Friday, 31 August 2012

Radio programme: God, good, and evil

Radio National's Encounter has just released the first in a two-part series on God, good, and evil. It was produced by Scott Stephens, and features interviews with John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, Susan Neiman, Marilyn McCord Adams, Kevin Hart, Richard Kearney – and I'm in there too, talking about Augustine's solution to the problem of evil. I also argue for the continuing political importance of Augustine's understanding of evil.

I've been thinking a lot about this, since Augustine has been my main theological diet for the past year or two. Among other things, immersing myself in Augustine has led me to repudiate my decade-long fascination with Marxist political philosophy. I understand the appeal of Marxism, and of revolutionary rhetoric, but I think it's a mistake. And I think the roots of the mistake lie in a heterodox understanding of creation and fall. Anyway, I enjoyed having the chance to talk about some of this here.

You can hear the programme online – and stay tuned for the second instalment next week.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Dear Mister Herbert: The Altar


A while back I had the idea to write a small book titled Dear Mister Herbert – a series of letters to the English poet George Herbert. Herbert's collection of poems, The Temple, offers a whole theology of the Christian life. My idea is to sketch out his view of the Christian life through a series of short chapters, each responding to one of Herbert's poems. I thought I'd post some of them here – this is the first one, on "The Altar". Do you think this could work as a little book? I've planned for about twenty of these letters, tracing the broad outlines of the Christian life, from "The Altar" to "Love III". (And if any of you publishers out there are interested in a book like this, please get in touch with me!) 

--

A  broken   A L T A R,  Lord,  thy  servant  rears,
Made  of  a  heart,  and  cemented  with   tears:
Whose  parts  are as  thy  hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A    H E A R T     alone
Is    such    a     stone,
As      nothing      but
Thy  pow’r doth  cut.
Wherefore each part
Of   my   hard   heart
Meets  in  this  frame,
To  praise thy  Name;
That,   if   I   chance   to   hold   my   peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O  let  thy   blessed   S A C  R  I  F  I C E   be  mine,
And    sanctify   this   A  L  T  A  R   to   be   thine.

--
Dear Mr Herbert

We've never met, but today I read your poem about the altar, and I was moved to write you a few lines.

First I should tell you something about myself. I am one of those people who grew up singing psalms and hearing Bible stories and going along to worship and sleeping on the church floor while the women bashed their tambourines and prayed and clapped and sang. I suppose I was chewing on communion bread before I had any teeth in my head. I listened to sermons before I knew how to speak. I knew King James English before I could say the alphabet. I have religion in my blood; if you prick me, religion comes out. One way or another, I guess I have been trying to come to terms with the Christian faith my whole life, but I have never quite known how to make sense of it all.

There was a time in my life when I repudiated the lot of it, or tried to, though it caught up with me in the end. Then I returned, full of youthful zeal, to the faith of my childhood, and for a while I was pretty sure I'd found the answer to everything. But more familiar to me now are those times when I feel neither wholehearted rejection nor wholehearted acceptance of my faith. I am in another place instead, a place of uncertainty and hesitation, a sort of faltering cautious trust. Sometimes I feel shy of my own faith, shy because it is so strange to me and I don't quite know what it all means. 

Don't misunderstand me, Mr Herbert. I believe in God and Christ and the Holy Ghost and all of that. My problem is not that I don't believe but that I don't know what to do about it. I guess there were times in my life when “giving myself to God” seemed the most natural thing in the world. What could be simpler? As though I could direct myself to God just by an act of will. As though all it takes is dedication.

But that was a long time ago, and I don't feel quite so optimistic about myself anymore. All that business of choosing and willing and deciding: what does it amount to in the end? More often than not my will seems like the problem, not the solution. I can't see how I could change my life just by resolution – even if that resolution was very pious and correct. Is life really the sort of thing you can just make up for yourself? By sheer force of will I can't add a hair to my head – didn't Jesus say something like that? Let alone “giving myself to God” through some kind of pure religious exertion. 

Even if I could do it – even if I could present myself to God as a perfect sacrifice, a total offering of myself – how would I ever know if I'd performed the sacrifice adequately? What does God really want from me, after all? What if I brought my best offering to God and – like Cain – God took one look at it and said, Sorry, that wasn't quite what I had in mind. 

And so to your poem, Mr Herbert. It is quite pretty, the way you've made the words into a picture. But it's a bit misleading too, if you don't mind my saying so. The picture looks quite solid, quite stable, quite sure of itself. A perfectly formed altar. That discouraged me at first. It's a poem about sacrifice, and I was expecting all the usual blather about committing myself fully to God, offering myself to God, that sort of thing. 

But you caught me off guard. The first thing you say is that your heart is “a broken altar”. That each brick is a fragment of your “hard heart”. And that these pieces are held together not, as I expected, by dedication or resolve, but by tears. Why are you crying, Mr Herbert? You make it sound as though dedication to God is not a religious achievement but a kind of misfortune, a failure. As though the real question of life were not how can I succeed? but instead, what should I do with my failures?

I think I can see, Mr Herbert, what you have done with your failures. You have brought them all together in this “frame”. You've arranged them in the shape of an altar, brick by lonely brick, just as the words of a poem are arranged on the page.

Is that how it is? Is dedication to God, the worship of God, a frame that assembles all my flaws, my failings, my stubborn hard-heartedness, and turns it all into something God can use? I thought about that for a while, and I started thinking about the sacrifice I could make to God if only I was completely honest about my own shortcomings. I assumed that this is where your poem was trying to lead me: to a point of penitent renunciation, the point at which I would be able to lay myself bare as an offering to God.

But that's where you surprised me most of all. Instead of presenting your own life as the sacrifice, you say that your life is the altar. The sacrifice is God's. The gift is God's. The devotion is God's. The dedication is God's. And the divine sacrifice is offered on this altar: the flawed, hard, broken altar of a human heart.

Dear Mr Herbert, when I saw this in your poem, I felt that my whole picture of the Christian life had been one great misunderstanding after another. It's not that I need to dedicate myself to God, but that God is dedicated to me. It's not my devotion to God that counts, but God's devotion to me. The secret of life is not my commitment to God but God's commitment to me. God is the sacrifice, my heart is the altar. And it's just my flaws, my hard-heartedness, my brokenness, that make me suitable as a venue of God's sacrifice. A broken altar. Sometimes my life really does feel like little more than a pile of old stones. Yet God has brought a gift to lay upon those stones. God is that gift.

Thank you, Mr Herbert, that’s all I really meant to say. Thank you for understanding me so well and for describing it so clearly. And thank you for reading this letter, even though I'm sure you have much more important things to be getting on with.

Yours sincerely, etc.
--

Saturday, 11 August 2012

As I sit dying


So it has come to this. I am going to die. I wish I could tell you otherwise. I wish I had something more positive to say. For a long time things were fine. I reassured myself: I will not die. I reassured others, not so much by what I said as by my general demeanour. Don't worry, I always seemed to be telling them, Nothing to be alarmed about, I will not die.

I have been thinking about this since I was a few years old, only a boy. A woman who'd drifted into our home and moved in with us, a real brokenhearted bundle of nerves, ran over her cat one day in the driveway. The cat died. It lay there and wouldn't get up. It wouldn't play or drink milk or anything. It was dead. 

My father explained it to me. He was delicate, careful with his words, almost apologetic when he explained it. Everything dies, that's what he told me. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. I could see the embarrassment in his face, as if this whole unseemly business of dying and being dead was somehow his fault. Forgive me, he seemed to be saying, The cat has died because all things die; forgive me.

After he had explained it to me, I gave it a great deal of consideration. I was even-handed about it, I weighed up the pros and cons as fairly as I could, but in the end I decided this sort of thing just isn't for me. Dying – it's fine for cats, it's fine for other people (strangers especially), but it's not the kind of thing for me. 

So I decided I would not die.

Of course there is a lot to be said for dying, I know that. Think of the alternative. Consider the indignity of watching your own children and your children's children entering the slow decline of a second infancy. Think of the endlessness of old age; the terrible strain on a diminishing circle of perpetual carers; the constant expansion of aged care facilities, until finally entire cities would be nothing more than gigantic under-staffed nursing homes, crowded with those who have lived forever but have forgotten their lives and even their names. Or even worse, imagine living forever without ever forgetting, tormented by wounds of regret for everything you ever said and did, so that everything hurts more acutely with every passing year, world without end.

Living forever is not all it's cracked up to be, even as a boy I could see that. In the long run, it makes a great deal of sense for other people to die, for everyone to die. I wasn't naive. I reconciled myself to the fact of death. Yet pondering all this at the age of three or four as I looked into the eyes of the small dead cat, I thought the universe ought to make an exception in my case.

And yet here I am, dying after all. How did it ever come to this?

I went to see a doctor and he gave it to me straight. It is my heart, that's what he told me. Apparently I have a condition that makes my heart wear out after the first seven or eight decades of my life. Subtract from that a few years for every unhealthy lifestyle choice I've ever made along the way: smoking, drinking, not jogging, using real butter instead of margarine, too much salt, too much sugar, too much of the wrong sort of fat, not enough of the right sort of fat, too many of the wrong kinds of drugs, not enough of the right kinds, too much sitting in front of the television, not enough rest, not enough vegetables, too many non-organic vegetables with all those nasty carcinogens sprayed all over them, all subtracting year after year after year from an already perilously short life. Taking everything together, I'll be lucky if I get another forty years out of this heart. Less than thirty if my grandfathers' lousy tickers are anything to go by. Bloody genes, can't live with them, can't live without them.

If I knew what was good for me I'd be running around the block right now or lining up for a gym membership instead of squandering my remaining time sitting in a chair (subtract 4 years) having coffee (subtract 1.5) and a butter croissant (subtract 2) and writing down these dying words.

What should I tell you? What can I say for myself? What message should I leave you from beyond the grave? That I should have used margarine after all? That organic groceries are really worth the extra expense, when you factor death into the equation? Or maybe something more personal: 'Dad, you were right about death. I forgive you.' How would that sound? 

No, death and dying notwithstanding, I guess all I'd really like to say is that I'm glad to have been alive. That alive is a very good thing to be, and I have not a single word to say against it. That I have loved songs and food and drink and night time and the way friends' voices sound around a campfire in the dead of night. That I have loved animals, especially dogs and cats, and if I had ever got to know horses properly I would have loved them too. That I have seen whales, have witnessed their rolling bigness, and have loved them very much. That I have loved books and reading, have loved re-reading certain books and remembering what it was like to read them for the first time. That I have loved the faces of my friends (I hope somebody will remember those faces after I'm gone). That I have loved strangers' faces too, old men and old women and beautiful women whose faces I fell in love with and never forgot even though I only saw them once, across a crowded room or in a train or on a bridge as I walked by. That I have loved my wife's face and my wife's words and my wife's skin and the way my wife thinks when she is happy or when she is sad or when she is tired or first wakes up, wide awake and already hatching plans while I am still trying to dream. That I have loved my – 

My children.

As I sit here now, as I sit dying, my heart slowly wearing out inside me, that is all I really want to tell you. I have loved all of it and I don't have a word to say against it. To tell you the truth, I even love the things that I have hated. Doing wrong, being wronged, this whole miserable business of hurt and misunderstanding and mistakes. I have loved all that because I have loved forgiving and being forgiven. Yes, that's what I have loved most of all. If I could do it all over again I would make all the same mistakes and let all the same mistakes happen to me too, if it only meant that I could have the chance, just once, to forgive, to be forgiven.

Life is very wonderful, and the meaning of it all is the forgiveness of sins, that's what I'd like to tell you. I am glad to have learned that. I am glad to have been alive and to have made so many mistakes and to have borne the brunt of so many too. It is wonderful, all of it.

It is thirty years since the day my father explained death to me, since I looked into the wise dead eyes of the cat and understood. I'm trying, but I still haven't reconciled myself to dying, not really. But when that faulty clock inside me stops ticking and there is no one about to wind it up again, I hope I will be able to die just as I have lived: forgiven.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Little tiny doodlings


By Kim Fabricius

“The year without prayer” (Ben Myers).  Is that all?  Wait till he’s my age.

“It ought to be subtitled The Pilgrim Is a Plank.”  Email from someone who doesn’t like my book.  I have to agree with him.

To become a theologian, start with an addiction.

I hope in four years’ time the subterfuge ends: “The Games” are called the McLympics, the symbol becomes five interlocking onion rings, and roving Ronalds garland the winners with small golden arches.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are t 
(The Tweet on the Mount)

Complementarianism: Animal Farm theology.

Whenever I hear a woman defend the man who’s been beating the crap out of her and her children, it reminds me of some theodicists.

“You ask me if He really loves me.  I don’t know.  I can’t say.  
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.”
(From the distinguished theodicy of Johnny Cash)

Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people.  And your point is?  The fearful symmetry of it?

“With God, all things are possible”:  “Shit happens” with spin.

Whenever someone says, “Love the sinner, hate the sin”, I have an immediate involuntary defensive physical reaction: my sphincter tightens.

So the Spirit has spoken to you, quietly, cogently, confirming you in a conviction?  Eliphaz thought so too (Job 4).

So Mariah Carey has been signed to an $18m one-year contract to be a judge on American Idol.  You know, the show that takes its name from the deity of the United States.  The diva, who comes from my home town, is evidently angling to be its consort.

The atom bomb, the cell phone, the cash point: Beware of geeks bearing gifts. 

I await the day when, asked by an earnest TV reporter how “the community” is feeling after some local domestic atrocity, the neighbours say: “Fine, thanks.  In fact, there’s quite a party atmosphere.  We knew Mr. Smith was a psychotic scumbag.”

The difference between a decision and a choice is that with a choice you have one.

Can there be a more sublime vocation than being a chef?

I guess just about every minister has observed the spiritual damage caused by the habit of a toxic hermeneutic.  Detox may require a period of biblical cold turkey, but small doses from George Herbert’s The Temple should ease the withdrawal symptoms and begin to make whole the sick scriptured soul. 

What drives the saints?  A gnawing sense of incapax caritatis.

How can quantum physicists be so goddamn sure about the Uncertainty Principle?

Recent research on IQ testing demonstrates that women are now more intelligent than men.  However, there is also new evidence of increasing female witlessness: women are reading Fifty Shades of Grey in droves.  Which suggests that women are getting smarter north and dumber south.

Hilary Clinton and actress supporters Melanie Griffith and Reese Witherspoon: the blonde leading the blonde – ditchward.

Scientists have discovered that experiences of “awe” give us a boost in “life satisfaction”.  Like Moses after the burning bush, Jeremiah after the Lord touched his lips, the disciples after the transfiguration, or Paul after the Damascus road.

The “Reverend”, from the Latin reverendus, meaning “the one who is to be respected”.  Nearly 30 years after my ordination, the title still cracks me up.  But it could be worse: I could be a priest and called “Father”.

“Grandfather”, however, is fine.  I became one on July 30th.  A girl (7lb, 5oz).  Her name is the Scarlett Grace.  I love it, so biblically oxymoronic.  Though with Barth in mind, I tried to convince her mother to spell it Skarlett.  Unsuccessfully.

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