Tuesday 27 March 2012

Eleven theses on love

1. I have observed in my own handwriting a peculiar involuntary tic. My capital E is normally executed with three strokes: a sharp L-shape, followed by two swift horizontal strokes. It is a crooked, abrupt, ungainly sort of letter. But whenever I write the word Elise – my wife's name – the E takes on a completely different form and style. It is executed with a single fluid cursive stroke; it is curved, almost elegant, like a back-to-front 3. It is the only time my handwriting produces such a shape. Under all normal circumstances, my E – like the rest of my handwriting – is a rather jagged, haphazard, Runic, pagan-looking thing. But just ask me to spell my wife's name, and that first grapheme is mysteriously transfigured into something smooth, Cyrillic, serenely clean and Christian. As though it were inadequate to assign to her name any regular letter of the Roman alphabet; as though she required her own distinct letter, without which her name cannot be spelled or uttered; as though my love for her were the sanctification of language.

2. Like the Name of God which rebounds silently away from human speech, so love transcends language and eludes the grasp of words. Love is like the trauma that imposes its own peculiar patterns on a person's speech. Love is the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet.

3. Love escapes language, because love transcends the law. It is that towards which law is always reaching; it is that which law has never touched. "Love is the fulfilment of the law" (Romans 13:10).

4. Love is not desire, even though it appropriates desire the way a flame appropriates dry wood. To love is to desire the desire of another. Which means: love is kenosis, love is loss, love is the purgation of desire. 

5. The purification of love is the task of life and the purpose of religion. The Christian faith is an ascetic doctrine of life, because it is a doctrine of love and joy. "All true joy expresses itself in terms of asceticism, … the repudiation of the great mass of human joys because of the supreme joyfulness of the one joy" (G. K. Chesterton). Love without asceticism is sentimentality – paltry, small, and sad.

6. The widespread sentimentalisation of romantic love in our society is a casual defacement of the Holy. Our pop songs and romantic comedies and breezy one-night stands are the moral equivalent of scribbling your lover's name beside the toilet in a public restroom. Except that it is God's Name – for "God is love" (1 John 4:16).

7. The experience of falling in love is the emotional shock produced by a sudden reorientation of personal attention. But such an experience is not yet love. To sustain that attention over time, even at great cost, is what it means to love. 

8. Love without time is an absurdity, like fire without burning. Love is a mode of attention stretched out across time. Love is the temporal direction of the self. Love is nothing else than a certain object plus devotion plus time. "Love is patient" (1 Cor 13:4). That is why "the choice between one potential love and another can feel, and be, like a choice of a way of life" (Martha Nussbaum).

9. Love is mostly failure. If we understood ourselves, we would repent of our loves as one repents of the most appalling crime. Love is so entangled with selfish desire that we cannot even clearly tell the difference; nothing but the day of judgment will distinguish wheat from chaff. God's judgment does for me what I cannot do for myself: it separates one thing, love, from everything else that I am and everything else that I have done. What I need, all I need, is judgment. I live in desperate hope towards God's judgment, which is also God's mercy – the only kind of mercy worth the name. 

10. The opposite of love is not hatred, but shame. "Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin" (George Herbert). Divine love is the abolition of shame. It is hospitality, welcome, the healing of the wounded gaze. "Love took my hand and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?" Shame stoops over, looking inward on the self. Quick-eyed love stands up straight, face to face with the beloved.

11. God's Word is love. Simone Weil: "God created through love and for love. God did not create anything except love itself, and the means to love. He created love in all its forms. He created beings capable of love from all possible distances. Because no other could do it, he himself went to the greatest possible distance, the infinite distance. This infinite distance between God and God, this supreme tearing apart, this agony beyond all others, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion…. This tearing apart, over which supreme love places the bond of supreme union, echoes perpetually across the universe in the midst of the silence, like two notes, separate yet melting into one, like pure and heart-rending harmony. This is the Word of God. The whole creation is nothing but its vibration."

Karl Barth website

Karl Barth's great-granddaughter has created a new Barth website as part of a university project. It's well worth a visit, especially for the nice selection of photos, videos, and audio.

And speaking of Barth, I can't resist reposting this from David Williamson – this is Rowan Williams on Barth's obedient theology:

Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedient to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Doodlings: a(nother) Sequel

by Kim Fabricius

The homophobic Christian world should be applauding gay marriage.  If it’s anything like the heterosexual variety, there goes the torrid sex it finds so disgusting.  

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”  That’s Yeats writing seriously in the aftermath of the First World War, anticipating the fantastical apocalyptic prognostications of some churchmen on gay marriage.

I was recently on a radio programme discussing gay marriage with Stephen Green, the leader of Christian Voice, a notorious UK pressure group for Christian values (sic).  (Mr. Green supported the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009.)  He spoke first.  He tried to speak second too.  Which was fine by me: I could hardly have done a better job in discrediting his own position.

My own local church is discussing the blessing of civil partnerships.  There is an emerging concern that, regardless of the theological merits of the matter, we might become known as the church that does gay marriages.  On “not being ashamed of the gospel” takes on a new urgency. I am cautiously optimistic that the church will say Yes, but I’m keeping the room tidy for my old friend Failure, who is a frequent visitor to the manse.

In Jude the Obscure, Hardy uses the phrase “parson in embryo”. Now there’s a kind of abortion I could support.

Start the day by reading the latest news on the Republican primaries. As with Mark Twain’s breakfast of live frog, your day can’t get any worse – unless you choke with laughter and despair.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon, but Rick Santorum is different by only a subtracted letter.

Michael Stafford has recently referred to “the heresy of religious opposition to global warming”.  He is too kind.  Rowan Williams describes heresies as “near-misses”.  But while Arius and Pelagius were at least intellectually and morally around the target, the likes of Perry and Santorum, driven by self-serving economic and ideological interests, couldn’t hit the broadside of Crystal Cathedral with a laser-guided missile. 

It’s true that smart people seldom make the world a better place.  But then neither do stupid people.

Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton: bad cop, good cop.  The one would have the church executed, the other given a life sentence of community service, ushering in a museum or concert hall.  I’d rather take the needle than become a cultural asset.

Tradition may be a wise visitor from a foreign country.  Or it may be an old, untraveled, chauvinistic fool.  Only an attentive conversation, patient with muddle, will tell, as we hear each other to approximate and provisional truth.

Christ is a stranger because I am a stranger to myself, but he is a stranger who is a friend.  That is why my existential homelessness should be not only a matter of woe but also of welcome: Christ bids me to be as hospitable to myself as I am to him, the amicable alien at the entrance to my tent. 

Shaw was wrong when he aphorised, “He who can does, he who can’t teaches.”  The teacher can do; if he doesn’t, it’s only because he wants tenure.

To get out of Afghanistan would be to dishonour the self-sacrifice of our young men and women.  In other words – as Doc Daneeka might put it – we honour the dead by ensuring that there are more and more dead to honour.

On drawing “large and startling figures” (Flannery O’Connor): an American kills a lot of innocent people and he’s a hero who is sick; a Muslim kills a lot of innocent people and he’s a terrorist who is evil.

What is the difference between Christ and us? His sinlessness, his obedience, his being filled with Holy Spirit? Yes, yes. Or: Jesus was awake. The disciples in Gethsemane is the human condition: we sleep.

Bultmannian versicle and response at Easter:
Minister: The Lord is risen!
People: He is risen in creed!

On the evangelical view of hell, you make your bed and you lie in it. The universalist may agree, but he insists that it’s a nap – and that the bed is King size (Psalm 139:8).

Everything depends on your image of God – and therefore, apart from the smile, on not using indelible ink on your pictures-in-progress.

“Cognitive Therapy”?  You mean “preaching”? 

Of course there are virtuous Christians who sit in boardrooms, and they can make a real difference.  After all, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea sat on the Sanhedrin.

Pundits write in the Good Church Guide about the “poisoned chalice” of Canterbury cuisine. Presumably because the sommelier is George Carey.

You’ve heard of LEPs (Local Ecumenical Partnerships).  The Anglican Communion is a GEP – a Global Ecumenical Partnership.  And I fear it will soon fall apart.  Which could turn the so-called ecumenical winter into an ice age.

You want a Christ figure?  Our old friend Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.  In the winter he’s performing miracles, in March he gets betrayed and crucified.  Some pundits say he may now be headed for either Jacksonville or Miami.  Florida – the descensus ad infernos.  Oops – I just heard the New York Jets signed Tim, so it’s straight ad caelos!

Life is the thesis.  Then comes the viva.

Thursday 22 March 2012

The problem with Rowan Williams

I wrote a short piece about Rowan Williams' resignation for this week's Times Higher Education – you can see it here, and reposted by the ABC here. "Williams believes in the Church more than he believes in his own opinions. All his troubles as Archbishop of Canterbury have stemmed from this fact."

Speaking of Rowan, I'm told the first print run of Christ the Stranger has already sold out – thanks to everyone who bought a copy! There are a couple more blog posts about the book by Rod Green and Mike Bird.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

World poetry day

To mark World Poetry Day, the Centre for Public Christianity asked various people to comment on their favourite Christian poems. I talk about John Milton's Paradise Lost, George Herbert's "Love III", and T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" (someone else already beat me to Four Quartets).

The take-home message: "If you want to know what it feels like to be a Christian, read Herbert." Later this year I'll be giving a lecture on George Herbert to the St James Institute in Sydney, and I'm looking forward to it!

Friday 16 March 2012

Job opportunity: Archbishop of Canterbury

So it's official: Rowan Williams is stepping down from the office of Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year, and will take up a position as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Her Majesty the Queen is now accepting CVs from interested applicants for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Though no prior experience is necessary, applicants should be strongly motivated, with a proven ability to lead a worldwide communion, work with dangerous animals (including evangelicals and tabloid journalists), reform British society, and generally please everyone at all times. Experience in performing royal weddings and presiding over Lambeth Conferences is also highly desirable. The successful applicant may be required to relocate.

For full details of the salary package, including travel allowance, health benefits, superannuation, and lodgings in a medieval palace, please contact royal.highness@buckingham.co.uk.

The Church of England is an equal opportunity employer. Druids and other minorities are especially encouraged to apply. (Women need not apply at this time.)

Wednesday 14 March 2012

On surfing and Shakespeare

There are some things I never discovered until I was in my thirties: single malt scotch, Shakespeare, the Trinitate of Saint Augustine.

For example. The Shakespeare I was made to read when I was a boy – Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew – was all spoiled for me. Even Hamlet is a play that I have never really learned to love, ever since I was forced to read it by an English teacher named Mrs Macey who gave dreary afternoon orations about the archaic words and the imagery of rot and weeds and poison. Harold Bloom has said that Shakespeare will speak to as much of yourself as you are able to bring to him: and at sixteen years of age I was not able to bring very much, so Hamlet was wasted on me. Even when I read it today I am struck by nothing so much as a dull sense of familiarity, like meeting an old classmate you used to know but never really liked.

But then there are the plays I never read until my early thirties – King Lear, Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra – and they are the great things, the plays that seem to light up everything, quick as stabs of lightning. They speak to more of me, because I had more of myself to bring when I read them.

The other day I read King Lear again, a text whose every syllable seems charged with revelation, bright and burning yet not consumed like the bush that Moses saw, and I was glad I had never read a thing like that when I was a boy, back when I knew nothing of what a grand appalling thing it is to be alive, back when someone like Mrs Macey would have had to explain it to me.

We are always talking about the things we wished we knew when we were young. Important lessons are learned too late, and we feel that everything might have been different, everything better, if only we had learned those things twenty, thirty, forty years ago. But there are some things that it's good you never saw until you had a few lines around your eyes. There are lovely things that grow only in the desert, and there are truths that cannot take root in the fertile soil of youth but only in the harder, drier conditions of a life that has known failure and disappointment and loss and the joys that come slowly.

This week I learned a truth like that, something I might have learned when I was younger, but am glad I never did.

I lay in the sun. I watched. I waited. I paddled. I looked back in fright. I felt the startling huge push. My head was filled with noise. I pushed myself up on my hands. I was very glad and very afraid. From beneath a great weight I dragged my legs up. I wobbled. I tottered. I – stood!

So it was that, at the age of thirty-three, at a place called Moffat Beach, I learned to ride a surfboard.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Christ the stranger reviews

  • Rachel Marszalek has posted a review of my new Rowan Williams book: the beauty of theology. Thanks Rachel!
  • And Doug Chaplin posts about reading the book through Lent. He also has some good criticisms, which sound right to me.


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