Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dinky doodlings

I’ve never had an original thought in my life – including the thought that I’ve never had an original thought in my life.

Do you ever feel that something is missing from your life? If you do, you are.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Well, Gramsci was half right.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Stardust, actually.

Lent launches an assault against disordered desire through fasting and prayer: in fasting you pray with your body, in praying you fast with your mind.

Apart from the Bible, theological reflection is propaganda, and apart from theological reflection, the Bible is propaganda.

In criminal law there is GBH, the equivalent of which in theological polemics is DBH (i.e., David Bentley Hart).

What are Charlie Craig and David Mullins doing in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case? Speaking truth to flour.

As the recent service featuring Andy Savage at Highpoint Church confirms, there is nothing like praise music du jour as an aperitif for the junk food that follows.

I hear that the Vatican is now marketing Donald Trump tee shirts for his fan base. Emblazoned on the front is a picture of the president, encircled by a Latin translation of “Make America Great Again”: Populus Americae Vult Decipi, Ergo Decipiatur.

Imagine Trump with his circle of family and friends worked into a novel by Jane Austen. It would make all his critics’ diatribes look like encomia.

American exceptionalism: some nations may be shitholes, but they are bog-standard shitholes; only the United States is (to re-coin Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase) “the indispensable shithole”.

In an interview at Religion Dispatches, Professor Russell Jeung opines that “the white evangelical church is dead.” “Dead”? Worse than dead: undead.

What has caused the demise of the white evangelical church in the US? The classic hubristic military miscalculation of opening a second front: to their perennial asinine atonement wars, they started a series of mephitic culture wars.

Prayer is not just an inherently political activity, it is an act of resistance and protest. To pray “Thy Kingdom come” on a hassock is truly to take-the-knee.

Who are America’s greatest comic writers? “Self-Reliance” alone puts Ralph Emerson right up there.

There is a word for someone who has been argued into faith: sucker. Because (a) he doubtlessly has failed to detect some rather poor apologetic reasoning, and (b) because even if he hasn’t, whatever he has been argued into, it isn’t faith.

“If we have to use a single word here, it would have to be ‘concreteness’ – their world is vivid, intense, detailed, yet simple, precisely because it is concrete: neither complicated, diluted, nor unified, by abstraction.” That’s Oliver Sacks (in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) describing the world of the “retardate”. Of clinical interest, it is also a perfect fit for Jesus the Идио́т (Idiot) (Dostoevsky).

If you read without a dictionary to hand you insult the author; if you write without a thesaurus at hand you insult yourself. Not to mention you’re a lazy bastard.

Not talking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being silent; in addition you need the act of humility called listening.

The worst thing about retirement is not that you are no longer necessary, it is the realisation that you never were. And the best thing about retirement? The same as the worst.

I look at my grandchildren, 5 and 2, and of course I want them to be happy, but not too happy and not only happy. I pray also for a seasoning of anger and a soupçon of anguish.

Pity the devil: the loveless bastard is scared to death.

Life makes one promise, and keeps it: Death. God also makes one promise, and keeps it: Jesus.

Pitiable is the person who approaches death saying, “I have had enough”, but blessed is the person who approaches death saying, “I want nothing more.”

Monday, 12 February 2018

Teaching idea: heaven, hell, purgatory

Here’s an idea for a class I’ll be teaching next semester on Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. What do you think of this hell-purgatory-paradise schema? I wouldn’t aim to impose this rigidly on the texts. But it could be a way of encouraging students to look for broad patterns of continuity in the way these very different authors represent the spiritual order of the universe.

1.     Hell
2.     Purgatory
3.     Paradise (I)
4.     Paradise (II)

5.     Macbeth – hell
6.     King Lear (I) – purgatory
7.     King Lear (II) – purgatory
8.     The Tempest – paradise

9.     Samson Agonistes – purgatory
10.  Paradise Lost (I) – hell
11.  Paradise Lost (II) – paradise
12.  Paradise Lost (III) – purgatory

Some other random observations about the three authors:
  • The use of light and darkness to depict spiritual realities – very important in Shakespeare too (cf. the use of darkness throughout Macbeth).  
  • The relation between visible and invisible realities. This is made doubly interesting in Milton, who draws attention to his own blindness even as he explores the boundary between the visible and the invisible.
  • The feminine principle in depictions of paradise. In Dante and Shakespeare, the love of a woman (Dante’s Beatrice; Cordelia’s love for her father in Lear; the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand in The Tempest) is the point at which the whole cosmic order is revealed and redeemed. Only in Milton is the redemptive principle purely masculine: woman is not a revelation of cosmic order but more like an obstacle that has to be overcome. (That is an overstatement about Milton, but I think the contrast to Dante and Shakespeare is a real one.)
  • For students looking for an extra challenge, an interesting essay topic would be to compare Blake's illustrations of these three authors. Maybe I'll do a bit of this in class as well. Dante and Milton are especially well suited to Blake's style of illustrating, which is to depict the spiritual sense of the text. Paradoxically, he often finds the spiritual sense by representing words with a scrupulous literalism – a technique that produces some amazing effects in his illustrations of Shakespeare. His painting Pity (pictured above) evokes spiritual reality through a literalistic depiction of a dense cluster of metaphors in Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air." 
  • Actually I think I need a whole additional class on Blake's illustrations.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Dingo doodlings

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify Gold and enjoy it whatever.” (Westchester Shorter Catechism)

So the Pope nods off while praying? No, the Pope prays while nodding off.

Title for a sermon on Galatians 3:27: “The Man Who Took His Christ for a Hat”.

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Poor Monsieur Pascal: he had a tin ear for star song and galactic symphonies.

Before I ask a minister whom I don’t know what theologians he reads, I ask him what novels he has read. If he reads novels, I go on to poetry. If he doesn’t read novels, I lose interest in the conversation. Then, for my nightly devotions, I pray for those who listen to his sermons and experience his pastoral care.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the English butler, speaks of “that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is the essence of good waiting.” Ergo good praying too.

A famous paradigm of the pastor is the “wounded healer”. Shouldn’t that be “healing wounder”? Only truth and love can heal, but both begin with the recoil of hurt and pain.

My dear pastor, ask not how many people you have fixed, rather pray that the number you have broken is few.

The progressive will eventually become an embarrassment, but the reactionary will always be an asshole.

Great bumper sticker: “America First? Matthew 20:16!”

“Patriotic” Americans will make any sacrifice except sacrifice itself.

I feel for those for whom “thoughts and prayers” has become either a mindless mantra or a euphemism for “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”. But don’t despair. Turn to the Psalms. There you will find the integrity of lament, outrage, and imprecation, the perfect obsecrations for the NRA and its lackey politicians.

Good news for American misogynists: it’s now legal to carry a concealed weapon across state lines – in addition, that is, to the one they’re born with.

The problem with all moral arguments for torture is that they are utilitarian. If they were deontological I would have more respect for them. As O’Brien frankly states in 1984, “The object of torture is torture.”

Ah, if only the roads of social and cultural nostalgia led to Eden. They don’t. They converge on a new Nuremburg.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. What was cool yesterday is uncool today, and what is uncool today will be cool tomorrow. Likes, Followers, Trending – puffs of smoke! But suggest that I close my Twitter and Facebook accounts – go chase the wind!

Both the fulsome panegyrics for and fulminating diatribes against the Reformation commit the same just-so story fallacy, treating it as the inception rather than the invention of modernity.

When a snake sheds its skin it does not become a post-snake. So too modernity does not become post-modernity when it modernises, it is simply shedding its skin. Modernity is modernising. In its deep grammar, “modernity” is a gerundive.

On November 8th, 2016, they thought they were walking into a voting booth when actually they were marching to the guillotine. The election of Trump has been the decapitation of White American Evangelicalism, with all the squawking, frenzy, and gore you’d expect from a headless fowl.

With a lifetime of trying, I have never found the truth. Occasionally, however, it has bumped into me – and once He ran me over.

God bumps into us when we’re least expecting it, so why on earth should people go to church anticipating an encounter with God? I always go to church with no expectations whatsoever, and I am usually not disappointed. But then ubi et quando Deo visum est – thunder from a clear blue sky.

Psychology (it seems to me) is a sort of meteorology of the self. Epiphanies or traumas – they’re climate change.

If you think it’s hard to be yourself, try not being yourself.

The older I get, the more I am interested in antiquities. Why is that?

I can just about cope with the aches and indignities of aging. It’s the well-meaning concern of others for them that I can’t handle.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Most interesting books I read in 2017

I don’t want to pick the best books of the year. My reading lately has been too eclectic for anything like that. These days I rely mostly on audiobooks. So my reading gravitates towards whatever happens to be available on, or whatever is performed by a good narrator. (I have developed a zero tolerance policy for poor narration: I will return an audiobook for refund within five minutes if the narrator does not please me.)

From time to time I still take up a physical book and read it with my eyes. After so many audiobooks I am intrigued to re-discover the quite distinctive pleasures of silent reading. Recently I read nearly all of Stefan Zweig’s short stories and novellas in the old way, silently turning the pages as I enfolded my spirit within that special canopy of solitude. But most of the books listed here I read sociably, with my ears, in the consoling and challenging presence of a human voice. I like it so much. Am I the only one? Or is the burgeoning audiobook industry reviving an ancient culture of sociable reading? Will some future memoirist note with astonishment the sight of someone reading alone in silence, as Augustine did when he saw Ambrose reading in Milan? "His eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest" (Confessions 6.3.3).

Anyway, these are the books that I found most interesting and most rewarding in the past year. In case you are looking for something to read – and who is not looking, at all times and in all circumstances, for something to read? – I have added a note to each one to help you decide if that book suits your particular ailment. And, after much soul-searching, I have also nominated my Most Interesting Book of the Year.


The Annotated Luther, volume 1: The Roots of Reform (2015). Read this if you think protestants were to blame for the reformation. 

Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006). Read this if you think capitalism is evil and the pre-capitalist world was a haven of virtue.

Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude (2015). Read this if you think social trinitarianism is the greatest thing since trinitarianism.

Mark Chapman, Theology at War and Peace: English Theology and Germany in the First World War (2017). Read this if you’re interested in Troeltsch, or if you think only the Germans were rabid nationalists.

Joseph Ratzinger, Europe: Today and Tomorrow (2007). Read this if you’ve ever wondered where reason went.

H. Richard Niebuhr, “Theology—Not Queen But Servant,” an essay on theology and the university in The Paradox of Church and World: Selected Writings of H. Richard Niebuhr (2015). Read this if you think theology ever was, or ever ought to be, the queen of the sciences.

Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (2010). Read this if, like me, you used to believe Reinhold Niebuhr when he said he was departing sharply from the Social Gospel tradition.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (2015). Read this.

Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (2017). Read this if you don’t believe in the soul, or if you would like to believe in the soul but don’t know how.

Sam Harris, Lying (2011). Read this if you have ever told a lie.

Dallas G. Denery II, The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment (2015). Read this if the previous book makes you want to learn more about the history of lying. The patristic stuff in the first chapter is weak but it's really interesting once he gets to medieval theology and its relation to the all-encompassing falsehoods of courtly life.


Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (1942). Read this if you think morality has declined shockingly in the past century. His account of prostitution in the nineteenth century is quite harrowing and should make you cry tears of joy over every unwed sexual partnership.

Winston Churchill, The Second World War (1948–53). Read this if you want a gripping tale in which the righteous prevail against a vastly superior foe. Churchill received the Nobel Prize in Literature for this book, and you can see why as soon as you start the first page. The audiobook read by Christian Rodska (in four volumes) is wonderful.

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960). Read this if 45 hours listening to Churchill was just not enough.

Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe (2017). Read this if you think open borders are Good and controlled borders are Bad. Whether or not you share the author’s pessimism, it’s an interesting account of the way recent European (especially German) history has been shaped by the “tyranny of guilt” over past wrongs.

Henry Kissinger, World Order (2014). Read this if you’d like to see how different civilisations understand their global mission, and how the internet might be changing all this.


Denise Levertov, Oblique Prayers (1986). If I have to tell you why you should read this, then you’re probably the kind of person who won’t read it anyway.

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (1992). Read this if you want something easier than Denise Levertov.


Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord (2015). Read this if you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to be just like King David when I grow up.

Stefan Zweig, Collected Novellas (2016) and Collected Stories (2013). Read this if you like to finish a story in one sitting. The novellas are especially good: for a taster try his Chess Story or Confusion or Letter from an Unknown Woman.

G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (1909). Read this if you want to laugh your arse off as you follow the swashbuckling adventures of an atheist and a Catholic who set out to destroy one another and become (spoiler alert) BFFs. Everyone talks about Father Brown and The Man Who Was Thursday, but this one is my favourite Chesterton story. And the audio reading by Gildart Jackson is as entertaining as you could wish for.


Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015). Read this if you’ve ever expressed moral outrage at something somebody said on social media.

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (2016). Read this because he’s the Boss. It’s better on audio because he reads the book himself: and the man has a nice voice, I’m not the first person to think so.

Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (1971). Read this if you like movies and have ever tried to think about them.

And finally ... drum roll ... the Most Interesting Book of the Year award goes to:

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). This is hands down the most interesting thing I read this year. I’ve been reading Freud for years but for some reason had never got around to this one even though it’s his magnum opus. Maybe I was put off by the rumour (a scandalous falsehood, as it turns out) that Freud merely finds sex in every dream. Anyway whatever you think of Freud’s theory, this is a marvellous feat of scrupulous observation, breath-taking intellectual adventurousness, and disarming candour. Most of the dreams analysed are Freud’s own, and he investigates his hidden desires with an amazing lack of defensiveness. Well done, Sigmund Freud, and congratulations on writing such an interesting and original book.

Well that’s all from me. Adieu, 2017! Adieu, Sydney!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Massacre of the Innocents: Christmas letter from Kim Fabricius

Kim sent out this Christmas letter and I asked if we could post it here:

Christmas is, for me, a haunted house. The tree is enchanting, the ritual of gift-exchange delightful, the food cornucopian, the egg nog ambrosial – but the ghost of Herod is always crashing the party, the memory of the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16) ever souring my sweet dreams of peace. There is nothing so dead in all the world as murdered children.

The theologically feral novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago ensures that the spectre and the recollection persist. In a psychologically probing retelling of the Nativity narrative, Joseph overhears a conversation between two soldiers that alerts him to Herod’s diabolical plans and propels him to rescue his wife and child. In the aftermath, however, Joseph is plagued by the thought that he could have and should have warned other parents of the impending slaughter, and for the rest of his short life the father of Jesus will have nightmares that he is leading soldiers to kill his son.

This year’s Christmas painting then: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Massacre of the Innocents.

Multiply narrated and theatrically staged – replete with marauding soldiers, protective fathers, distraught mothers, and solicitous villagers (and terrific touches like the soldier in the left background, opposite the cohort, pissing against a house) – the painting is particularly contemporary for being, in fact, a bowdlerisation. For scientific examination demonstrates that the original was much more explicit and detailed in its portrayal of the atrocity, re-contextualised by Bruegel as a 16th-century Flemish war crime executed by Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries. All too close to the bone for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who ordered his royal artisans to give such “fake news” a paint-over, airbrushing and altering the mass infanticide into a scene of more quotidian pillage.

Plus ça change, right? But hush, children, what’s that sound? Do you hear it? The Shaker of Nations confounding the nabobs of nihilism in Mary’s feisty protest song:

He bared his arm and showed his strength,
     scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
     pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
     The callous rich were left out in the cold.
(Luke 1:51-53, The Message)

A Christmas toast, then, to the exorcism of Herod’s ghost, and – it’s the 5th anniversary of the Massacre at Sandy Hook – a New Year hope for the end of Moloch worship and the downfall of his high priests Smith & Wesson.

As for Joseph’s guilt, however – let alone for Rachel’s grief (Matthew 2:17-18) – no false consolation. Rather collective remorse and mourning, and the perennial prayer of the desperate soul: “Lord, have mercy! Come, Lord Jesus, come!”

God bless you in the Child.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Farewell speech: what I have learned about learning

They had a farewell service for me in Sydney yesterday and I gave this short departing speech.

I came here for a job and what I got was a vocation.

When I arrived at the college nine years ago I was new to teaching. That is hard for me to imagine now. I cannot form any picture of what kind of person I would be if I was not a teacher. The discovery of a vocation to teach has been one of the great events of my life. It has become so ingrained in my identity that if you asked me why I teach I would not know how to answer. I would say that I teach because of who I am. I teach because I am alive. I teach because the things I value most in this world are all bound up with that amazing thing that happens in the classroom.

What is the classroom? It’s a place where people come together and start to learn something. Then, sometimes, they start to love what they are learning, and they are changed by that love.

Really the teacher is a kind of midwife to love. I can’t force anybody to love the doctrine of the Trinity. All I can do is help students to take a look at that doctrine for themselves. I can challenge some of their prejudices and assumptions. I can question some of their hasty conclusions. I can help them to slow down a bit, just long enough to pay attention. If they give this doctrine their attention, if they really start to look at it, then sometimes their hearts will respond spontaneously. They might start to love what they see, and then to look even more closely, and to love even more.

When this happens – when learning gives rise to love – it can be so unexpected that the teacher is more amazed than anyone. Where does that love come from?

It’s not something that can be taught. It’s not a technical skill. I can’t show you how to love something. I can remove certain obstacles. I can encourage you. I can cheer you on when I think you’re looking in the right direction. But when you see something for yourself and start to love it just because it’s there: that’s not something any teacher can impart. So where does it come from?

Some of the church’s great thinkers have puzzled over this. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine: they reached the conclusion that the only real teacher is Christ. Every time the light bulb goes on in a student’s mind, that light is Christ, the Logos “that enlightens everyone who comes into the world” (John 1:9). To open yourself to any part of reality is always to open yourself, in some measure, to the Logos. Whenever you really start to pay attention to something, to understand something and to love it just because it’s there, you are in some way inclining your heart towards Christ.

That might seem a bit overblown as an explanation of how learning happens. But you have to admire those ancient thinkers for taking learning so seriously, and for being so awed by its mystery, that they were willing to conjure up a whole theory of creation just to explain what’s going on in the classroom.

Learning – real learning – is a kind of miracle. It is a gentle, delicate, interior process by which the soul comes into contact with something beyond itself and reaches out to it in love.

That doesn’t happen every time students shuffle into the classroom at 9.30 on a Friday morning. But it does happen. I know it happens because I have witnessed it. I have seen it: right here in these classrooms, time and again, over nine years of my life. It is why I love the classroom. It is why this community, a theological college, is sacred to me. It is why the teacher-student relationship is, to me, more holy than any church or temple.

We often say that theology is meant to serve the church. I have said it myself. But since I’m leaving I can tell you the truth: I don’t believe it. If theology serves the church, then it is a means to an end. But when you consider what learning is – real learning – how could it ever be a means to an end? That’s like saying that love and joy and life are means to an end. Would you say that joy serves the church? Or that life serves the church?

Sure, theological learning enriches the church; it supports the church; it challenges the church. Those are its wholesome by-products. But they are not the reasons for learning. They are not what it is for. Learning is a way of being alive. It doesn’t serve the church or the church’s mission. It serves the human heart and the glory of God.

Anyway, that is how I have come to understand my vocation and the vocation of this college. For sharing all this with me, as students and colleagues and friends, I say: thank you.


Subscribe by email

Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.