Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Tales of an eccentric theologian-genius

A friend came to see me today. He was talking about his days as a theological student back in South Africa. I mentioned Karl Barth, and he said he never liked Barth. When I demanded an explanation, he told me he had attended lectures on Barth by a professor of systematic theology named Angus Holland.

Professor Holland, my friend explained, was a little eccentric. He had studied music and medicine. He had a doctorate in mathematics. When he turned to theology he wrote a huge dissertation on Athanasius. When the thing had swollen to nearly 1400 pages, his supervisor commanded him: "Angus, do not write another word or comma. If you need to, just stop in the middle of a sentence."

He was famous on campus for his mathematical genius, his staggering memory, and his lack of social skills. He could recall the weather on any day of his life. If you named any date in history, he could instantly tell you which day of the week it was. Before any lecture he would glance up at the students seated in front of him and announce the percentage of total attendance to three or four decimal places. For example, if 3 of the 17 students were absent from the Barth seminar, he would begin by remarking: “Good morning. I see we have an 82.3529% attendance today.”

Did he recognise any of his students? Did he know their names? They never knew. If you greeted him in the corridor – “Good afternoon, professor!” – he would stop, furrow his brow, look earnestly in your direction, study some fixed point on the wall somewhere above you, then walk off in the opposite direction without saying a word.

The students always suspected him of performing parallel calculations during his lectures. They wanted to prove it. So they went one day to the department of mathematics and asked for an exceedingly complicated equation. A professor of mathematics wrote it out for them. Before class they filled the blackboard with the equation. Professor Holland walked in. He stood a moment and looked at the board. He took the eraser and cleaned the board. He talked uninterrupted for two hours about Greek patristic theology. When the class finished he turned, wrote the answer on the board, and walked out.

He had a curious habit of jangling the coins in his pocket when he prayed. It was distracting. He would be giving a long extemporaneous Presbyterian prayer during the chapel service, and you would see his hand in his pocket and you would hear the jingle of coins. What was he doing down there? Was there a rosary in his pocket? Was he playing with himself? The students asked one of the other lecturers about it. “His loose change,” he said. “He counts it when he prays.”

The professor loved fairy tales. He knew them and loved them with a passion. He would use fairy tales to illustrate his lectures, though you never could quite grasp the connections that he had intuited between the story and the topic at hand. It only added to your bafflement. But it was always a pleasure to hear him speak, with such fierce intellectual joy, about some German fairy tale.

This professor, my friend told me, was the person who taught him Karl Barth. The lectures were intricate, polylingual, unfathomable. It was like trying to read Hegel: you couldn’t take down any notes because the whole thing transpired on a level to which you had no natural access. At the end of a 2-hour lecture on Barth, it might have occurred to you to jot down one word or phrase. But usually not.

In class the professor could quote any passage of the Church Dogmatics from memory. He never had any notes. If a student read out a passage in English, he would correct the translation from memory. None of the students in this particular South African classroom had any knowledge of German. One day, in response to a student’s question, the professor quoted Barth’s German for a full five minutes. They watched the clock ticking on the wall. Five minutes. In German. Then he resumed his lecture without any word of comment or explanation.

My friend spread out his hands, helpless and apologetic, and he said, “When it came to Barth, I never had a chance.”

I begged him for more anecdotes. He gave me one more. He saved the best for last.

One evening the professor was visiting a colleague’s house some miles away. He had intended to walk home. It started to rain heavily and there was no umbrella. His colleague said, “Angus, why don’t you stay here tonight instead of going home in the rain.” He replied, “Thank you, that’s very kind, I will do that.”

His colleague left the room and when he returned there was no sign of the professor. He looked in the kitchen. He searched upstairs. He went from room to room. His house-guest was nowhere to be seen. It was a mystery. The rain poured down. Later that evening, the doorbell rang. There stood Professor Holland, soaked to the skin and dripping wet and holding up his toothbrush. He had gone home to get it.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The gift of weakness: a funeral homily

(Myra was a 79-year-old former primary school teacher, keen golfer, and faithful church member who spent the last 7 years of her life in a nursing home before dying of a dementia-related illness. One of her two sons, John, gave the eulogy. The lesson from 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 was then read, and the homily followed.) 

What can I add to John’s tribute to Myra? With a portrait so rich in detail and colour, not much! The focus on family – devotion to Graham, pride in her boys, delight in her grandchildren; the importance of friendships; the vitality – and that smile; the practical faith visible in attention to others and service in the church (at Bethel, on the Social Committee): that’s the Myra we knew in Sketty. But not the only Myra. For the Myra finally overtaken by dementia was Myra too. And God may have something to tell us through Myra in her weakness as well as Myra in her strength. After all, isn’t that the way God worked through Jesus?

Dementia has now replaced cancer as the illness that embodies our deepest fears. Pitiless and inexorable, it seems to threaten our very identity as human beings. Memory evaporates as the past splits from the present like an iceberg cracking from the inside out. Recognition blurs, relationships pale, self-care crumbles.

But how much of this appraisal simply reflects our own visceral fears shaped by a culture captive to the idols of autonomy, productivity, and control? How much of our default evaluation of dementia as a “living death” is simply a projection of unexamined assumptions about selfhood? Are we ever masters of our own experience? Are we not always strangers to ourselves? Isn't all that we have not a secure acquisition but a fragile gift? And isn't who I am finally determined not by what I achieve but by how God sees me?

What if we stop assuming that dementia is solely an affliction that takes us into a bad place and consider the possibility that it might even be a grace that moves us towards a new place? Perhaps the truly awful thing for people with dementia is not so much that they forget – for memory is a collective enterprise, something we do together – but that they are often forgotten.

Certainly Myra was not forgotten by her own family, and if my own experience rings true, amidst her frailty and helplessness, and your loss and pain, there were moments – holy moments – of intimacy, tenderness, humour, and love, a love which the pathos of the situation only served to clarify, deepen, and sustain.

In Wendell Berry’s wonderful novel Hannah Coulter, the elderly twice-widowed heroine, reflecting on life and loss, observes: “I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be a story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while…. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

The tapestry that is each of us: this side of death I think mostly we see the back side with its loose ends and knots and messiness. But on the other side, the side of resurrection: there the stitches shine like gold, the pattern of our lives – the pattern of Myra’s life – completed, perfected, glorious, woven by the God of creation and recreation we see in Jesus.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Doodlings at dusk

The gospel in 2 words: “Hey, Boo.”

If it’s a clear night on New Year’s Eve, I make a point of gazing at the heavens and counting the stars, to get a tally of my sins at Old Year’s End.

And New Year’s Day? The annual absolution of Sunrise – starlessness – and the single resolution to sin better.

The insidious secular-fundamentalist time-totalitarianism of wall calendar-makers, beginning the week with Monday – a New Year’s pox on you!

Time used to be a friend of mine. No more. He’s become a thief, first nicking bits and pieces of my memory, and now – the bastard – serially robbing me of friends.

My faith in God is sure because it expects nothing from him and always gets it. God is utterly reliable and blesses me with the gracious gift of inconsolability.

“Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer; until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger; more and more precise, more and more reverberating” (James Baldwin). So too for every preacher.

What do I make of the prayer Psalm 19:14 when said by many a minister before preaching? Wishful thinking.

“No arts, no letters, no society, continual fear, rich, nasty, brutish, and 6-foot-2.” – Thomas Hobbes on Donald Trump

You’ve got to hand it to The Donald: he’s a master of word-care. Sorry, that’s a typo: I left out the “s”.

The world according to Trump – is it not one vast self-projection? Trump wants only one thing: attention. I therefore propose that the way to make him go away is to live rebelliously etsi Trumpus non daretur.

But one thing in defence of The Donald: he was culpably misquoted about building a wall along the Mexican order. He said mall, not wall.

If I could ask Mr. Trump one self-revealing question, what would it be? That’s an easy one: what have you read in the last 5 years? Not counting Two Corinthians.

A friend of mine said to me, venomously, that he wouldn’t piss on Trump if he was on fire. I told him I’m not surprised: I wouldn’t piss on Trump if I was on fire either. However I would if I wasn’t.

Sign seen at a white evangelical rally: “Thank you, President Trump, for Jesus”.

What is social media, with its wilful and shameless decimation of the private, but a vast technological concentration camp, replete with its rapid descent into brutality?

In the toxic world of social media, name your poison: Facebook for kitsch, Twitter for Krieg.

In an age of multifarious distractions, liturgy teaches us the joy and excitement of monotony.

There are maximum security prisons, and there are maximum insecurity prisons. Many of the latter are churches.

What can we say about many a church-swapper? Amos 5:19a.

Listen to your conscience. It is your PMA (personal moral adviser). Just remember that sometimes it gives you bad advice. Remember too, however, that a bad conscience may be better than a deluded one (Bonhoeffer).

In The End of Protestantism Peter Leithart suggests that “doctrines have mattered and do matter; they have mattered enough for people to kill and die for them.” Hold on: doctrines have mattered little enough for people to kill for them.

Motoring around Europe during the summer of 1969, I spent a few days in Geneva. What struck me most about Calvintown was its spotlessness – the streets were as clean as plates. And that if the city were a painting, it would be a still life. Bad Presbyterianism in a nutshell: anal retentive and nothing happening.

What are we to think of the people who leave strict instructions for their funerals (from music and readings, to dress codes, to embargos on sadness)? Hell, if you’re going to micromanage, micromanage, and write your own goddamn eulogy too.

It is said that God has no grandchildren. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. Though I guess he does. Poor old God.

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