus tells them where to cast the net.

Jesus not only heals the sick; he raises the dead. He feeds a hungry crowd with a few loaves and a couple of fish. Something new is happening, and it’s happening to the material world itself. He commands the raging storm to be quiet, and it obeys. Then, worse still, he walks on the lake and invites Peter to do it too.

As with the resurrection itself, which forms the climax to this whole sequence, it is no use trying to rationalize these events. Disbelieve them if you will; retain the Epicurean detachment, the belief that if there is a God he (or she, or it) is a long way away and doesn’t get involved with this world. But at least see what is being claimed. These “miracles” make little or no sense within the present world of creation; where matter is finite, humans do not walk on water, and storms do what storms will do, no matter who, Canute-like, tries to tell them not to.

But suppose, just suppose, that the ancient prophetic dream had glimpsed a deeper truth. Suppose there were a god like Israel’s God. Suppose this God did after all make the world. And suppose he were to claim, at long last, his sovereign rights over that world, not to destroy it (another philosophical mistake) or merely to “intervene” in it from time to time (a kind of soggy compromise position), but to fill it with his glory, to allow it to enter a new mode in which it would reflect his love, his generosity, his desire to make it over anew.

Perhaps these stories are not, after all, the sort of bizarre things that people invent in retrospect to boost the image of the dead hero. Perhaps they are not even evidence of the kind of “interventionist,” miracle-working, “supernatural” divinity of some “conservative” speculation. Perhaps they are, instead, the sort of things that might just be characteristic of the new creation, of the fulfilled time, of what happens when heaven and earth come together.

Perhaps, after all, the attempts to cut them down to size are themselves part of a different agenda-driven process of invention that yields a world where such things don’t happen because they shouldn’t, they couldn’t. Because if they did, it might mean that a living God really had established his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and was intending to let this rule grow into a large shrub from a small seed, putting an end to the fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul, of humans organizing the world as though they were responsible to nobody but themselves.

Perhaps the real challenge of Jesus’ transformations within the material world is what they would imply both personally and politically. If they are about God becoming king on earth as in heaven, the chances are he’s not going to stop with storms on lakes. There will be bigger fish to catch. And to fry.

At the heart of the story told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke — and suffused through the whole narrative of John — we have the most striking example of all:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and James’s brother John, and led them off up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Then, astonishingly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them. They were talking with Jesus.

Peter just had to say something. “Master,” he said to Jesus, “it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters here — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Then there came a voice out of the cloud. “This is my dear son,” said the voice, “and I’m delighted with him. Pay attention to him.”

When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were scared out of their wits. Jesus came up and touched them.

“Get up,” he said, “and don’t be afraid.”

When they raised their eyes, they saw nobody except Jesus, all by himself.
(Matthew 17:1-8)

Suppose that, after all, the ancient Jewish story of a God making the world, calling a people, meeting with them on a mountain — suppose this story were true. And suppose this God had a purpose for his world and his people that had now reached the moment of fulfillment. Suppose, moreover, that this purpose had taken human form and that the person concerned was going about doing the things that spoke of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, of God’s space and human space coming together at last, of God’s time and human time meeting and merging for a short, intense period, and of God’s new creation and the present creation somehow knocking unexpected sparks off one another.

The earth shall be filled, said the prophet, with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH as the waters cover the sea. It is within some such set of suppositions that we might make sense of the strangest moment of all, at the heart of the narrative, when the glory of God comes down not to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to the top of Mount Sinai, but onto and into Jesus himself, shining in splendor, talking with Moses and Elijah, drawing the Law and the Prophets together into the time of fulfillment. The transfiguration, as we call it, is the central moment. This is when what happens to space in the Temple and to time on the Sabbath happens, within the life of Jesus, to the material world itself or rather, more specifically, to Jesus’ physical body itself.

So what does this story mean? What, if anything, does it “prove”? Consider another transfiguration story, from a different time and place. Nicholas Motovilov (1809-32) visited Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), a well-known saintly hermit, and asked him how one could know that the Spirit of God was really present. It was a cloudy day, and they were sitting on tree stumps in the woods. He describes what followed:

Then Father Seraphim gripped me firmly by the shoulders and said: “My friend, both of us, at this moment, are in the Holy Spirit, you and I. Why won’t you look at me?”

“I can’t look at you, Father, because the light flashing from your eyes and face is brighter than the sun and I’m dazzled!”

“Don’t be afraid, friend of God, you yourself are shining just like I am; you too are now in the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see me as you do.”

Then I looked at the holy man and was panic-stricken. Picture, in the sun’s orb, in the most dazzling brightness of its noon-day shining, the face of a man who is talking to you. You see his lips moving, the expression in his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel his arms round your shoulders, and yet you see neither his arms, nor his body, nor his face, you lose all sense of yourself, you can see only the blinding light which spreads everywhere, lighting up the layer of snow covering the glade, and igniting the flakes that are falling on us both like white powder.

“What do you feel?” asked Father Seraphim.

“An amazing well-being!” I replied…

“I feel a great calm in my soul, a peace which no words can express…. A strange, unknown delight…. An amazing happiness…. I’m amazingly warm…. There’s no scent in all the world like this one!”

“I know,” said Father Seraphim, smiling. “This is as it should be, for divine grace comes to live in our hearts, within us.”
[From V. Sander, St. Seraphim of Sarov, trans. Sr. Gabriel Anne (London: SPCK, 1975), pp. 15-16, as quoted in Roger Pooley and Philip Seddon, The Lord Of The Journey (London: Collins, 1986), p.51.]

One can, of course, doubt stories like this as well, but there are enough of them to suggest that we should rather keep an open mind. But if this suggests that we should be wary of dismissing them out of hand, it is also a reminder that the Transfiguration of Jesus is not, as it stands, a “proof” of his “divinity.” Moses and Elijah were “transfigured” too. So, in this nineteenth-century story, were the Russian mystic and his disciple.

What the story of Jesus on the mountain demonstrates, for those with eyes to see or ears to hear, is that, just as Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet, where God’s time and ours meet, so he is also the place where, so to speak, God’s matter — God’s new creation — intersects with ours. As with everything else in the gospel narrative, the moment is extraordinary, but soon over.

It forms part of a new set of signposts, Jesus-shaped signposts, indicating what is to come: a whole new creation, starting with Jesus himself as the seed that is sown in the earth and then rises to become the beginning of that new world. Something similar seems to have been going on, as we shall see later, in the upper room on the night when Jesus was betrayed.

God’s space and ours, God’s time and ours, God’s matter and ours. These three dimensions of the story of Jesus demonstrate the complete inadequacy of three ways of looking at Jesus that, however popular they have been, must be set aside at this point before we can proceed with yet more dimensions of this most extraordinary of stories.


Time Fulfilled – N.T. Wright

December 27, 2011

Branchini Madonna, 1427 Giovanni di Paolo. Giovanni di Paolo combines for us two pictorial types of the Virgin here: the Madonna of Humility, who sits on the ground, and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, who wears a crown and an ermine cloak. Scattered throughout the picture are symbolic references to the Virgin and to Christ: thistles on Christ’s drapery allude to His Passion; pomegranates foretell the promise of the Resurrection; roses and marigolds refer to Mary; and cornflowers relate to Christ and heaven.The artist has inscribed his own prayer around the Virgin’s halo: “Protect, O Virgin, the man who has painted thee.” This panel originally hung in the Branchini family chapel in the Church of San Domenico, Sienna.

Jews in Jesus’ day and Jews in our own day have a very special sense of time. Time is moving forward in a linear fashion, with a beginning, a middle, and an end — unlike some other visions of time, in which everything is cyclical, going around and around and constantly returning to the same point. The Jewish view of time is part of the Jewish view of God and creation: God has a purpose for his good creation, a purpose to be worked out in time. Indeed, the Jewish people think of themselves as living within the long story of how that purpose is to be worked out.

But already, in the opening of the Bible, there is another feature. When God made the world, he “rested” on the seventh day. This doesn’t just mean that God took a day off. It means that in the previous six days God was making a world — heaven and earth together — for his own use. Like someone building a home, God finished the job and then went in to take up residence, to enjoy what he had built.

Creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in. And the seventh-day “rest” was therefore a sign pointing forward into successive ages of time, a forward-looking signpost that said that one day, when God’s purposes for creation were accomplished, there would be a moment of ultimate completion, a moment when the work would finally be done, and God, with his people, would take his rest, would enjoy what he had accomplished.

One of the few things that ancient pagans knew about the Jewish people was that, from the pagans’ point of view, they had a lazy day once a week. From the Jewish point of view, it wasn’t laziness; it was the chance to celebrate time in a different mode. The Sabbath was the day when human time and God’s time met, when the day-to-day succession of tasks and sorrows was set aside and one entered a different sort of time, celebrating the original Sabbath and looking forward to the ultimate one.

This was the natural moment to celebrate, to worship, to pray, to study God’s law. The Sabbath was the moment during which one sensed the onward movement of history from its first foundations to its ultimate resolution. If the Temple was the space in which God’s sphere and the human sphere met, the Sabbath was the time when God’s time and human time coincided. Sabbath was to time what Temple was to space.

This sense of looking forward was heightened by the larger sabbatical scheme in which the seventh year was a year of agricultural rest and the seven-times-seventh year the year of jubilee, the time for slaves to be freed, for debts to be cancelled, for life to get back on track. As we have already seen in this book, the theme of jubilee ties in closely and naturally with the great all-encompassing theme of the Exodus. The jubilee was, as it were, the once-in-a-lifetime “exodus” that everyone could experience. We don’t know whether or to what extent the jubilee as set forth in Leviticus 25 was actually practiced in Jesus’ day. But it remained in the scriptures as a reminder that God’s time was being marked out week by week, seven years by seven years, half century by half century.

Matthew hints at all this in his own way, right at the start of his gospel, by arranging Jesus’ genealogy in three groups of fourteen generations (that is, six sevens), so that Jesus appears at the start of the Sabbath-of-Sabbaths moment. And, as we have seen, people in Jesus’ day were pondering, calculating, and longing for the greatest super-jubilee of them all, the “seventy weeks” (that is, seventy times seven years) of Daniel 9:24. The great Sabbath was coming! Soon they would be free!

Now, and only now, do we see what Jesus meant when he said the time is fulfilled? That was part of his announcement right at the start of his public career (Mark 1:15). Only this, I believe, will enable us to understand his extraordinary behavior immediately afterwards. He seems to have gone out of his way to flout the normal Sabbath regulations. Most people in the modern church have imagined that this was because the Sabbath had become “legalistic,” a kind of observance designed to boost one’s sense of moral achievement, and that Jesus had come to sweep all that away in a burst of libertarian, anti-legalistic enthusiasm. That, though commonplace, is a trivial misunderstanding. It is too “modern” by half.

Rather, the Sabbath was the regular signpost pointing forward to God’s promised future, and Jesus was announcing that the future to which the signpost had been pointing had now arrived in the present. In his own career. He was doing the “God’s in-charge” things. He was explaining what he was doing by talking about what God was doing. The time was fulfilled, and God’s kingdom was arriving.

In particular, Jesus came to Nazareth and announced the jubilee. This was the time — the time! — when all the sevens, all the Sabbaths, would rush together. This was the moment Israel and the world had been waiting for. When you reach your destination, you don’t expect to see signposts anymore. Nobody puts up a sign on Capitol Hill pointing to “Washington.” Nobody needs a signpost saying “London” in Piccadilly Circus. You don’t need the Sabbath when the time is fulfilled. It was completely consistent with Jesus’ vision of his own vocation that he would do things that said, again and again from one angle after another, that the time had arrived, that the future, the new creation, was already here, and that one no longer needed the Sabbath.

The Sabbath law was not, then, a stupid rule that could now be abolished (though some of the detailed Sabbath regulations, as Jesus pointed out, had led to absurd extremes, so that you were allowed to pull a donkey out of a well on the Sabbath, but not to heal the sick). It was a signpost whose purpose had now been accomplished. It was a marker of time pointing forward to the time when time would be fulfilled; and that was now happening.

Notice how this theme then ties in with others we have already observed. If the Sabbath now has a purpose, it won’t be for rest from the work of creation, but rather for celebrating God’s victory over the Satan: “And isn’t it right,” asks Jesus, “that this daughter of Abraham, tied up by the Satan for these eighteen years, should be untied from her chains on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). Victory in the real battle is closely connected with the healings that reveal that God is in charge. “My father is going on working,” declares Jesus, “and so am I” (John 5:17). And these things happen, of course, in the moment when the time is fulfilled. If Jesus is a walking, living, breathing Temple, he is also the walking, celebrating, victorious Sabbath.

But this means that the time of Jesus’ public career, taken as a whole, also acquires a special significance. He spoke about this special significance when he insisted that the wedding guests can’t fast while the bridegroom is still at the party. Something new is happening; a new time has been launched; different things are now appropriate. Jesus has a sense of a rhythm to his work, a short rhythm in which he will launch God’s kingdom, the God’s-in-charge project, and complete it in the most shocking and dramatic symbolic act of all. “Look here,” he says to those who have warned him that Herod wants to kill him, “I’m casting out demons today and tomorrow, and completing my healings. I’ll be finished by the third day. But I have to continue my travels today, tomorrow, and the day after that! It couldn’t happen that a prophet would perish except in Jerusalem” (Luke 13:32-33).

This follows hard on the heels of some sharp little sayings about God’s kingdom. It’s like mustard seed, which starts small and grows to a great shrub for the birds to nest in; it’s like yeast mixed into dough, transforming the whole lump. And, in a solemn warning that resonates with many similar ones, Jesus warns his hearers that they may one day see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets – and people from east and west, from north and south! — sitting down to eat in the kingdom of God, while they themselves will be thrown out (Luke 13:18-30). The time of Jesus’ public career is the time of fulfillment, the time through which God’s new creation, his earth-as-in-heaven new reality, is being launched, up close and personal. But this means it is possible to miss the boat, to lose the one chance. That is the warning that goes with the note of fulfillment.


Redefining Where God Dwells — N.T.Wright

December 26, 2011

The Heller Altar was created 1507–09 by Albrecht Dürer for the patrician Jakob Heller of Frankfurt, the central panel copied ca. 1614–17 by Jobst Harrich, its original destroyed by the fire of the Munich Residenz in 1729

In his most recent book, Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright explores the ways in which people in Jesus’ world would have thought about space, time and matter.


For many centuries mapmakers put Jerusalem at the middle of the earth. That corresponds to what most Jews in the first century believed about the city, and particularly about the Temple. It was the heart of everything, the holiest spot on earth. It was the focal point of the holy land. Its decoration symbolized the larger creation, the world we read about in Genesis 1. It wasn’t, as sacred buildings have been in some other traditions, a retreat from the world. It was a bridgehead into the world. It was the sign that the creator God was claiming the whole world, claiming it back for himself, establishing his domain in the middle of it.

It was, in particular, the place where God himself had promised to come and live. This was where God’s glory, his tabernacling presence, his Shekinah, had come to rest. That’s what the Bible had said, and some fortunate, though frightened, individuals had glimpsed it and lived to tell the tale. But God lived, by definition, in heaven. Nobody, however, supposed that God lived most of the time in heaven, a long way away, and then, as though for an occasional holiday or royal visitation, went to live in the Temple in Jerusalem instead.

Somehow, in a way most modern people find extraordinary to the point of being almost unbelievable, the Temple was not only the center of the world. It was the place where heaven and earth met. This isn’t, then, just a way of saying, “Well, the Jews were very attached to their land and their capital city.” It was the vital expression of a worldview in which “heaven” and “earth” are not far apart, as most people today assume, but actually overlap and interlock.

And Jesus, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up — but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living.

As many people will see at once, this is the very heart of what later theologians would call the doctrine of the incarnation. But it looks quite different from how many people imagine that doctrine to work. Judaism already had a massive “incarnational” symbol, the Temple. Jesus was behaving as if he were the Temple, in person.

He was talking about Israel’s God taking charge. And he was doing things that put that God-in-chargeness into practice. It all starts to make sense. In particular, it answers the old criticism that “Jesus talked about God, but the church talked about Jesus” — as though Jesus would have been shocked to have his pure, God-centered message corrupted in that way. This sneer fails to take account of the fact that, yes, Jesus talked about God, but he talked about God precisely in order to explain the things that he himself was doing.

So we shouldn’t be surprised at Jesus’ action in the Temple. The Temple had, as it were, been a great signpost pointing forward to another reality that had lain unnoticed for generations, like the vital clue in a detective story that is only recognized as such in the final chapter. Remember the promise to David — that God would build him a “house,” a family, founded on the son of David who would be the son of God? David had wanted to build a house for God, and God had replied that he would build David a “house.” David’s coming son is the ultimate reality; the Temple in Jerusalem is the advance signpost to that reality. Now that the reality is here, the signpost isn’t needed anymore.

But it isn’t just that the signpost had become redundant with the arrival of the reality. The Temple, as many other first-century Jews recognized, was in the wrong hands and had come to symbolize the wrong things. It was, for a start, a place that for many Jews stank of commercial oppression. This is an additional rather obvious overtone of Jesus’ action in driving out the money changers and the traders. But it gets worse. The Temple was the center of the banking system. It was where the records of debts were kept; the first thing the rebels did when they took over the Temple in the great revolt was to burn those records. That tells you quite a lot about how people saw the Temple. I had a letter today from the tax man, politely asking me for my annual contribution to government finances. If I don’t answer it, the next one won’t be so polite.

Now imagine letters and records building up, detailing all the debts of ordinary people in Jerusalem, while the chief priests, who ran the system, lived in their fine mansions in the nice part of town and went about in their smart clothes. If you were an ordinary, hardworking resident of Jerusalem or the surrounding area, what would you think of the building that was supposed to be God’s house, but that stored the records of your debts, while the rich rulers who performed the religious rituals marched by with their noses in the air on their way to put on their splendid vestments and chant their elaborate prayers? Yes, that’s exactly how many people saw the Temple.

It gets worse again. The Temple had come to symbolize the nationalist movement that had led many Jews to revolt against pagan oppression in the past and would lead them to do so once more. As we see graphically throughout the history of Israel, and not least in the first century, the Temple was the sign that Israel’s God, the world’s creator, was with his people and would defend them against all confers. Battle and Temple had gone together for a thousand years, from David himself through to Judah the Hammer to Simon the Star.

And Jesus had come as the Prince of Peace. “If only you’d known,” he sobbed out through his tears, “on this day — even you! — what peace meant. But now it’s hidden, and you can’t see it.” Enemies will come, he said. “They won’t leave one single stone on another, because you didn’t know the moment when God was visiting you” (Luke 19:42-44).

Israel’s God was coming back at last, and they couldn’t see it. Why not? Because they were looking in entirely the wrong direction. The Temple, and the city of which the Temple was the focal point, had come to symbolize violent national revolution. Instead of being the light of the world, the city on the hill that should let its light shine out to the nations, it was determined to keep the light for itself. The Temple was not just redundant; not just a place of economic oppression. It had become a symbol of Israel’s violent ambition, a sign that Israel’s ancient vocation had been turned inside out. In Luke’s gospel, the scene of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem balances the scene near the start in which Jesus goes to Nazareth and risks his neck by declaring God’s blessing on the pagan nations. Then it was the synagogue; now it’s the Temple.

It also balances the scene even earlier, when the twelve-year-old Jesus stays back in Jerusalem, to his parents’ alarm, at the end of a Passover celebration — and is finally discovered sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them, quizzing them in turn, and explaining that he had to be getting involved with his father’s work (Luke 2:49). Now here he is, back again, involved up to the neck in his father’s work, astonishing the Jerusalem authorities for a different reason. This is the climax of his father’s work, and that work is now focused on Jesus himself, not the Temple.

If Jesus is acting out a vision — astonishing, risky, and one might say crazy — in which he is behaving as if he is the Temple, redefining sacred space around himself, something equally strange and risky is taking place in the realm of time.


Our Christmas Posts

December 24, 2011

If you have a couple of minutes, listen to Fr. Barron retell Luke’s story:

And steal this Christmas prayer and use it sometime Christmas Day:

Merry Christmas 2012!



Three by Anne Sexton

December 23, 2011

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1928. She attended Garland Junior College in Boston and worked briefly as a fashion model and high school teacher before joining Boston University’s creative writing faculty in 1970. Her poetry books include To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966, Pulitzer Prize), Love Poems (1969), Transformations (1971), The Book of Folly (1972), The Death Notebooks (1974), and The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975). Among her honors were the 1967 Shelley Memorial Award, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a Guggenheim fellowship.

Much of Anne Sexton’s poetry is autobiographical and concentrates on her deeply personal feelings, especially anguish. In particular, many of her poems record her battles with mental illness. She spent many years in psychoanalysis, including several long stays in mental hospitals. As she told Beatrice Berg, her writing began, in fact, as therapy: “My analyst told me to write between our sessions about what I was feeling and thinking and dreaming.” Her analyst, impressed by her work, encouraged her to keep writing, and then, she told Berg, she saw (on television) “I. A. Richards [a poet and literary critic] describing the form of a sonnet and I thought maybe I could do that. Oh, I was turned on. I wrote two or three a day for about a year.” Eventually, Sexton’s poems about her psychiatric struggles were gathered in To Bedlam and Part Way Back which recounts, as James Dickey wrote, the experiences “of madness and near-madness, of the pathetic, well-meaning, necessarily tentative and perilous attempts at cure, and of the patient’s slow coming back into the human associations and responsibilities which the old, previous self still demands.”
Selected From Sexton’s bio on The Poetry

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.


The Abortion

Somebody who should have been born is gone.

Just as the earth puckered its mouth,
each bud puffing out from its knot,
I changed my shoes, and then drove south.

Up past the Blue Mountains, where
Pennsylvania humps on endlessly,
wearing, like a crayoned cat, its green hair,

its roads sunken in like a gray washboard;
where, in truth, the ground cracks evilly,
a dark socket from which the coal has poured,

Somebody who should have been born is gone.

the grass as bristly and stout as chives,
and me wondering when the ground would break,
and me wondering how anything fragile survives;

up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,
not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all ..
he took the fullness that love began.

Returning north, even the sky grew thin
like a high window looking nowhere.
The road was as flat as a sheet of tin.

Somebody who should have been born is gone.

Yes, woman, such logic will lead
to loss without death.
Or say what you meant,
you coward … this baby that I bleed.


Wanting to Die

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.

Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Still-born, they don’t always die,
but dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.

To thrust all that life under your tongue! –
that, all by itself, becomes a passion.
Death’s a sad bone; bruised, you’d say,

and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.

Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.

“On October 4, 1974, Sexton had lunch with poet Maxine Kumin to revise galleys for Sexton’s manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, scheduled for publication in March 1975. On returning home she put on her mother’s old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage, and started the engine of her car, committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

In an interview over a year before her death, she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing Toward God in twenty days with “two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.” She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her death. She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.”
Wikipedia Entry


The 100th Psalm – Roger Scruton

December 22, 2011

Albrecht Dürer (21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528) was a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremberg. His prints established his reputation across Europe when he was still in his twenties, and he has been conventionally regarded as the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance ever since. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. His woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavor than the rest of his work. His well-known works include the Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia I (shown here, 1514), which has been the subject of extensive analysis and interpretation. His watercolors mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium.

Moving to the country ten years ago I went out of curiosity to our local church, no longer as a thief but as a penitent. And because the little church announced the use of the Book of Common Prayer — in whose idiom my prayers are invariably expressed — I joined the congregation, and volunteered to play the organ. The truth contained in the words of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion is not directly there on the page, but revealed in the silence of the soul that comes from speaking them. It is a truth that reaches beyond words, to the inexpressible end of things.

Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm, the Jubilate Deo, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer. It was by reflecting on this psalm that I came to see how its pure and unsullied idiom contains the answer to the lamentations of Michael Stipe in his pop hit of the time “Losing My Religion.” The psalmist enjoins us to be joyful in the Lord, to serve the Lord with gladness and to come before his presence with a song. It is a notable fact of our modern civilization, in which duties to God are ignored or forgotten, that there is very little gladness and still less singing. `Losing my Religion’ is a moan, not a song, and the idiom of heavy metal expressly forbids its followers to `join in’ when the music starts.

Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature — these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops.

The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: `Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology. It is reminding us first that our knowledge of God is a kind of personal acquaintance, summarized in a statement of identity. We know God by knowing that God is the Lord and the Lord is God. Christians believe that they have three ways of knowing God: as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. But they also believe that our knowledge of God is a matter of personal acquaintance, which cannot be conveyed in the language of science.

The psalmist is also reminding us that we did not create ourselves, nor did we create the world in which we live. Such is the presumption of modern science that it strives to deny even this evident truth. Scientists are endeavoring to unravel the secret of creation, so as to take charge of it and to turn it in some new direction. This project — hailed by all forward-looking people as promising the final victory over disease, suffering and even death itself — was foretold and rejected by Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World. Huxley’s message was really a religious one. If human beings ever unlock their own genetic code, he foretold, they will use this knowledge to escape the chains of nature. But having done so, they will bind themselves in chains of their own.

The chains of nature are those that God created. They are called reason, freedom, morality and choice. The human chains foretold by Huxley are of a quite different composition: they are made entirely of flesh and the pleasures of the flesh. They bind so tightly that reason, choice and moral judgement can find no chink in which to grow and corrode them. So completely do they encircle the human soul that it shrinks to a tiny dot within the organism. There is no suffering in the Brave New World; no pain or doubt or terror. Nor is there happiness. It is a world of reliable and undemanding pleasures, from which the causes of suffering have been banished, and with them all striving, all hope, and all joy.

But love is a cause of suffering; so too are freedom, judgment and choice. Hence these things too will disappear from the Brave New World. As a result, confronted with the inhabitants of this world, we do not recognize ourselves. We instinctively reject this new form of life as monstrous, inhuman, meaningless. And that is because we seek in vain for God’s image, in a world where man has presumed to be in charge.

Finally, the psalmist says that God created us. For many people this proposition is the sticking point. They can accept that, if there is knowledge of God, then it is a kind of personal knowledge; they can accept that we did not create ourselves and even that the attempt to put ourselves in the position of self-creators is dangerous presumption. But they cannot accept that God created us. They have a better explanation, and that is Darwin’s.

Thanks to the work of scientific popularizers like Richard Dawkins the debate between evolutionism and creationism, which once rocked the schools of theology, is now rocking the world. If we evolved from apes, and if the whole process of evolution is merely an outgrowth of the chemistry of carbon, what place is there for God? Can we not explain everything without that old and stale hypothesis? Such are the questions that animate contemporary discussions; and people seem eager to be taken in by them.

From a philosophical perspective, however, it is very strange that people should think that the psalmist and the scientist are mutually opposed. We are natural beings, part of the biological order. Natural beings exist in time and therefore change over time. That we should evolve is inevitable. If we ask the question how we humans came to be as we are, then any conceivable answer will refer to the unfolding of a process — and processes take time. The surprising fact is not that we should have evolved from the humble chemistry of the oceans but that it should have taken so long to discover this. [Though there are hints of Darwinian thinking among the Greeks, especially Anaximander]

Of course, one thing that prevented the discovery was the story of Eden, understood not as a parable but as a literal truth about creation. But the proposition that God created the world and the proposition that we evolved over time are not merely compatible; they arise in response to quite different questions. Evolution tells us how the world is spread out in time, the story of creation tells us why.

The best that science can offer is a theory of the how of things; but it is silent about the why. When we ask for the why of the world we are seeking a point of view outside all time and change, from which we can view the world as a whole. Only God can obtain that point of view. Hence it is to him that we must look for an answer. That, surely, is what the psalmist meant when he said that it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.

What follows from this truth, however, and how does it affect our lives? The psalmist goes on at once to tell us, in a beautiful phrase: `we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’. God watches over us, as a shepherd watches over his sheep. And the world in which we live is a pasture. It was natural for the poet, living in a pastoral community, to use this imagery. And it is all the more emotive for us, in that we are conscious of the history that has severed us from the green pastures of our ancestors.

We long, in our hearts, to return to a simpler and more pastoral way of life, just as we long to be united with God. Hence the psalmist’s words have a dual function. They remind us that we depend on God’s mercy and power. And they remind us of our fallen state, of our need for safety, and of the long history of human pride and arrogance that has sundered us from nature. Our world was intended as a pasture, and we have turned it into a junkyard.

The psalmist is reminding us, too, of other things. Like sheep we go astray; and like sheep we stray as a crowd. Moreover, sheep that stray from their pasture are making a huge mistake: they are venturing into territory where they are no longer protected. We, who have damaged the natural order, are in a like condition. We have emerged into a world much of the fabric of which has been deflected from its natural condition, so as to depend upon us for its survival. And yet we haven’t the faintest idea how to ensure that this world survives. We improvise from day to day, and each day we become more deeply mired in error.

And the process seems to obey a terrible and inexorable logic. We overcome the danger presented by cars by building better roads, which make the cars go faster, so increasing the danger. We try to rescue our towns from the frenzy with bypasses, and within a year or two they are twice as dangerous, since the bypasses have brought more traffic to the towns. We think we can make the streets safer with street lights, only to discover that we pollute the night sky and shut out the stars, so causing us to lie half-awake at night under a searing light that troubles our body rhythms. Every attempt to correct our mistakes seems merely to add to them. And those who tell us this are greeted with anger and vilification, since the one thing that people wedded to error cannot bear is the truth. Men who tell the truth are dangerous. They should be crucified.

To return, however, to the Hundredth Psalm. The right course for those sheep who have strayed into unknown territory is to go back through the hole in the hedge. This is the essence of the religious life: not progress and experiment, but the journey back to the place that protects us. It is a mark of our sinful nature that those who advocate this course are so often sneered at. Yet there is a way back to those cooling streams, which can be rediscovered at any time.

I don’t mean to imply that the conservation of nature is the answer to original sin. But I do mean to suggest that the truth that is being brought home to us in the sphere of ecology applies equally to the rest of human life. The General Confession tells us that `we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, and thereby implies that the ways to which we are called are part of our nature and our destiny, and not to be improved upon. If you ponder the many ways in which people have recently tried to improve on the human condition — from sexual liberation to modernist architecture, and from television to junk food — you will surely cone to see how true is that ancient vision of the sheep-like nature of humanity.

We have made an idol of progress. But `progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights.

The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it.

But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame. Misfortune becomes an injustice, and a ground for compensation. Hence our world is full of hatred — hatred for the other, who has got what is mine. Look at contemporary art, literature and music and you will find in much of it a singular joylessness, a revulsion towards human life. This revulsion is the inevitable reward of those who think only of what is owed to them, and not of what they owe.

That is why the psalmist enjoins us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude. `O Go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.’ Once we have made the decision to turn back to the ways of duty, gratitude will flow naturally into us, and — so the psalmist reminds us — gratitude is the precondition of joy. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well­being are not rights but gifts.

A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth. And that is why it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them?

Where there is no gratitude there is no love. Conversely, a world in which there is love is a world in which the good things of life are seen as privileges, not rights. It is a world where you are aware of the good will of others, and where you respond to that good will with a reciprocal bounty, giving what is in your power to give, even if it is only praise.

That is why we should say, even in the midst of suffering, that the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting. After all, we might not have existed; precisely because we are finite, created beings, we endure from moment to moment by God’s grace. It is not through our own efforts that we attain peace but through the great endowment of good will, which lays down for us commands that only a free being can obey. That is what is meant by `everlasting mercy’: not the constant forgiveness of sins, but the maintenance of an order in which free choice can guide our conduct, even through suffering and hardship.

However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom, since this is not the way of the flesh. Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God. This knowledge breaks through the barrier of time, and places us in contact with the eternal. Hence the psalmist concludes by telling us of God that `his truth endureth from generation to generation’.

Discovering this truth, we encounter what is permanent — or rather what is beyond time and change, the eternal peace that serves as the divine template, so to speak, for our brief homecomings here on earth. When we take those tentative backward steps that I mentioned earlier, trying to restore this or that little precinct of our mutilated Eden, we are creating icons of another pasture, outside time and space, where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.

If, therefore, I am called upon to express my much-amended but nevertheless regained religion, it would not be in the penitential words of Little Gidding, nor in the self-centered cries of Rilke to his Angel, but in the tranquil words of the Jubilate Deo:

O Be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.

Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that bath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

O Go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth endureth from generation to generation.



The Loss Of Religion – Roger Scruton

December 21, 2011

Beneath the loggias of the relics Bernini created huge niches which hold four colossal statues, almost 10 m. high, which are associated with the relics. In the first pier on the right is the statue of St. Longinus, the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus, from which "blood and water" flowed. It was carved by Bernini in 1643 from four blocks of marble.

In our civilization, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labor, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce.

Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness — only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.

Except that the loss need not occur. This is the lesson that I draw from my own experience, and that has caused me to revisit the Christianity of my youth. I was brought up in the England of the fifties, in which it was generally assumed that, with the exception of the Jewish minority, you were either Nonconformist or Church of England. On official documents that required you to state your religion you wrote `C of E’ regardless. And you could be confident that God was an Englishman, who had a quiet, dignified, low-key way of visiting the country each weekend while being careful never to outstay his welcome.

When Eliot addressed that God — the very God of the Anglican communion — with the cri de coeur of Ash Wednesday and the solemn psalmody of Four Quartets, we were shocked and also moved. Maybe, beneath those formal robes, there beat a real and living heart and one that cared for us! This possibility had not occurred to us before.

In the England of today God is a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, with aggressive manners and a violent way of intruding into every gathering, even in the middle of the working week. The Muslims in our midst do not share our impious attitude to absent generations. They come to us from the demographic infernos of North Africa and Pakistan, like Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy, each with an old man on his shoulders, a child at his feet and his hands full of strange gods. They are manifestly in the business of social, as well as biological, reproduction. They show us what we really stand to lose, if we hold nothing sacred: namely, the future.

In the presence of this new religious spirit the voice of the English churches becomes ever weaker, ever more shy of doctrine, ever more conciliatory and ill at ease. The idea that the British should be re-evangelized would be dismissed by most of the official clergy as an act of aggression, even a racist affront to our Muslim minorities. The Church is not there to propagate the Christian faith, but to forgive those who reject it.

Now of course it is one of the great strengths of Christianity that it makes forgiveness a duty and freedom of conscience a religious ideal. But Christians recognize the duty of forgiveness because they seek forgiveness too. Those brought up in our post-religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment, and can neglect their duties without being crippled by guilt. Since religion is the balm for guilt, those brought up without religion seem, on the surface, to lose the need for it.

But only on the surface. You don’t have to be a believer to be conscious of a great religious deficit in our society. We saw its effect during the strange canonization of Princess Diana, when vast crowds of people congregated in places vaguely associated with the Princess’s name, to deposit wreaths, messages and teddy bears. The very same people whose pitiless prurience had caused Diana’s death now sought absolution from her ghost. Here was beauty, royalty, distinction punished for its fault, to become a sacrificial offering and therefore a saintly intercessor before the mysteries that govern the world.

Forget the gruesome kitsch and liturgical vagueness — necessary results, in any case, of the decline of organized religion. We were in the presence of a primordial yearning for the sacred, one reaching back to the very earliest dream-pictures of mankind and recorded in a thousand myths and rituals.

Many religions focus on such episodes of sacrificial offering, often, as in Christianity and Shi`ism, through a re-enacted martyrdom, in a collective ritual that purges the believer of his sins. So widespread is the phenomenon that Rene Girard has seen it as the fundamental secret of religion. In Girard’s view, the suffering of a victim is necessary if the accumulated violence of society is to be released and abjured. That is why we are moved by the story of Christ’s Passion. It is we ourselves who nailed this man to the Cross, and the compassion that we feel for him is also a purging of our guilt. This guilt arises from the experience of society; it is the residue of the aggressions through which we compete for our thrills. In our post-religious society these aggressions are no longer sublimated through acts of humility and worship. Hence the sadistic forms of entertainment that dominate our media in Europe. But, if we accept Girard’s view – and there is surely a lot to be said for it — we must also accept that Generation X is just as subject to the burden of religious guilt as the rest of us.

And indeed, as soon as we look at religion in that detached, anthropological way, we begin to discern its subterranean presence in European society. Although doctrine has no place in our public life, a fear of heresy is beginning to grip the countries of Europe — not heresy as defined by the Christian churches, but heresy as defined by a form of post-Christian political correctness. A remarkable system of semi-official labels has emerged to prevent the expression of dangerous points of view. And a point of view is identified as dangerous if it belongs to the old Judaeo-Christian culture, thereby reminding us of what we were when we actually believed something.

Those who confess to their Christianity are `Christian fundamentalists’ or even part of the `Christian fundamentalist right’, and therefore a recognized threat to free opinion; those who express concern over national identity are `far-right extremists’ — a label attached to Holland’s Pim Fortuyn, despite his impeccable left-wing credentials; those who question whether it is right to advocate homosexuality to schoolchildren are `homophobic’; defenders of the family are `right-wing authoritarians’, while a teacher who defends chastity rather than free contraception as the best response to teenage pregnancy, is not just `out of touch’ but `offensive’ to his pupils. To criticize popular culture, television or contemporary rock music, even to press for the teaching of grammatical English in English schools — all these are proofs of `elitism’, whereby a person disqualifies himself from the right to speak. It is as though our society is seeking to define itself as a religious community, whose very lack of faith has become a kind of orthodoxy.

There is nothing new in this. Jacobinism and Communism both began life as anti-religious movements, and both bear the marks of the Enlightenment. But they recruited people in just the way that religions recruit them, offering inviolable orthodoxies, mysterious rituals, witch-hunts and persecutions. And that is why they were successful. Living as we do in an age without certainties, we like to believe that we can finally dispense with the religious instinct and coexist in open dialogue with people who dissent from the premises on which we build our lives. But we too need orthodoxies, we too hunger for rituals, and we too are apt to confront the critic and the dissenter with persecution rather than argument.

We even have gods of a kind, flitting below the surface of our passions. You can glimpse Gaia, the earth goddess, in the crazier rhetoric of the environmentalists; Fox and Deer are totemic spirits for the defenders of animal rights, whose religion was shaped by the kitsch of Walt Disney; the human genome has a mystical standing in the eyes of many medical scientists. We have cults like football, sacrificial offerings like Princess Diana and improvised saints like Linda McCartney.

On the other hand, we have abandoned those aspects of religion that provide genuine guidance in a time of spiritual need. The instinctive awe and respect towards our own being that the Romans called pietas has more or less vanished from the public life of Europe. And nowhere is this more clearly noticeable than in the officially Roman Catholic countries of France and Italy. Now that the Church has ceased to be a public voice in those countries, the culture is being colonized by secular ways of thinking.

Discussions of embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia — subjects that go to the heart of the religious conception of our destiny — proceed in once-Catholic Europe as though nothing were at stake beyond the expansion of human choices. Little now remains of the old Christian idea that life, its genesis and its terminus are sacred things, to be meddled with at our peril. The piety and humility that it was once natural to feel before the fact of creation have given way to a pleasure-seeking disregard for absent generations. The people of Europe are living as though the dead and the unborn had no say in their decisions.

The Romans warned against impiety not only because it would bring down judgment from heaven but because it was a repudiation of a fundamental human duty — the duty to ancestors and progeny. The ills of modern civilization have their origins in the loss of piety, and we should take a lesson from the Romans, who had such a clear perception of why piety matters. The important thing, in the ancient world, was not theological belief, which was hidden behind the plethora of gods, but the cult. Religion was first of all a practice, a habit of worship, a humble setting aside of self and a deep genuflection in the presence of the divine — as Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, finally bows down before Isis, and is reborn to the world. Faith may or may not step into the ensuing silence. But it is the silence itself that matters: the silence of the penitent soul. Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace.


What Losing Faith Really Means – Roger Scruton

December 20, 2011

Luis Buñuel has reputation as one of the most important surrealist filmmakers in history. He got his start by collaborating with Salvador Dali on the 16-minute short Un Chien Andalou. His long career in surrealist filmmaking and religious rabble-rousing had its share of peaks and valleys, as he traveled from Spain to France to America to Mexico and back again. Simon of the Desert, his last Mexican film, is certainly one of the peaks. Simon of the Desert is Luis Buñuel’s wicked and wild take on the life of devoted ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites, who waited atop a pillar surrounded by a barren landscape for six years, six months, and six days, in order to prove his devotion to God.

Religion, as Durkheim pointed out in his great study of its elementary forms, is a social fact. A religion is not something that occurs to you; nor does it emerge as the conclusion of an empirical investigation or an intellectual argument. It is something that you join, to which you are converted, or into which you are born. Losing the Christian faith is not merely a matter of doubting the existence of God, or the incarnation, or the redemption purchased on the Cross. It involves falling out of communion, ceasing to be `members in Christ’, losing a primary experience of home. All religions are alike in this, and it is why they are so harsh on heretics and unbelievers: for heretics and unbelievers pretend to the benefits of membership, while belonging to other communities in other ways.

This is not to say that there is nothing more to religion than the bond of membership. There is also doctrine, ritual, worship and prayer. There is the vision of God the creator, and the search for signs and revelations of the transcendental. There is the sense of the sacred, the sacrosanct, the sacramental and the sacrilegious. All those grow from the experience of social membership and also amend it, so that a religious community furnishes itself with an all-embracing Weltanschauung, together with rituals and ceremonies that affirm its existence as a social organism, and lay claim to its place in the world.

Faith is not therefore content with the cozy customs and necromantic rites of the household gods. It strides out towards a cosmic explanation and a final theodicy. In consequence it suffers challenge from the rival advance of science. Scientific thinking brought Christian doctrine to a sudden check. Although religion is a social fact, therefore, it is exposed to a purely intellectual refutation. And the defeat of the Church’s intellectual claims began the process of secularization, which was to end in the defeat of the Christian community — the final loss of that root experience of membership, which had shaped European civilization for two millennia, and which had caused it to be what it is.

The loss of faith may begin as an intellectual loss. But it does not end there. It is a loss of comfort, membership and home: it involves exile from the community that formed you, and for which you may always secretly yearn. Reading the great Victorian doubters — Matthew Arnold being pre-eminent among them — I am persuaded that they were not ready for this experience. Hence they attempted to patch up the social world while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it. And the remarkable fact is that they were successful. Their loss of faith occurred against the background of a still perceivable religious community, whose customs they did nothing to disturb. They inhabited the same Lebenswelt as the believer, and saw the world as marked out by institutions and expectations that are the legacy of religion.

We witness this in the writings of nineteenth-century secularists such as John Stuart Mill, Jules Michelet or Henry Thoreau. Their world bears the stamp of a shared religion; the human form for them is still divine; the free individual still shines in their world with a more than earthly illumination, and the hidden goal of all their writings is to ennoble the human condition. Such writers did not experience their loss of faith as a loss, since in a very real sense they hadn’t lost religion. They had rejected various metaphysical ideas and doctrines, but still inhabited the world that faith had made — the world of secure commitments, of marriages, obsequies and christenings, of real presences in ordinary lives and exalted visions in art. Their world was a world where the concepts of the sacred, the sacrilegious and the sacramental were widely recognized and socially endorsed.

This condition found idealized expression in the Gothic Revival, and in the writings of its principal high Victorian advocate, John Ruskin. Nobody knows whether Ruskin was a vestigial Christian believer, a fellow-traveler or an atheist profoundly attached to the medieval vision of a society ordered by faith. His exhortations, however, are phrased in the diction of the Book of Common Prayer; his response to the science and art of his day is penetrated by the spirit of religious inquisition, and his recommendations to the architect are for the building of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Gothic style, as he described and commended it, was to recapture the sacred for a secular age. It was to offer visions of sacrifice and consecrated labor, and so counter the dispiriting products of the industrial machine. The Gothic would be, in the midst of our utilitarian madness, a window on to the transcendental, where once again we could pause and wonder, and where our souls would be filled with the light of another world. The Gothic Revival — both for Ruskin and for the atheist William Morris — was an attempt to reconsecrate the city as an earthly community united by real presences in sacred precincts.

Loss of faith involves a radical change to the Lebenswelt, as Husserl called it. The most ordinary things take on a new aspect, and concepts that inhabit the soul of believers and shape their most intimate experiences — concepts of the sacred and profane, of the forbidden, the sacramental and the holy — seem to make no contact with the world as it appears to the person who has lost hold of the transcendental.

In response to this we might strive as the Victorians did to maintain and repair the faith community, to hope that the process of re-consecration would continue, refurbishing the image of humanity as god-like and redeemed. In short, we could go on stealing from churches. But it doesn’t work — not now. More appropriate to our time is the response of Rilke and Eliot, the two poets over whom I stumbled when first I discovered books. They did not hope for that enduring simulacrum of a religious community, but instead wished to rediscover the real thing, only lying dormant within us.

Among the greatest religious poems of the twentieth century we must surely count The Duino Elegies of Rilke, and The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot. In the first a private religion is created from the fragmentary offerings of intensely subjective experiences, which are gradually elaborated until they seem to contain the intimation of a personal redemption. In the second the poet is living in a world that refuses his religious yearning; he rediscovers, through a lost but imagined religious community, the experience of the sacramental from which he had been cut off. Both poets are restored in imagination to what they had lost in fact. There is a kind of belief there, but it is a belief that recreates the religious community out of memories, intimations and signs.

In The Duino Elegies the idea of the transcendental is embodied in the figure of the Angel, summoned into existence by the poet’s need, and representing the triumph of consciousness over the world of fact. In all of us, Rilke believes, there is the deep need to transform fact into thought, object into subject, Earth into the idea of Earth: the Angel is the being in whom this transubstantiation is complete. He is like the soul released into Brahma, who has translated matter to spirit so as to be co-terminous with his world.

We emulate this process of translation, but we must begin from the fragments of our earthly experience where the sacred can take root — the places of love, heroism, death and memory, in which Earth beseeches us to take conscious note of her, to ingest her into our own transcendental presence, which is also an absence. For Rilke the experience of the sacred is saturated with the image of community, with the full, conscious rejoicing of the tribe, now dormant in all of us, and resurrected in imagination in the tenderness of sexual love:

Look, we don’t love as flowers love, out of
a single year; there rises in us, when we love,
immemorial sap in the arms. O girl,
This — that we loved in ourselves, not one yet to be, but
the innumerable ferment; not a single child
but the fathers resting like ruined mountains
in our depths –; but the dry river-bed
of former mothers –; but the whole
soundless landscape under its clear
or cloudy destiny –, this, girl, came before you.

In that passage Rilke finds in the intense longing of erotic love the intimations of a religious community — one dedicated to its own reproduction. The transcendental is contained in the moment — the moment of desire that summons past and future generations as witnesses to the present passion. Angels live like this always; we only sometimes, in those moments when we recognize our own mortality and embrace it.

Eliot had another vision, one nearer to that of the Gothic Revival — though his is a Gothic Revival of the imagination, in which the effort of renewal takes place inwardly, in the subjective experience of the suffering poet. His pilgrimage to Little Gidding, once the home of an Anglican community dedicated to the life of prayer, leads him to the following thought:

     if you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

This is a very different vision from Rilke’s, of course. Not for Eliot that unvordenklicher Saft in die Arme: the erotic has been banished from his world; or rather, it never intruded there. Instead we have a search for the `timeless moment’ — and, stated thus briefly, it sounds like a chocolate-box platitude. But the context clarifies the thought. Eliot has found his way to a sacred place, and imagined himself into the community that made it holy. He is in communion with the dead, has passed over to them from the empirical world, and is kneeling beside them in that transcendental region. He has rediscovered the sacred, in a world that seemed to exclude it from view.

Eliot’s redemption at Little Gidding involves the imagined recovery of the old Christian community. Rilke’s self-made redemption through the society of Angels involves the invention of a community that is not of this world. Both are quintessentially modern responses to the loss of religion — attempts to recuperate the transcendental and the sacred from the raw experience of the solitary self. But they cannot compensate for that other and greater loss, which is that of the religious community itself. For that community contained a vital store of moral knowledge – knowledge collectively generated and collectively deployed.

The moral knowledge that I have in mind is manifest in our response to other people, in our social projects and in our sense of ourselves. It is also manifest in our ability spontaneously to understand and to act upon human realities. Moral knowledge is a practical, not a theoretical acquisition. It does not consist in the knowledge of truths. Nevertheless it may open the way to such knowledge. For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.

For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgment in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects, who relate to each other reciprocally. There are all the other vital truths that I have discovered through growing up with Sam. To the person with religious belief — whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not — those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent.

Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoning that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the `human form divine’, as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgment. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.

If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ.

The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss — a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.

Loss is fundamental to the human condition. But civilizations differ in their way of accommodating it. The Upanishads exhort us to free ourselves of all attachments, to rise to that blissful state in which we can lose nothing because we possess nothing. And flowing from that exhortation is an art and a philosophy that make light of human suffering, and scorn the losses that oppress us in this world.

By contrast, Western civilization has dwelt upon loss and made it the principal theme of its art and literature. Scenes of mourning and sorrow abound in medieval painting and sculpture; our drama is rooted in tragedy and our lyric poetry takes the loss of love and the vanishing of its object as its principal theme. It is not Christianity that gave us this outlook. Virgil’s Aeneid, ostensibly an expression of Aeneas’s hope as he is god-guided to his great and world-transforming goal in Italy, is composed of losses. The terrible sack of Troy, the loss of his wife, the awful tale of Dido, the death of Anchises, the visit to the underworld, the ruinous conflict with Turnus — all these explore the parameters of loss, and show us that our highest hopes and loyalties lead of their own accord to tragedy.

For all that, the Aeneid is just as much a religious text as the Upanishads. The world of Aeneas is a world of rites and rituals, of sacred places and holy times. And Aeneas is judged by the gods, sometimes hounded by them, sometimes sustained, but at every moment accountable to them and aware of their real presence in the empirical world. It is for this reason that Aeneas can look his many losses in the face and also set them at the distance that enables him to gain from them. They come to him not as inexplicable accidents but as trials, ordeals and judgements. He wrestles with them and overcomes them as you might overcome an opponent. And each loss adds to his inner strength, without hardening his heart.

At the risk of sounding somewhat Spenglerian, I would suggest that the questing and self-critical spirit of Western civilization distinguishes it among civilizations and informs both the style of its losses and its way of coping with them. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude.

 Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by Rene Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things.[Rene Girard, La violence et le sacre, Paris, 1972]

I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children — to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words. Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely — the medieval poem The Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenliederm, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.

In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labor, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce.

Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness — only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.


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