Tuesday 30 November 2010

Jesus FAIL

I think these speak for themselves...

Fail submitted by Paul Fischer.

Friday 26 November 2010

Three-year-old theology: on God, monsters, and jellyfish

An intriguing theological discussion with my three-year-old boy tonight, just as he was drifting off to sleep:

Boy: "I need to sleep up in your bed, or the monsters under the house will come and get me. They'll come from far away."

Dad: "Are you sure there are monsters under the house?"

Boy: "Yes, and they will get me."

Dad: "You know, you're very safe now that we have a dog. What do you think Kola [our puppy] will do if he sees a monster under the house?"

Boy: "He will eat them."

Dad: "Exactly. Or maybe just chase them away."

Boy: "And they would run away."

Dad: "Yep. Because there's one thing monsters are really scared of..."

Boy: "Jellyfish."

Dad: "Jellyfish...? Right! And they're also scared of dogs, especially Kola."

Boy: "Kola will protect me."

Dad: "And you know who else will protect you?"

Boy: "Daddy. And mummy. And myself."

Dad: "And one more person: God always watches over you."

Boy: "Does God watch the Wiggles too?"

Dad: "I guess so. God sees everything in the world, and God cares for you."

Boy: "Yes, God cares for me. But God kills his self."

Dad: "Um, are you sure about that...?"

Boy: (Nodding sadly) "Yes, he kills his self."

Dad: "Well... God sends Jesus to us, and Jesus died for us."

Boy: "But is God scared of the monsters? Or just the baddies?"

Dad: "No, God's not scared of anything. God is greater than anything else."

Boy: "Is God as big as the ceiling? As big as the clouds? Bigger than the clouds?"

Dad: "Bigger than anything."

Boy: "So if God came into our house, he would be squashed and die. He will be dying forever."

Dad: "OK, go to sleep now."


Wednesday 24 November 2010

Prayer and baseball

Friday 19 November 2010

On joy: twelve theses

A sequel to the theses on sadness.

1. As icons are painted on gold, so the lives of saints are written on a background of light.

2. Evelyn Underhill knew a saintly man, Father Wainwright. ‘He was an indifferent – and in later years an inarticulate – preacher; people came to his sermons, not so much to listen as to look at his face.’

3. Why are the faces of holy people so important, not only in iconography but also in Christian experience and memory? Joy is the physical surfacing of the light of God. As the moon reflects the sun, so joy shines in the holy face.

4. Each thing shines with its own particularity, the irreducible strangeness of its difference. Chesterton speaks of ‘the startling wetness of water’, ‘the fieriness of fire’, ‘the unutterable muddiness of mud’. Joy is the vision of each thing’s shining, an awareness of the unbearably bright difference of every other thing.

5. A painting summons us to relish its lines and colours; a tree invites us to marvel at its roots and leafy shadows; the body of a lover beckons us to draw delight from its hidden wells; young children demand that we face them while they play, so that the miracle of their difference will not be without witnesses. Left to ourselves we shrink inwards, anaesthetised by a drowsy solipsism. Joy is waking to reality; joy is salvation from the self. It is our startled response to the call of another.

6. Joy is itinerant and can be visited in many places, but its regular venue is friendship. Friendship is the love of difference. The face of the friend is the mirror in which the joy of one's own difference shines.

7. The subjective precondition for joy is not earnestness or sentimentality (much less a posture of generic ‘openness’), but attention. Attention is the discipline of active passivity, an intense concentration on what is there. It is what Simone Weil calls ‘waiting’: ‘We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them [attendus].’ This is why Paul speaks of joy not as aesthetics but as ethics. Writing to the Philippians in the chains of Christ, he subjects them to a moral imperative: ‘Rejoice!’

8. Raw materials for a Christian ethics of joy: the distance of prayer; the patience of reading; the veneration of the meal; the delight of friendship; the tenderness of eros; the love of childhood; the obedience of learning; the speed of imagining; the superfluity of art; and the omneity of language.

9. Joy is most intimately related not to happiness but to sorrow, not to fullness but to the void of non-being. Joy is ontological vulnerability, a leap across the abyss of difference. Sorrow is a small hole in the flute through which joy breathes its tune.

10. Happiness is analogous to joy as Facebook is analogous to friendship, or as a brothel is analogous to marriage. Happiness is the gratification of desire. Joy does not fulfil desire but exceeds it so majestically as to obliterate it. Joy is ascesis, the criticism of desire. The criticism of desire is also desire’s purgation and renovation. Joy is the baptism of desire, its drowning and rising again. The fullness of joy is an ache of absence. ‘Our best havings are wantings’ (C. S. Lewis).

11. As that which breaks desire and denies all gratification, joy finds itself in a strange alliance with the tragic.

12. Joy resists articulation and control. It is always vanishing, always beckoning, inconsolable union of memory and hope. It cannot be grasped since its nature is to undo all grasping. What would it mean to possess joy fully, to hold it fast so that it did not vanish away? That would be resurrection: the shining of eternity in a body of death.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Apocalyptic session at SBL

If you're heading over to SBL this weekend, be sure to get along to the Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic session on 20 November, 4-6 pm. The panel will feature Douglas Harink, Ryan Hansen, Richard B. Hays, Nathan Kerr, and Joseph Mangina, and they'll be discussing Mangina's new theological commentary, Revelation (Brazos 2010).

Monday 15 November 2010

An evening with Cardinal Milbank

Last Monday evening, John Milbank gave a lecture at Swansea University on “The New Atheism and the Return of Religion”. Here is the vote of thanks by Kim Fabricius.

I read the email Nigel sent me in August announcing this lecture while I was eating, aptly, a jalapeno salad. And I wondered: which hot-stuff Professor Milbank were we going to get? The student of Rowan Williams who burst on the scene twenty years ago as the bête noire of theological liberals and apologists of the secular – (joke: Professor Milbank is standing on a cliff with a liberal and a fundamentalist. Who does he push first? The liberal: business before pleasure) – the radical young theologian who said, now famously, “Once, there was no ‘secular’”, and who plotted a declension narrative in the history of ideas that made Duns Scotus the fall guy in the plot? [With a wink to Milbank] Mind, the medievalist Marilyn McCord Adams, when she was here last year, said she was less than impressed by this reading of Duns!

Or perhaps we would get the friend of the cussed American apostle of nonviolence Stanley Hauerwas (three weeks ago the two shared a stage in London), the Milbank who proclaimed “the ontological priority of peace over conflict” – though who, when he became a father, began to reconsider the value of coercion, and who just over a week ago criticised Hauerwas’ Mennonite-inspired pacifism, arguing for the crucial contribution of Gandalf’s military campaign, as well Frodo’s self-sacrifice, for the salvation of Middle-earth. [“Of course Lord of the Rings is fiction”, I was tempted to add, but given the genre of my speech, I felt that I was already being – and was going to be – cheeky enough.]

Or were we going to get the robust churchman who, with no false humility, takes ecclesiology rigorously seriously, though Christology, many say, not nearly seriously enough? Or perhaps the oxymoronic Red Tory (or, as he prefers, Blue Socialist), whose colleague Philip Blond has been called the court theologian of David Cameron? Or the formidable public intellectual who goes head to head with the irrepressible atheist cultural theorist and Marxist media star Slavoj Žižek? Or perhaps the endorser of the pope’s vision of a muscular new European Christianity, not to say Christendom, to counter an aggressive irrational Islam, tacking far too closely, cry his horrified critics, to the winds of Western colonialism?

But what did it matter? Whatever the persona, we were sure to get a force of nature, or, better, super-nature.

As it has turned out, we got something different – but not completely different, because Professor Milbank’s project is nothing if not synoptic and comprehensive. After the cultural, scientific, and theological counter-attacks on the militant New Atheists by Terry Eagleton, Alister McGrath, and John Lennox respectively, some might have thought that Professor Milbank would be beating a rather battered army.

But this army continues to cause mischief, so Professor Milbank has brought his own considerable range of weaponry to the fight, pounding positions often unnoticed in the conventional mappings of the intellectual terrain: the cultural logic of the New Atheism; its politics too, the way the New Atheism would insidiously inform public policy; the relation of the New Atheism to the nihilism of neo-liberalism, the mirror image of the older atheism’s relation to the nihilism of communism; and, finally, the return of the repressed – religion – to fill the vacuum left by the intellectual exhaustion of secular ideologies, and, he argues, the rich potential of a sacramental Christianity, which remarries faith and reason after their modernist divorce, for a constructive and hopeful social agenda that eschews the pathology of fundamentalisms and transcends the reduction of human relations to assertions of power.

Professor Milbank, it is said by fans as well as foes, writes “difficult” prose (as Geoffrey Hill, he approvingly observes, writes difficult poetry). But whether in shock or awe, I think we all understood his lucid lecture tonight. Rumour has it that the prolific professor has written over a thousand pages for the sequel to his seminal Theology and Social Theory. Which might mean he’s just getting started. But whenever he finishes, I think we’d all relish a return visit (by air, I’d suggest) of the Sheriff of Nottingham to this humble, hospitable and once socialist Christian colony of Swansea.


The lecture almost wasn’t. Milbank went to the wrong station in Nottingham, and the train he finally caught was doomed by delays. He finally disembarked at Port Talbot, where, taxi-less, he was driven the final few miles to Swansea by a kindly Welsh woman. Milbank deployed this special providence as a pointer to the existence of God in a nicely improvised overture to his noteless lecture, which began over an hour late. Most of the punters, well over a hundred, stayed (some retiring to the campus bars to kill time). After the announcement of the delay, I encouraged the audience to be patient with the following recycled joke:

On heading to Heathrow at the conclusion of his recent visit to the UK, the pope’s limousine hit a traffic jam, which turned to gridlock. It was imperative that the pope catch his plane, so he said to his driver, “My son, I cannot be late. Could you not drive on the hard shoulder to get me to the airport on time?”

“I’m sorry, your holiness,” said the driver, “but if I am stopped and get a ticket, my boss will sack me, and I have a large family to support. Forgive me, but we must be patient and wait for the traffic to ease.”

Undeterred, the pope said, “Let me drive then.”

The driver reluctantly agreed, and the two changed seats. The pope sped towards Heathrow on the hard shoulder – and sure enough, he was stopped by the police. The officer looked in the window. “Excuse me for a moment,” he said, and went back to his car to call his superior.

“I’ve got a problem,” he said. “I’ve just pulled over a limousine speeding along the hard shoulder, and, well, there is a very important person in the car.”

“How important?” replied the superior. “An MP?”

“More important than that, sir.”

“Front bench?”

“More important than that, sir.”

“Not the prime minister!”

“No, even more important than that, sir.”

“Please don’t tell me it’s one of the younger princes – or even Prince Charles.”

“No, sir, I’m afraid even more important than that.”

“Are you telling me it’s the Queen?”

“Sir, even more important than the Queen.”

“Good God, man, who is it?”

“I don’t know, sir. All I can tell you is that the pope is his driver.”

Some of the audience asked me to tell some more jokes, but I couldn’t think of any clean ones.


After the lecture, seven of us went for a meal at a posh restaurant where I was strategically seated next to Milbank. The table-talk ranged from Rowan Williams, particularly his recent political interventions, to J. Kameron Carter and David Bentley Hart (I didn’t want Milbank to throw up on me, so I didn’t mention Adam Kotsko); from (I suggested) his wildly sanguine hopes for the Tory-led government, to the Tea Party and (he suggested, persuasively) the US as a failed state; from Virgil (via a classics professor) to Virginia; from the earthly sports of cricket and rugby to the game of heaven. I would like to have drawn the famous metaphysical Platonist on the New Apocalyptics, and pressed him on his exiguous expository appeal to Jesus and the Bible, but in mixed company – hey, I’m not such a prat! Suffice to say that it was a terrifically enjoyable evening, and that Milbank was a congenial dining companion whose comments, even when quite opinionated, were as agreeably measured as the wine.

Following Milbank’s recent (I too thought, ridiculously impoverishedly Niebuhrian) ABC critique of Hauerwas’ pacifism, one blogger tetchily asked how Stanley could hang out with such an hombre. Perhaps it’s because Hauerwas is somewhat in awe of Milbank’s capacious and resourceful intellect. Perhaps it’s because he can better hone his own views against such a formidable and influential advocatus diaboli. However I suspect it’s simply because Milbank is a good friend.

In other Milbank-related news, see his latest ABC piece on Stephen Fry, sex, and homosexuality – and the lively dialogical response over at the new Women in Theology blog (see also their follow-up post). The recent King's College discussion between Hauerwas, Milbank, and Luke Bretherton is also now available in audio.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

On smiling and sadness: twelve theses

1. The precursor of the human smile was the caveman’s savage grimace (Angus Trumble, A Brief History of the Smile, p. 3). The invention of dentistry is the main difference between this threatening grimace and the polite social convention of the modern smile.

2. In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.

3. The motif of late-capitalist society is the stylisation of happiness, the cultivation of lifestyles from which every trace of sadness has been expunged. Peter Berger identified ‘the Protestant smile’ as part of Protestantism’s cultural heritage in the West. In a Catholic country like France, it is still considered crass to smile too often, or at strangers. Evangelical churchliness is the ritualisation of bare-toothed crassness. Our cultural obsession with health, happiness, and positive thinking is a secularisation of the evangelical church service.

4. The cultural triumph of the smile leaves behind a trail of casualties. Where evangelical churches theologise happiness and ritualise the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracised. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person's spiritual failure.

5. When the church’s theological rejection of sadness was secularised, sadness became a pathology requiring medical intervention. The medicalisation of sadness is the final cultural triumph of the Protestant smile. If Luther or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky had lived today, we would have given them Prozac and schooled them in positive thinking. They would have grinned abortively – and written nothing. The truth of sadness is the womb of thought.

6. Somehow the appellation ‘man of sorrows’ attached itself to the church’s memory of Jesus. The sinless humanity of the Son of God was manifest not in happiness or success but in a life of sadness and affliction. Erasing sadness from our culture, we also erase Christ.

7. I know a little boy whose mother had to go away for a few days. When she came home, he cried and told her he had missed her. Touched by his infant sadness, the mother said, ‘It’s nice to be missed’ – and he replied, ‘It’s not nice to miss.’ It is nice to be missed because we learn what love means in the sadness of another. The face that always smiles is the face of a stranger. Love is written on the face of sadness.

8. I know a fellow who was interviewed for ordination in an American denomination. Asked to describe his hope for the church’s future, his eyes filled with tears and he admitted, ‘I don’t know if I have any hope for the church.’ Perplexed by this response, his ecclesiastical interviewers furrowed their brows, scribbled little notes and question-marks, conferred gravely about his fitness for ministry – though they ought to have asked for his prayers, or poured oil on his head, or sat at his feet and made him their bishop.

9. Where sadness is expunged from a culture, the cry for justice falls silent. Johnny Cash carried darkness on his back, refusing to wear bright clothes as long as the world is unredeemed. Why do we dress our priests in black? Are they not in perpetual mourning for a world that is passing away? Is not Christian joy carried out in the shadow of this sadness? In a culture of happiness, it is all the more necessary that our priests continue to wear black, refusing the cheap comfort of bright vestments and the empty promise of the rainbow.

10. At the turn of the millennium, J. G. Ballard wondered how the next generation would perceive the 20th century: ‘My grandchildren are all under the age of four, the first generation who will have no memories of the present century, and are likely to be appalled when they learn what was allowed to take place. For them, our debased entertainment culture and package-tour hedonism will be inextricably linked to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, though we would never make the connection.’ How do we explain the fact that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are immediately succeeded by the cult of happiness and the triumph of the smile? How can it be that the worst century was also the happiest? Our children will interpret our happiness as blindness and self-forgetfulness. We have drugged ourselves against history; sadness is truthful memory.

11.Why are clowns so frightening? Their demonic aura comes from the fact that they never stop smiling. Hell is the country of clowns, where tormented strangers smile at one another compulsively and forever. The devil is the name we give to the Cheshire Cat that is always vanishing just beneath the surface of our world, leaving everywhere sinister traces of a cosmic painted grin. This grin is the secret of history.

12. The Bible promises the end of history and the end of sadness: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’ (Rev 21:4). This can be understood as eschatological promise only on the presumption that history is catastrophe, a vale of tears. Sadness is overcome through cosmic redemption. A culture without sadness is a culture without hope. The cure for sadness is God.

Monday 8 November 2010

How to read philosophy

Yesterday morning I was reading stories by Borges, and then in the afternoon I read Giorgio Agamben's delightful new book, Nudities (Stanford UP 2010). This gave me a new intuition about Agamben's work: if you read it like a Borges story, it all makes perfect sense.

It's often helpful to read a book that way, against the grain of its own purported genre. Borges' own stories – perhaps the most purely fantastic fictional inventions ever written – are best read as history or philosophy. In an extraordinary book on fashion, Caroline Evans reads Marx "as gothic fiction rather than political economy". David Kelsey has noted that Karl Barth tends to read the Bible like "a vast, loosely structured non-fictional novel" – and I've often pondered whether Barth's own dogmatics is best read as an enormous digressive epic novel, more akin to Melville's Moby-Dick than to Aquinas' Summa.

So anyway, this got me thinking about the best genre in which to read various modern philosophers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Kant: an anatomy manual
  • Hegel: a darkly thrilling opera
  • Heidegger: a gothic novel of romantic horror
  • Early Wittgenstein: simple yet impossible IKEA assembly instructions
  • Later Wittgenstein: an immersive TV series on HBO
  • Simone Weil: a play by Samuel Beckett
  • Walter Benjamin: an aphoristic Twitter feed
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: a 1960s surfing film
  • Simone de Beauvoir: a Marquis de Sade novel
  • Carl Schmitt: a World of Warcraft quest
  • Emmanuel Levinas: a blind date
  • J. L. Austin: a rap album
  • Jean Baudrillard: a sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick
  • Michel Foucault: a historical murder mystery
  • Jacques Derrida: a crossword puzzle
  • Judith Butler: a season of The Wire
  • Alasdair MacIntyre: a Jane Austen novel
  • Giorgio Agamben: a Borges story
  • Alain Badiou: a terrorist handbook
  • Slavoj Žižek: a sitcom
This would also make a fun party game for nerdy intellectuals, let's call it Musical Genres: the names of various writers (philosophers, novelists, theologians, writers of cookbooks) are placed in one hat, and the names of various genres (poetry, history, science fiction, pornography) are placed in another hat. Each person gets a random writer and a random genre, and has to describe the person's work in terms of that genre. For example: "In one of Plato's celebrated cookbooks, we read of a delicious but unexpectedly potent cocktail, fatefully sampled by Socrates, whose last words were, 'I think it needs more lime', and 'Ooo I feel all tingly'."

Note: On a more serious note, at the moment I can't seem to upload any pictures on to Blogger. Does anyone know how to fix this? Or better still, does anyone out there want to help me move the blog to its own domain?

Call for reviewers: Rowan Williams

Our friend Scott Stephens will be hosting a whole series of reviews on the new book by Rowan Williams and Larry Elliott, Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice (Palgrave 2010). There are still three review copies to give away – so please email Scott if you're interested in receiving a copy and writing a 1500-word piece for ABC Religion & Ethics.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Heaven in ordinary: George Herbert's poetics

In Atlanta today I presented a paper titled "Heaven in ordinary: George Herbert's poetics", as part of a panel responding to Regina Schwartz's book, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford UP 2008). My paper tried to respond to Schwartz's apophatic reading of George Herbert – here's an excerpt:

Now if I asked you, what is George Herbert’s most characteristic way of talking about God, I wonder what you’d immediately think of? Story or narrative? Positive doctrinal statement? Negation? No, surely the first thing that comes to mind is Herbert’s conceits (a technical term for extended, elaborate metaphors). He takes a small, seemingly insignificant item from everyday life – something from around the home – and turns it into a delicate picture of God’s activity, God’s involvement.

In one of his poems, the Sundays of our lives are likened to beads threaded on a string, adorning us and making us beautiful for God. In another poem, Christ’s graveclothes in the empty tomb (he loves writing about clothes) are a handkerchief with which to dry our tears when we’re sad and grieving:

Arise, Arise;
And with his burial-linen dry thine eyes:
Christ left his grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears, or blood, not want an handkerchief.

In ‘Holy Scriptures’ (I), Herbert compares the flat pages of scripture to God’s gracious condescension to the littleness of humanity. He says of scripture:

heav’n lies flat in thee,
Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.

Again, a homely picture based on a very simple, childlike observation: God’s word comes to us ‘flat’, and that means we can climb up to God by bending ourselves down low. With even the smallest effort, we can mount up to heaven, since it lies flat in holy scripture. A rather different picture from the mystical ascent of apophatic theology!

In another poem, ‘Jesu’, the human heart is like a children’s word puzzle: the letters are broken apart by affliction and scattered across the floor. When pieced back together, they spell both ‘I ease you’ (when the letters are spelled out individually: I-ES-U), and ‘JESU’ (when the letters are read all together). It’s a playful conceit, a little parable of God’s loving involvement with our lives – and with our language. (There’s a similar word-game in the poem ‘Colossians 3:3’, where the biblical text, my life is hid with Christ in God, is literally hidden in the lines of the poem, just as God’s work is hidden in the ordinary story of our lives.)

For a somewhat weirder conceit, consider ‘The Bag’. Here, the wound in Christ’s side is compared to a postman’s bag – if we want to ‘send or write’ anything to God, we can put our letters in this bag, the hole in Christ’s side, and like a reliable postman Christ will deliver our mail to God. He takes good care of our letters, placing them – here the conceit gets even stranger – placing them close to his heart:

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
Believe me, it shall safely come.
That I shall mind, what you impart;
Look, you may put it very near my heart.

Again, this is serious reflection on the way God becomes involved in human language. In Schwartz’s terms, we might even call this ‘language theory’, or poetics. But it takes the form not of positive theology or of negative theology, but of what Herbert himself calls ‘plainness’. Something like parable: a simple, rather humorous observation of daily life in an English village.

I won’t go on multiplying examples, since you can find these kinds of conceits on virtually every page of Herbert. It is his most characteristic speech-act, quite distinct from either apophatic or cataphatic strategies. Like the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels, Herbert can speak about God without so much as mentioning the word ‘God’. His poetry gives the impression that we can find God pretty much anywhere, that we can speak of God in virtually any language, especially the language of ‘plainness’, simplicity, the ordinary. ‘Heaven in ordinary’, as Herbert calls it – that is his language theory.


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