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Which God? (Mark Durie)

Mark Durie, Which God?Jesus, Holy Spirit, God in Christianity & Islam, Deror Books, Revised (2nd) edition, 2015.

ISBN 978-0-9874691-4-4

 “Well, we all worship the same god, don’t we?” – how many times have you heard that? And when you hear it, where, exactly, do you think it comes from? Personally, I think it comes from a deep desire for some kind of accommodation, reconciliation, one-ness, a belief that society can be made harmonious and peaceful by the acknowledgment that we are all really one. That’s the motive that many Christians, or agnostic English people generally, have; sadly, I think it’s a forlorn hope. And from the Muslim world – as William J. Murray tells us, in his Foreword to this book – there is a “heavily financed” promotion of this view, to the West. What is meant, by Muslims, is that there is one concept of god which “we” have a part of, or a distorted view of; the Christians and others, in these circumstances, however, have not really thought about it (in my view) or they have an incorrect grasp of what Christianity actually teaches – or again, they prefer the concept hich they personally hold to, rather than that of orthodox Christianity. Do we worship the same God? I always thought – before reading this book – that two minutes’ examination of the concept of god in Christianity, and in Islam (with only a dim knowledge of that of Islam), would reveal that they are rather different things; now, having read this book, I think they are very different, and I know why.

              The simplified “schoolboy” description of the relationship of Christianity and Islam is that they are mutually-blasphemous religions in that the one has as essential the idea of god becoming human, and the other sees the nature of god as utterly other than the material; for Christianity, redemption (liberation, if you will) comes by way of god’s becoming human, for the other, god could not possibly be tainted or besmirched by any contact with the flesh. As the sub-title suggests, this book examines in detail the Muslim concept of Jesus, or Isa, and that of the Holy Spirit or the Ruh al-Quds of the Quran. Essential to the Muslim understanding of Isa is that he is seen as simply a prophet, or the prophet which preceded Muhammad; in a strange way, of course this view of Jesus bears definite similarities with the “only a very good man” thinking held by some “liberal” Christians, and non-believers. The Muslim idea is that Isa will return in the Last Days to fight for the true faith (Islam), and against Christians. Isa inhabits a very different world of historicity than Jesus of Nazareth, and Quranic “history” is quite unlike that of the Bible. The author stresses that to Muslims, Islam is not simply a “newer” religion than Christianity and Judaism but “the primordial religion, the original faith from which Judaism and Christianity are subsequent developments” (p. 9); the Bible is a distortion of the “real” scriptures, and Jews and Christians only have a corrupt version of the scriptures/the truth (or have corrupted the original). An important part of the book – in the light of contemporary disputes about the source and nature of evil – is Chapter 10, where Allah is seen, from the Quran, as the author of evil; a somewhat amoral, utterly transcendent – indeed, quixotic – Allah emerges from parts of this book ( eg. pp 122-3).

              One concern of the book is to examine – and reject – the efforts of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf to argue that Allah and YHWH are in fact one (Chapter 16). Volf’s concern is a political one, Durie explains, his concern is to suggest that Christians and Muslims can live peacefully because they do worship the same god (that old wishful thinking!).

              Time and again, Christians are tempted into thinking that concession and conciliation, co-operation and interaction, will bring real fruits, that it is the mission of Christians (perhaps first and foremost) to bring peace on earth, and that someone – it may, must, be themselves, me – have to make the first move, and, eventually, good things will flow from this. But is this irenic, optimistic view borne out by real experience, facts, things which actually happen? Also, recently, I have been reading Michel Houellebecq’s (originally French) novel Submission. It is set in France in the near future – about two-decades’ time – and all-important to France, in the story, is up-coming presidential elections and a political crisis. The result is that a “moderate” Muslim party takes control, or at least gets to hold the balance of power, and as part of a compromise, education is totally in its power. The result, in schools and universities, is that all teachers have to be male and Muslim, and women are effectively banned (“submission” is the meaning of Islam, of course; see Durie p. 94). Will something like this actually come about?

 March 2016

 

 

The Jesuit Guide To (Almost) Everything

James Martin SJ, The Jesuit Guide To (Almost) Everything, New York, HarperOne (Harper Collins Publishers), 2012.

ISBN 978-0-143269-9

Ignatian spirituality, it seems to me, is booming; all kinds of Christians follow the Spiritual Exercises, and conferences and courses, aimed at many disparate groups, are everywhere encouraging the use of St. Ignatius’s “way”. This book is surely part of that movement, or rather it has drawn much of its success (which it apparently has had, in the USA) from that surge of interest.

Yes, the book is very useful and practical, and derives much from Fr. Martin’s sharing of his own personal story, how the insights of the Jesuit founder – and many other subsequent Jesuits – led him along the path to full membership of the Society of Jesus.

To me, and perhaps most “ordinary Christians”, the most useful part was that dealing with the Examen, or nightly examination of the blessings and challenges of the day, and our own shortcomings (throughout the book, but particularly pp. 95-100). I would want to find out more about this, though the idea of examination of conscience has long been part of many Christian traditions, particularly, perhaps, in its possible connection with sacramental confession; but the idea of a daily, or rather nightly, spiritual assessment has much appeal.

Something else that I warmed to (which, as readers might expect, derives from Ignatius) is the emphasis placed on desire, which can also be described as a spiritual longing (none other than C. S. Lewis, in his sermon The Weight of Glory, refers to the unfortunate weakness of our desires, longings, and hopes) (Chapter 3, ‘What Do You Want?’).

If anything slightly surprised me it was the virtual equivalence which the author seems to give to the religious experience and spiritualties of Christianity, Judaism and Islam; I fancy this seeming to put the three (or rather, the third) on an equivalent footing with Christianity will discomfort some readers. He is realistic, in my view, about the potential selfishness of much New Ageism (p. 47). I have referred elsewhere to the surprising (to me) emphasis on God loving us, seemingly as we currently are, and accepting us as we presently are. The author’s willingness to express frustration with God’s seeming inaction is shown in a lovely story about his anguished prayer “How about some @#$% help, God!” – to which his spiritual director replied, “That’s a good prayer” (p. 124).

In all, the book seems to me to be unnecessarily long, and later sections verge on the repetitious; the middle chapters would surely be very useful to anyone contemplating admission to the Jesuit order – but most of us are not. A lot of information is included on the contributions of Jesuits, long past and more recent, to history and towards the creation of the societies we live in; there is bound to be something here that will surprise most people (eg. the Jesuit contribution to the development of theatre). I know little of the Society of Jesus, and have known only one Jesuit (I have the awful feeling, however, that for some there is allegedly a darker side to the order’s history, in which ‘Jesuitry’ means deception, but let’s hope I’ve got that wrong; you don’t read of that here, of course.)

One curious, but surely chance thing, is that my copy of the book (a rather solid paperback) has a strong smell (the paper, presumably) … but what, oh what, does it remind me of, just a little … yes, I know, incense …

October 2015

 

Michael Nazir-Ali, Triple Jeopardy for the West

Michael Nazir-Ali, Triple Jeopardy for the West, Aggressive Secularism, Radical Islamism and Multiculturalism, London,  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012.

ISBN 978-1-4411-1347-4

 

At times, this book seems like a collection of articles (plus a book review); at times, it seems to be one of those books which have been very of-the-moment and timely when produced, but is now a little dated. It is none the worse for either of those things.

Because of the identity of its authorship, the reader knows he is in the hands of an orthodox Christian, and one who, because of his unusual origin and life-journey is in a unique position to instruct the still-predominantly white middle-class Church of England, and indeed, British Christianity as a whole.

Nazir-Ali makes a number of very valuable points, and particularly, fully accepts and acknowledges various things that the politicians, mainstream media, academia, and “liberal” Church leaders, either deny or keep quiet about:  that aggressive secularism, Islamism, and multiculturalism are much the same thing – and tend to totalitarianism (p. vii); that secularism/atheism is a world-view/belief system, and in no way neutral (pp. x, 31); that ‘Britishness’ and British ‘values’ (“’thin’ values”, pp. 3, 9, 145) are not the same as Christian or Judeo/Christian values (p. xi); that all religious traditions do not produce the same results in society (p. xiii); that the monarchy, the national anthem, prayers in Parliament, bishops in the House of Lords, etc., are not just “tourist-friendly vestigial elements left over from the Middle Ages” (p. 5); that Church leaders utterly failed to resist secularism, the decline of Christian thought and observance,  and the sexual revolution, when they arrived (p. 7); that ethics and values cannot be “freestanding”, divorced from belief in their (Judeo-Christian) source (pp. 12, 137); that the destruction of marriage, the family, childhood and fatherhood did not come about by accident, but were the result of intentional political engineering (pp. 21-2, 148); that school children are very much not taught the ‘upside’ of British history, or Britain’s contribution to the world (p. 29), or the role of Christianity in creating science, and originating the concept of individual freedom (pp. 167-8); that Christianity should not let any ‘culture set the agenda’ (pp. 40-1); the lack of impartiality on the part of the BBC regarding ‘euthanasia’/assisted dying (pp. 107, 110); that the secularisation of nursing and the health professions is maintained, if not created, by the legal system (p 136) (there are surely more).

Certainly, the unique contribution of Bishop Nazir-Ali is his knowledge and insight concerning Islam. His descriptions of the nature and development of Islamic law, the changes in Islamic thinking (particularly in our society) in the last few decades, and the nature of jihad and the Islamic sense of grievance, are probably unequalled, and probably, in parts, go over the head of some readers, because of their technicality, but are not less valuable for that (Chs. 5-7, etc.). He seems, in the end, to stop short of saying (as some do) that ‘the (true) nature of Islam is the problem’, saying that we can distinguish between Islam and “Islamist ideology” (p. 79) but elsewhere seeming to show how this ideology affects many/most Muslims in our world today. The good relationship that existed between Islam and British rule (in what is now India and Pakistan) may come as something of a surprise (pp. 72-73).

On the question of the nature and value of human life (“personhood” seems to be his preferred concept, eg. p. 115), the use of human stem cells, and the ‘end-of-life debate’, he has much of value to offer, speaking as he does, from a Christian perspective; his account of Mary Warnock and her book and ideas (Ch. 12) makes one wish that so much status and influence might not be awarded to such people, in our society. At times, he can seem rather over-optimistic and excessively hopeful: eg. how Pakistan’s Islamist ills may be removed (Ch. 8); the changes for the better which Christianity and Church schools can produce (p. 35, 37); the strengthening of ‘moderate’ Islam (p. 47); the “Cure for National Amnesia” (Ch. 13).

At times also, one has to admit, he does remind the reader of the old non-critical Christian theologian, eg. in his attitude to Darwin and evolutionism (Ch. 9), where he seems uncritically to accept the old myth about Bishop Wilberforce (p. 101). His approach to Theilhard de Chardin (Jesuit priest perhaps, but more of a New Ager than a Christian) also has a slightly old ring (pp. 27, 104-105). His reflection “It has always been a surprise to me why such high priority should be given to embryonic stem cells when, in fact, most effective treatments have been derived from adult cells …” (p. 114) perhaps shows a certain lack of insight into the motivations and values of some researchers (and the depth of human wickedness) – but, of course, he has had far more direct experience of scientists and ethical philosophers than such as I have had.

Bishop Nazir-Ali, above all, is a senior orthodox Christian who fully acknowledges the perilous situation (‘Triple Jeopardy’) that we are in – many do not – and by “we”, I mean the Christian Church, and Western society and civilisation as a whole; where others brush grim reality under the carpet, make light of things, and indulge in over-optimism, Nazir-Ali does not. If only such leadership could be found at the head of the Church of England (and others)! I suspect, actually, that he is able to do far more in his present role (Director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue) than he would if things were otherwise.

 

November 2014

 

 

Opera – Richard Wagner, Parsifal

Richard Wagner, Parsifal (1882)

On the 12 of March 2011, I fulfilled an ambition to see Wagner’s Parsifal; the production was that of English National Opera, at the London Coliseum. Sung in English (as is ENO’s practice), this was in a production first staged by them in 1999, and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff (this production has also been staged in various cities in Europe and the United States).

Wagner’s conception of the work seems to have originated in 1845, when he read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (medieval) poem Parzival, though his conception was much influenced by studies of Buddhism, and oriental philosophies, in the mid-1850s.  Only in 1857 did he specifically connect his understanding of the story’s themes with Good Friday, but it was 1865 before he took up the project again, completing the libretto (“poem”) in 1877. It was a further five years before the opera was produced, at the Bayreuth Festival of 1882.

 

While the work borrows various ideas from Buddhism and Eastern thought (particularly renunciation) – the spelling with an S instead of Wolfram’s Z was supposedly derived from the Arabic Fal Parsi, “holy fool” –  as it emerged, Parsifal was an essentially Christian work, or “ein Bűhnenweihfestspiel”  (“A festival play for the consecration of the stage”), and the setting within the specifically-Christian-derived grail legends (as Wolfram’s story), and the repeated references to the Lord and Good Friday, make it, in my view, a story whose Christian “centre” cannot reasonably be denied (despite our necessary acknowledgement of the non-Christian ideas that contributed to its genesis).

 

Lehnhoff’s production almost explicitly attempts to de-Christianise Parsifal; “This production of Parsifal does not seek to stage a sacred drama – a ‘Bűhnenweihfestspiel’” – says Wolfgang Willaschek, in his article in the ENO programme (“Endgame in the WasteLand”, p. 27). Original productions set the hall of the grail knights (in which the mass/communion-like ceremony of the grail’s uncovering is performed) beneath the cupola of a cathedral (normally identified with Siena).  The significant act of destroying evil and its forces was Parsifal making the sign of the Cross with the recovered spear of the Crucifixion. In this production, the grail and its shrine, the grail hall – and the making of the sign of the Cross – are omitted. The de-Christianisation of Christian art is something I regularly complain about (the reason for it, in most cases, is that secularists/materialists can’t produce their own art, so they have to distort religiously-inspired art to fit their agenda; besides, they can’t write as good music). The problem, with this production, is that though the old settings were radically replaced (and Wagner’s stage directions ignored totally), the director went only half-way, retaining the words (complete with references to the Lord; I quite thought not to hear those), and, of course, the music. Thus, the libretto explicitly refers to meadows and flowers, etc. (throughout the work), but here, we were stranded in a sort of builder’s junk yard, with fragments of concrete replacing the sung-about flowers; waste land indeed. If the stage directions were going to be ignored, why not doctor the words, to at least try to get the whole thing to make sense?

 

 

The community of knights, at Montsalvat castle, northern Spain, have charge of the grail or cup which collected Christ’s blood at his crucifixion. The spear (used to pierce his side) has been captured by the grail community’s “rival”, the sorcerer Klingsor, whose magic castle and garden are nearby, and whose ambition is to steal the grail also. Ancient lore predicts that evil can only be defeated, and the grail community restored from its current decline, when a “holy fool” comes along, and destroys Klingsor’s realm, and returns the spear.

Parsifal (after an unimpressive start) turns out to be the “holy fool” long waited for; but central is the curious female character Kundry. She is one of the most complex figures in literature (indeed, if we would find a character of such inner-contradictions, we might need to look to the characters of Shakespeare, rather than the world of opera). Kundry is a mixture of both the desire for redemption and the need to dominate and degrade those possessed of innocent virtue (particularly, that is, the holy fool Parsifal); she is both penitent and seductress, and as such is typical (or perhaps the prototype) of many late-nineteenth century femmes fatales. She laughed at Christ on the way to his death, and seduced various grail knights (including Amfortas, leader of the community), and she seeks, in Act 2, the redemption that she knows only Parsifal can bring her … but urges him to spend just one brief hour in her embrace – which (they both know) will destroy them both eternally (and the grail knight’s community also).

 

The notion that the barrier to redemption and virtue, is, supremely, sexual sin, is an idea crucial to many understandings of Christian thought, particularly, perhaps, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and maybe formative of the ancient Christian traditions of asceticism. Thus, we have the dualist understandings of the opposition of matter and spirit which – deriving, one suspects, from Neo-Platonism – fuelled the search for spiritual purity in the renunciation of sexual physical life. From this ancient stream, surely, derives the idea that sexuality and holiness might be warring incompatibles. Of course, this is a distortion, mis-conceived, and while we might not require the total rejection of celibacy, we must urgently promote the Christian valuing of physicality (whose acceptance might take centuries) when we have established a true distinction between distorted, degraded sexuality and the (perhaps hidden) virtue of its true, holy, nature. The real opposite of virtue is not sexual vice, but the rejection of the ultimate purpose of human existence (abandoning our pride before the reality, and experience, of God’s love for us), which inevitably degrades our valuing of individual people, and thus ineluctably leads us to the materialist adoption of a vicious dehumanism, which is the source of everything totalitarian and evil.

 

At the end of Parsifal, Wagner’s stage direction makes clear that finally, the spear and grail community restored, we see Kundry sink into lifelessness (redeemed, but dead). In the secularist understanding, of course, this is a very bad thing, since this present life is all, and there can be no kind of redemption that involves termination. In  Lehnhoff’s production, we see Kundry not expire, but rise and walk, with Parsifal, up a damaged railway track towards strong light (ie. walk off-stage). I found it rather beautiful, and, curiously, as authentically Christian as Wagner’s original idea.

 

 

Ecstasy, Art, & the Body

(Sculpture / Mysticism)

 

Ecstasy, Art, & the Body. Teresa of Avila’s “Transverberation”, and its Depiction in the Sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini

See: illustrations.

It is some years, now, since I saw Bernini’s famous sculptural composition commonly known as The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1650s), in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of St. Maria della Vittoria, Rome. In this work, the central figure is a marble rendering of a woman, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, writhing in a state of religious ecstasy, which Teresa herself described in Chapter 29 of her (autobiographical) Life (1565):

Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them. … But it was our Lord’s will that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. They must be of the kind called cherubim, but they do not tell me their names. … In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged in to my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it – even a considerable share. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it. – I have used J. M. Cohen’s translation (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1957), p. 210.

- And when I saw the sculpture, that day in 1983, I was reminded of words of a theology lecturer of mine, heard when I had been a student (in about 1971), concerning Teresa’s experience: “But of course, she was just having an orgasm, wasn’t she?”; even at the time, though only about 20, I was aware that that judgement was surely somehow inadequate; surely, she wasn’t just having an orgasm? Of course, the idea that Teresa had experienced some form of sexual, rather than religious, ecstasy, was far from new even in the era that had claimed to have “discovered” sexual experience; such claims had been made many times, particularly with the coming of analysis based upon post-Freudian psychology, which, of course, has been applied to many things in religion, the arts, and beyond.

Inevitably, many people have poured scorn on Teresa’s interpretations of her experiences, and naturally she has provided very fertile ground for cynics, sexuality promoters, feminists, materialist philosophers/psychologists, and writers of many kinds – and also (regarding Bernini’s work) those who champion revisionist re-interpretations of Christian art; this is ground, one might say, which has been raked over many times. But those who do not have any animus against Christianity, and who seek to study Teresa’s words – and the expression of them in art – from within Christian faith, inevitably look with very different eyes. Some have surely seen Teresa’s experiences as having a purely spiritual nature; but the clue that this is not correct is found explicitly (unlike the idea of it being a purely sexual experience) in her own words. Throughout her many accounts, in the Life, of – very varied – religious experiences, Teresa creates, time and again, a hierarchy of the physical/spiritual nature of realities; this account, of her most famous experience, is no exception. She writes of the angel in bodily form, as rarely seen by her; visions of angels which she does not actually see, and, most dramatically, that she sees the angel stabbing her heart and removing her entrails with the aid of a sharp, burning object, which occurrence nonetheless did not cause her to bleed profusely and then expire. She explains: “… this is not a physical but a spiritual event …” – but then she immediately qualifies it (“ …the body has some share in it …”), and then yet again (“ – even a considerable share”).

However, when all the accounts of religious experiences in the Life are considered together, one slowly comes to doubt that Teresa actually has a very clearly-defined hierarchy, and certainly no reasoned separation between the natures of different kinds of things – but the same is true of accounts by Christian mystics from completely different times and cultures (eg. Julian of Norwich). She expends great effort in all her writings (and no doubt did throughout life), to describing and defining what we know as the stages or degrees of prayer (and in The Mansions, the whole book is devoted to presenting a framework within which spiritual experience and ascent can be carefully explicated; but even here, there is on many occasions the cautionary note that the categories are not “watertight”, nor is any one experience divorced from another, nor must a strict, ordered process be observed/experienced). But what we can be certain of is that in her view, and experience, the physical and the spiritual – the bodily and the mystical – are intimately related. Whatever her experience(s) in the “Transverberation”, it was much more than physical – but (though not physical such as to cause the afore-mentioned wounding) physical nonetheless.

Of necessity, I have a great disadvantage in discussing the fullness of Teresa’s experiences – that of never having been a woman, and thus never having had womens’ physical experiences, sexual or otherwise. Experiences confided by Teresa’s brother Lorenzo, however, are claimed to have involved some kind of sexual arousal encountered after prayer or after some kind of mystical event. This interpretation [1] is found in the account Fr. Thomas Dubay, a scholar and authority on Teresa, in his book Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel – On Prayer, Ignatius Press, 1989, pp. 232-233. (also: http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2006/08/the_assault_on_.html ). He quotes Teresa:

“Pay no attention to those evil feelings which come to you afterwards [after his deep prayer]. I have never suffered from them myself, since God, of His goodness, has always delivered me from such passions, but I think the explanation of them must be that the soul’s joy is so keen that it makes itself felt in the body. With God’s help it will calm down if you take no notice of it. Several people have discussed this with me.”

(taken from The Letters of St. Teresa of Jesus, Tran. E. Allison Peers, London, Sheed and Ward, 1951, 1980, letter 163, p. 411 [Vol. 1]).

It has been said that love cannot flower, or be indefinitely prolonged, without some physical expression (the assumption, though, that this must needs be sexual expression is surely false); and perhaps the Lord’s love of us is no exception. There is the physical element in worship, such as the physical expressiveness seen in liturgical dance, and the swaying motion, and gestures, often seen in Evangelical/Pentecostal worship, in which, hands held high and faces enraptured, a gathering is filled with the Spirit; worship, as seen here, is a bodily, sensual, experience. These, of course, are human expressions of love received – and love offered; but in the Sacrament, we specifically encounter the Lord’s love of us, communing in and through that act (though, I would argue, it surely is, on many occasions, an event devoid of any special feelings whatever, and thus perhaps hardly seems to merit, to us, the label “experience” at all). Can any authentic communion be devoid of all physical/material ingredients? And might it never be that the soul’s “keen joy” might never make itself “felt in the body”? (And how in the body? – perhaps in many different ways). And if the nature of worship, and communing, is physical, perhaps salvation and eternal destiny are in some way physical also (one is reminded, perhaps, of St Paul’s reference to an eternity, beyond the existence of this world, in which though we will have spiritual bodies (unlike now, where we have natural (“fleshly”) bodies), they will be bodies nonetheless; 1 Cor. 15, 44).

Perhaps, as authentic religious experience has to be known, in this view, by way of the physical – this being the (only) form that humans currently have – aesthetic experience (whether we acknowledge it or not) perforce has to have a spiritual effect, “spiritual” being defined as the non-purely-material part of the human whole (this, of course, assumes the view, now contested, that there is some non-material essence “within” the brain/mind); this idea, of course, raises questions as to the nature of spiritual effect (and of the difference of effect between explicitly-religious art, and non-religious art). The mono-dimensional imagination, which the materialist world-view requires, means that such people (the “orgasm only” variety) are unable to know both the partial-correctness of their approach (physical experience is indeed involved), as well as its sad inadequacy.

 

Such an artist as Bernini was from beginning to end a Christian person in a Christian culture. To refer to him as a “Christian artist” would have been a curious platitude. Such an artist would have been incapable of separating out his beliefs and culture – the whole of society’s beliefs and culture – from his art (that particular –odd, tragic – dislocation is only a product of our own fraught age, one devoid of authentic belief in anything, yet clinging to the ever-cracking façade of – wholly groundless – belief in ourselves (to want to have Christian culture without Christian faith and the Christian world-view, is somewhat like the nature lover – there are plenty of them around – who might greatly value dolphins and porpoises, beautiful star-fish and whales – but detest ocean, sea: “We certainly don’t want any of that great, nasty wet stuff!”)).

The Cornaro Chapel was constructed on the commission of Cardinal Federico Cornaro, Patriarch of Venice. A sepulchral chapel, it is a shallow space set in the left transept of St. Maria della Vittoria, a small Carmelite church [2]. Vital to understanding Bernini’s work at St. Maria is seeing the space he produced – the chapel, with its architecture and sculpture, and painted vault – as a whole. To left and right of the sanctuary (beyond which is the space occupied by the sculpture) are two balconies, set high on the lateral walls; they remind us strongly of the boxes which are found in many theatres and opera houses; the sculpture’s space, in this analogy, is the stage. Here, the well-known connection between Baroque art/architecture and theatre (the then-developing forms of oratorio and opera), is very apparent. The “boxes” are populated with sculpted images of members of the Cornaro family (which included six cardinals, and Federico’s father, the Doge Giovanni) who are meditating on the matter of the “Transverberation”, the image of which is beyond their sight [3]. Indeed, they are not actual spectators, since the image of Teresa, the rocks on which she lies, and the cherubim, are in a different space which is separated (and made inaccessible) by the architectural frame set in front of it – a veritable proscenium arch. The fact that the ‘Transverberation space’ is so completely separate dramatically illustrates an important fact: the rest of us (as shown by the members of the Cornaro family, and their positioning) can only know of Teresa’s mystical experience second-hand through reading of it, or seeing it through the visionary capacity of imagination (a quality that is very much present in Bernini’s work), but cannot actually experience it ourselves. But what of the space that the Cornaros inhabit, or rather, look down on? It is the chapel’s sanctuary; it is not the space beyond it (the ‘Transverberation space’) which holds the altar (and, presumably, tabernacle): we ourselves can receive the Lord’s gifts to us in the form he himself commanded, the consecrated host, which is actually (though, as suggested, not necessarily an experience) a more complete and total communion than Teresa’s powerful experience; and Teresa herself, in her Life, was the first to acknowledge that “visions” were a lesser thing.

References:

[1] “One of the more surprising and disturbing phenomena that may occur during communion with the Lord is sexual disturbance or arousal. It is “surprising and disturbing” not because the phenomenon is in itself a cause for concern but because most people would never expect that in so holy an occupation there could be sexual repercussions. While they seem not to be common, they do occur. Lorenzo, the saint’s married brother who had chosen his sister as spiritual director, had experienced these disturbances, and he asked her for guidance.”, Dubay, loc. cit.

[2] Howard Hibbard, Bernini, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965; 1978 ed., pp. 128-141.

[3] Hibbard, op.cit., p. 130.

 

John Thomas studied theology in the University of Wales, history of art in the University of London, and the theory and practice of Christian worship and religious architecture in the Universities of Birmingham and Sheffield.

Summer 2011.

 

 

 

 

Shirt of Flame. A Year With Saint Therese of Lisieux

Heather King, Bewster, Massachusetts, Paraclete Press, 2011.

978-1-55725-808-3

 

Imagine you’re commissioning a book in which an author should relate their experiences of seeing their life and spirituality in terms of the biography and beliefs of a French late-nineteenth century nun. Would you think of a middle-aged Californian woman, ex-alcoholic, former-lawyer and divorcee?  I wouldn’t have done: and this is the first miracle of this valuable book. Many think that the fraught, unusual life of such a person as Thérèse of Lisièux (1873-1897; sanctified in 1925) – filled with psychosomatic sickness, intensely neurotic, cloistered and non-this-worldly – would have little relevance for people today, particularly someone with the profile outlined above; how wrong we all would be. I came across an interesting excerpt of Shirt of Flame on the Word on Fire site, and bought the book on the strength of it; I didn’t regret it. The title comes from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

The twelve sections (one for each month, but the monthly arrangement of the chapters is very “loose fit”) each concern a stage in Therese’s life (based on her posthumously-published autobiography Story Of A Soul) and her physical/emotional and spiritual experiences. Following that, Heather King moves on to talk about her own experiences and spiritual life. The chapters are: Early Loss (On Facing Ancient Grievances), The Confluence of Will and Grace (On Illness and Healing [Therese died of tuberculosis; King has had cancer]), Therese’s Second Conversion (On Learning to Serve), The Papal Visit [Thérèse’s visit to Leo XIII; King is a convert to Roman Catholicism]), Poverty, Chastity, Obedience (On Radical Social Conscience), The Convent (On Shedding Our Illusions), The Little Way (On the Martyrdom of Everyday Life), Aridity (On Praying Without Ceasing), The Long, Slow Decline of Therese’s Father (On Being Stripped Down), The Story of a Soul (On Offering Up Our Work), My Vocation is Love (On Letting Our Flame Burn Hot), and The Divine Elevator (On Facing Death With Joy). Each chapter ends with short prayers

Heather King (whose own experiences and insights were more fascinating to me than Therese’s, which are widely known) time and again testifies to the heavy cost of loving and following Christ – certainly, when seen against this-worldly values and aspirations – and she tells us more than a little of the drunks and vagrants who have enriched her world. Few writers, surely, have tried empathetically to understand the emotions of the paedophile priests (“I could imagine humans so hungry for love, so enchanted by innocence or beauty or the very mystery of human flesh, that they crossed a line that should never, ever be crossed” (p. 98). Let King speak for herself:

“The scandal of Christ is that to have a relationship with him means to share in his suffering” (p. xvi).

“I didn’t mind not having a lot of money. I didn’t mind … having no particular support, validation, encouragement, or companionship. … What I did mind was the sense that my life was to bear no fruit at all.” (p. xx).

“I’d never considered that not having received compliments might have been a gift”. (p. 7).

“I may not have entered a convent, but I had found much healing in a fellowship of brother and sister alcoholics who were trying to stay sober.” (p. 19).

“I’m talking about the essential friendlessness of the human condition.” (p. 36).

“[In our culture] We will suffer from a fatal reduction of desire.” (p. 39) …

… “We can’t afford the reduction of desire. To refuse to ask is to think we know the plan. To reduce our desire is to reduce God.” (p. 45).

[Prayer:] “Maybe the question isn’t so much ‘when will I see Your face?’ Maybe the question is ‘When will I sit still long enough to see Your face everywhere?’”. (p. 55).

“[Thérèse ] never had to get up every morning, as millions of ‘ordinary’ people have to do, and go to a job she hated. She never had to sleep with a man she’d come to loathe and fear, as many women do in order to protect their children.” (p. 70).

“The Church had taken me in when no one else would have me.” (p. 85).

“Mass was to participate in the kingdom of God regardless of any particular emotion I felt, thought I had, or action I performed.” (p. 88).

“[Prayer:] When everything I do turns to ashes, help me to remember to turn to you”. (p. 103).

“We might be conflicted about the work we do: wondering whether we’re serving God, wondering whether we’re serving ourselves.” (p. 107).

“To dare to believe that we are truly loved, not for anything we have accomplished, earned, produced, learned, achieved, or sacrificed for, but simply for existing is a reality that can hardly be borne.2 (p. 127).

“We are called to hold the unbearable tension between two kinds of fire: the fire of our self-will and the fire of God’s purifying love.” (p. 135).

February 2012

 

 

Unapologetic. Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

Frances Spufford, London, Faber & Faber, 2012,

ISBN 978-0-571-22522-4   224 pp.

 

Wow! I said to my wife: I’ve read many, many books about Christianity, but not one quite like this. I suppose it’s particularly the … er … “contemporary” language, with occasionally a bar-stool-haranguing writing style (actually, it was written in a coffee shop, not a pub); I find myself imagining a future PhD: The Use of the F-Word in Early-21st Century Theological Discourse With Special Reference to Frances Spufford. (Actually, it’s a few commas I’d add, as with many contemporary books, not words I’d remove).

The book starts with pages which detail exactly how un-cool Christianity is among … well, in the present materialist-dominated Establishment/media culture. Such a start, the refusal to deny reality, is good; but this does mean that, for all his refusal to apologise (seen in the title), the book assumes a little of the materialist world-view/value system, and so is not quite as defence-free as it claims. Everyone inside Christianity can be situated somewhere on an unbroken spectrum that has, at one end, the most “liberal” or revisionist (they only have post-Christianity beyond them), and, at the other, the most “traditionalist” or (some would say “conservative”) Christianity. Where, exactly, is this book to be put? Several times, it strikes out with a very “liberal” position, then edges its way back slowly to something like Christian orthodoxy (as in criticisms of C. S. Lewis’s ideas, Lewis not being mentioned in the second (p. 154, 159). While the book does seem to be affecting with-it coolness, the author is definitely not one of those trendy I’m-one-of-you-really “liberal” types, whose books are rarely worth reviewing – yet he does uncritically accept some of the anti-theist’s most beloved nostrums, such as evolutionism, and the “obvious” wickedness of historical Christians (the – surely discredited – idea  that the Crusades, and Inquisition, were purely-Christian, purely-evil; does anyone really still believe that the Holocaust can be explained simply as Christianity behaving badly – has he not read Weikart?).  The materialists seem to have managed, so often, to force him to fight on ground that they have chosen; but at times he flies firmly in the face of “popular” (secular-materialist) ideas, deliciously describing John Lennon’s Imagine as the “My Little Pony of philosophical statements” (p. 12), and exposing the non-canonical “gospels” (much beloved by Christian revisionists) for the feeble stuff they are (p. 154-5). He is refreshingly explicit about the absence of God, and the normal, depressing, experience of God’s silence, but, as I’ve suggested, he majors on Christians’ moral failings, now and in the past (near the end of the book ,  he lists the different (bad) things different sectors of the Christian church do and don’t do, and it’s clear which side of the list he puts things in (funny, I thought that supporting the biggest cause of the destruction of human life in all history – the abortion industry – should certainly be among the bad things, if slavery and the Holocaust (small by comparison) are too).

Spufford says he is very much a this-worldly Christian (p. 165); several things can be meant here. I’ve suggested elsewhere that so much in Christianity depends on maintaining a balance between opposites, or seeming-opposites, keeping different things in tension. One is between a this-worldly concern, and a next-worldly concern; too much of either puts everything out of balance. A faith which is totally this worldly is effectively post-Christian (God, the Church, and the Bible are all purely-human constructions), as is that which is totally-other worldly (these polarities are seen in the concerns, or over-emphases, of Early Christian heresies). Here, the weight is on the former, but not, as far as one can see, disastrously so. This-worldy Christians have to say precisely how being a Christian will make real changes to one in the here-and-now (Christian preachers in the high street get few takers, and little interest, because passers-by suspect that if they did “join your religion”, they’d still have to face the daily grind, rising prices, unemployment, the same struggle, with no miraculous help (as Spufford has affirmed). Forgiveness? From what?). (Totally-other-worldly Christians face other questions, or should do).

The re-telling of Jesus’s life and death (I’ve avoided saying “story”; there’s too much use of the word “story” in religious writings, these days – it’s time it got rested, like “myth”) is very refreshing (Chapter 5), and his account of the Christian sacrament, the communion (pp. 199-201), is exceptionally good (and I’ve read a few). I’d love to argue with him about what might be called his “problem of pain” chapter (‘The Crack In Everything’, Ch. 2). Is it so difficult to recognise that the world/people/animals/nature that we have now is very much not that which God created, and that God may not cause all to happen/be, that happens/is? – and that there might be good reasons for God’s standing back, absenting himself ? Again, he seems to have allowed himself to be forced onto the militant atheist’s chosen ground. He distances himself somewhat from any idea of God’s judgement, and uses the “few nutters” argument, as I call it, to assure us that no one now believes in Hell (the tactic goes like this: select an aspect of orthodox Christianity which you think ought not to be true/real; say ‘today, only a few nutters believe xyz, the majority, we, do not’ (see p. 181-2)). He doesn’t use the normal term for this (universalism), but seems close to believing it. A brief examination shows that universalism is actually a very cruel doctrine. The thing about belief in objective truth is that society, the media, fashion, and power, are all irrelevant. If one person believes a truth – say, a traditional Christian idea – if it is indeed true, it makes no difference if every other Christian on earth doesn’t believe it in; billions count for nothing.

Towards the end of the book, he says he is a socialist (p. 216). Now, I’m no Conservative (or Lib/Dem), but I can’t see (despite the supposed Nonconformist origins of the British Labour Party) how anyone who believes in the ineluctable human tendency to do wrong (our Post-Lapsarian state, to use the theological term; Spufford uses another term; it does include the f- word), as this author clearly does, can become a socialist, though that is not a subject I claim any expertise regarding); however, he does say that a Christian can’t be a utopian (p. 219), which is good to hear.  He notes, accurately, that the Church, historically, has a habit of ‘hovering up’ the ideas/science of particular times, as with the metaphysics of Aristotle and the cosmology of Ptolemy, in the Middle Ages (p. 194, note) – yes, and another excellent example, which  he misses, is the Church’s rapid acceptance of evolutionism in the early-20th century. (Will we never learn? Will we never realise that authentic-Judeo/Christian ideas are necessary and sufficient?).

It’s useful to read his distinction between Christianity and legalist religions (such as Judaism and Islam, orthodoxic as opposed to orthopraxic (p. 44-5)): but Christianity does not have no rules, shalt, shalt not; this error leads Spufford to use the Silence-of-The-New-Testament argument: ‘if Jesus never mentioned xyz, it must be OK to do it’ (carry on, folks, with whatever you were doing …)(p. 191). Perhaps that’s the lowest point of the book – but there are many highs., eg. the stylish debunking of Christopher Hitchens’s claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a genuine Christian (p. 191, note).

Actually, there’s one f- word that this author doesn’t use (unless I’ve missed it), a word beginning F U N D … , which also means virtually anything/nothing, now; all things considered, if I had to choose between the use of these two words, I’d follow Spufford.

 

July 2013

God, Gays and the Church. Human Sexuality and Experience in ChristianThinking,

Lisa Nolland, Chris Sugden and Sarah Finch, eds., God, Gays and the Church. Human Sexuality and Experience in ChristianThinking, London, The Latimer Trust, 2008. 978-0-946307-93-7

The following is a review added to the Amazon.com site in early April 2010, largely in response to a review already present there. This version has been slightly expanded.

This book was produced in response to debates in the Church of England’s General Synod, on 28 February 2007, which it reports on. It is relevant, though, to any examination of the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity, and other sexual issues.

It looks at the whole relationship of the Anglican leadership to the powerful gay lobby, and presents several very sobering accounts of the experiences of gay people, men and women, who have sought to exit homosexual lifestyles (e.g. the account of Dr Ronald G. Lee (p. 59), which deserves to be read at least twice).

Central to the Synod debates, it shows, was an obvious and unsubtle work of engineering, by the leadership, which made sure that the orthodox viewpoint (and the experiences of post-gays, as mentioned above) were marginalised and largely silenced.

Also – and this is very important, and rarely realised – it showed the thoroughly this-worldly (i.e. secular) values by which the debates – of a Christian Church! – were carefully framed by the revisionists (p. 21-2), and the (related) way in which a person’s “experience” (i.e. nature) is, in this view, to be considered sovereign – in defiance of the whole of Christian tradition, belief, thought, and theology.

Also, the book sought to differentiate between the (much-vaunted) “committed, faithful, loving, and stable” relationships and actual sexual exclusivity (p. 11). Contributions by Lisa Nolland (one of the editors) shows how the business of marriage-like relationships between two men (or two women) are just the start, as the ménages of polyamorists, zoos, and consenting paedophiles, are well on the horizon.

The orthodox Christian answer to the incursions of the gay lobby above all (it seems to me) makes the crucial distinction between so-called “liberalism” and authentic freeing (again, see Lee, and several others (pp. 25-59)); it exposes the total falsity of what has been called “the three myths about homosexuality” (it is inherent, it is not changeable, and its is “natural” (physiologically safe)).

Above all, the Christian faith offers real freedom – which is not to be found in the gay lifestyle or from the gay lobby – or by pandering to physical appetites or this-worldly desires. We have moved on since 2007.  The time of hysterical name-calling (“Homophobe!”) is over. Now it is the time real facts, objective evidence, truth – and real liberation. The only people who could be offended by this book (as one of the Amazon reviewers was) are those determined that the prisoner’s chains may never be broken, that the doors of their jails remain ever shut.