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On Sacrament: the world transfigured

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- moving from magic to sacrament and from word to world -- with implications for the study of terrorism and torture ]
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Roger Wagner, 1984: The Harvest Is the End of the World and the Reapers Are the Angels

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Tara Isabella Burton, in a recent Atlantic article Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God, nailed it, in my personal opinion:

But the dwindling role of theology among the liberal arts is a paradigmatic example of dispensing with the baby along with the bathwater.

And she goes on to add:

To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy.

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Here’s where things begin to get interesting. Because Ms Burton goes on to explain why that might be the case, first in terms of her own experience:

The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism.

Then, more generally, in terms of the skillset Theology requires:

As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”

And finally in a way which makes sense to me, as an analyst of contemporary religious violence with a theological background:

Such precision may seem — to the religious person and agnostic alike — no more useful than counting the number of angels on the head of a pin. But for me, it allowed me access into the fundamental building blocks of the mentality, say, of a 12th-century French monk, or a mystic from besieged Byzantium. While the study of history taught me the story of humanity on a broader scale, the study of theology allowed me insight into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances were so wildly different from my own…

and:

when scores of people were willing to kill or die to defend such beliefs — hardly a merely historical phenomenon — it’s worth investigating how and why such beliefs infused all aspects of the world of their believers.

and again:

If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the “outside,” the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events “from within”: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who — in the world outside the ivory tower — still shape plenty of the world

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This, I think, is what makes Marina Warner, whom I quoted in my previous post On Magic, so strong a writer — as she puts it:

I lost my faith a long time ago, but the experience of having once believed, and rather fervently too, underlies my sense of words’ power to heal as well as to harm.

This kind of understanding, it seems to be, is an invaluable — and rare — commodity in the community of analysts. And it is also this kind of understanding which gives us such invaluable works as Joseba Zulaika’s Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament, and William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ.

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Dana Gioia, poet, critic, and recent Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, made some relevant comments in his piece, The Catholic Writer Today, in First Things. I’ll limit myself to two snippets from section VII of an essay that’s worth reading in toto

Catholicism rightly revels in its theological and philosophical prowess, which is rooted in two millennia of practice and mastery. Theology is important, but formal analytical thought — the splendeur et misère of Roman Catholicism — is not the primary means by which most people experience, accept, or reject a religious faith. They experience the mysteries of faith (or fail to) in the fullness of their humanity — through their emotions, imagination, and senses as well as their intellect.

and:

Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas. The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theater has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith.

That’s quite a roll-call – but it’s not ecumenical, and so it omits Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach, Orthodox Andrei Rublev – and, from an analytic point of view perhaps more interestingly, the great poets, mystics, philosophers and others who have made Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism into such powerful drivers of both quietism and activism – of passion, dispassion and compassion…

… to comprehend the feelings of those who attend the Ta’zieh (passion plays) of Najaf and Tehran… or the Passionspiele (in many ways, so similar) of Oberammergau:

— or to follow the complex, laughing, paradoxical humor of a Chuang Tzu.

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I keep saying that Bach and his music, Shakespeare and his plays, have something hugely significant to teach us about the contrapuntal understanding of the multi-voiced world we live in — IMO the sacramental worldview has something no less important to tell us about the profundities and intensities of human feeling and commitment.

And of the eventual translucence and transfiguration of the world.

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Warren McCulloch’s lifetime koan

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from intuitive leap to confirmation in a celebrated paper by neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch ]
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As I mentioned in my earlier post, Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns, there are times when my HipBone-influenced style of reading suggests the presence of a hidden piece of text that forms the basis for the part that’s readily available — in that case, the Qur’anic passage on which a major speech by Bin Laden was based.

Something very similar happened the other day, while I was reading the cybernetician Warren McCulloch‘s paper What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number? thoroughly for the first time.

McCulloch’s title itself triggered an intuitive leap — call it a HipBone / Sembl move — to the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, familiar to me since my altar-boy childhood as the Last Gospel recited by the priest at the end of Mass.

I’ll have more to say about St John’s Prologue, and scripture more generally, later in this post, when I’ve told you how my “intuitive leap” was confirmed by further readings, and what that means in terms of intuition and verification.

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I call that move from McCulloch to St John an intuitive leap — but as with all such leaps, it is important to verify that the leap is well-founded at both ends.

Reading on past the title, then, I found McCulloch’s description of his own background, which is relevcant here:

I was destined for the ministry. Among my teen-age acquaintances were Henry Sloan Coffin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, H. K. W. Kumm, Hecker – of the Church of All Nations – sundry Episcopalian theologians, and that great Quaker philosopher, Rufus Jones.

In the fall of 1917, I entered Haverford College with two strings to my bow – facility in Latin and a sure foundation in mathematics. I “honored” in the latter and was seduced by it. That winter Rufus Jones called me in. “Warren,” said he, “what is thee going to be?” And I said, “I don’t know.” “And what is thee going to do?” And again I said, “I have no idea; but there is one question I would like to answer: What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number?” He smiled and said, “Friend, thee will be busy as long as thee lives.”

In Zen (Buddhist) parlance, Rufus Jones is telling Warren McCulloch that he has found an authentic koan, a paradox to explore and deepen into, sufficient for a lifetime.

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It’s only a little later in McCulloch’s paper that my intuitive leap is “verified” in McCulloch’s own words:

This lecture might be called, “In Quest of the Logos” or, more appropriately – perverting St. Bonaventura’s famous title – “An Itinerary to Man.” Its proper preface is that St. Augustine says that it was a pagan philosopher – a Neoplatonist – who wrote, “In the beginning was the Logos, without the Logos was not anything made that was made … So begins our Christian theology.”

But McCulloch doesn’t stop there, he continues right on from theology into mathematics:

So begins our Christian theology. It rests on four principles. The first is the eternal verities. Listen to the thunder of that saint, in about A.D. 500: “7 and 3 are 10; 7 and 3 have always been 10; 7 and 3 at no time and in no way have ever been anything but 10; 7 and 3 will always be 10. I said that these indestructible truths of arithmetic are common to all who reason.” An eternal verity, any cornerstone of theology is a statement that is true regardless of the time and place of its utterance. Each he calls an idea in the Mind of God, which we can understand but can never comprehend.

The idea (“mathematics”) and the thinker (“man”) — McCulloch is working at the interface of “mind and matter” — “word and flesh” — the eternal and the temporal. He’s working at what is these days called the “hard problem of consciousness”.

St John, too, was working at that interface, and brilliantly so — regardless of what credence you put in his theology of the Incarnation of God in Man, it is a brilliant attempt to join the Hebrew “In the Beginning” of Genesis with the Greek “In the Beginning” of his own writings.

My own point here is this: that an intuitive leap, once made, needs to be grounded or confirmed by slower, more explicit, rational or experimental means.

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Having made my point, I’d like to add some further notes here, for those interested in scriptural matters…

Here’s John 1.1-14, the celebrated “Prologue” to St John’s Gospel, in the King James version, worth reading whether you know it or not for the comparison that follows with St Augustine’s stunnning reading of the same text:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

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Here is Augustine’s comment, from his Confesssions, book VII:

Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons, that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the Same was in the beginning with God: all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made: that which was made by Him is life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And that the soul of man, though it bears witness to the light, yet itself is not that light; but the Word of God, being God, is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. And that He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. But, that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not; but as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, as many as believed in His name; this I read not there.

Again I read there, that God the Word was born not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. But that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, I read not there.

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That quote from St Augustine is a striking one — by way of comparison I would like to offer this no-less fascinating excerpt from the Islamic historiographer Ibn Khaldun‘s Muqaddimah, describing developments in the early church from the death of Christ to the establishment of the canon of scriptures:

The Apostles divided into different groups. Most of them went to the country of the Romans and made propaganda for the Christian religion. Peter was the greatest of them. He settled in Rome, the seat of the Roman emperors. They 420 then wrote down the Gospel that had been revealed to Jesus, in four recensions according to their different traditions. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Jerusalem in Hebrew. It was translated into Latin by John, the son of Zebedee, one of (the Apostles). (The Apostle) Luke wrote his Gospel in Latin for a Roman dignitary. (The Apostle) John, the son of Zebedee, wrote his Gospel in Rome. Peter wrote his Gospel in Latin and ascribed it to his pupil Mark. These four recensions of the Gospel differ from each other. Not all of it is pure revelation, but (the Gospels) have an admixture of the words of Jesus and of the Apostles. Most of (their contents) consists of sermons and stories. There are very few laws in them.

The Apostles came together at that time in Rome and laid down the rules of the Christian community. They entrusted them to Clement, a pupil of Peter, noting in them the list of books that are to be accepted and in accordance with which one must act…

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Theology, once the Queen of Sciences and now largely ignored, has been laying fallow for centuries. There are rich findings here for those who choose to dig.

h/t Derek Robinson.

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On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: preliminaries

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on graph theory, and the background and history of HipBone / Sembl gameboards ]
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First off, a graph — at least the way I’m using it here — is a diagram of linkages. The items linked, which may be people, places, phones, ideas, quantities, whatever, are represented by dots or circles, known as nodes, and the links between them by lines, known as edges.

Here’s a simple graph diagram with four nodes and seven edges:

left: a simple graph, based on, right: the bridges of the city of Königsberg circa 1735

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That diagram represents — elegantly, with topological accuracy — the seven bridges connecting the banks and islands of the city of Königsberg — which gavs rise to a famous math problem, which in turn gave rise to that branch of mathematics we now know as Graph Theory.

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Graphs are thus pictures of networks, and networks are the non-linear, feedback-capable basis for an astonishing variety of interesting things such as the internet and your and my brains

And they can get pretty complex. I’m a simple soul, and not a great network maven — but here’s what my network in LinkedIn looks like as of today. It too is a graph, although it reminds me of broccoli, or of a fish…


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Hey, that’s a pretty small network — and graph — compared with, say, a graph of all the neurons in a single brain, all the brains on the world’s computer networks, or all the neurons in all the brains on all the networks…

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Graphs with concepts at the nodes and conceptual links along the edges have been used for centuries to convey mystical states, propositions in theology, and concepts in the natural sciences:

Left, the Sephirotic Tree in Kabbalah; middle, the four elements in Oronce Fine; right, the Christian Trinity

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So you won’t be too surprised to learn that my variants on the Glass Bead Game of Hermann Hesse, which are designed to build what he termed the “hundred-gated cathedral of Mind” by analogically connecting the great thoughts of human-kind across all the arts and scences, use graphs (in this sense) as their boards…

Here, for instance, is one possible board design, derived from the inner vaulting of an English cathedral roof:

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Okay, past is prelude.

In the second part of this post I’ll show you a series of boards actually used in HipBone / Sembl play, and then two dazzling works — one a work of art, the other a work of science — that leapt out at my in the course of my browsing a morning or two ago…

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Jottings 10: The rabbi who cried Allahu Akbar

Monday, February 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- expect the unexpected ]
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I can’t claim to understand Hebrew or Arabic, but the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a leading Gush Emunim settler rabbi, can clearly be heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” at 5.37 and then repeatedly at 5.42 and following.

What’s going on?

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I wrote a while back:

I am hoping to make Jottings a continuing series of brief posts, some serious and some light-hearted, that release the toxins of fascination and abhorrence from my system rapidly, ie without too much time spent in research. Jottings — hey, my degree was in Theology, Mother of the Sciences — derives from the English “jot” — and thence from the Greek iota and Hebrew yod, see Wikipedia on jots and tittles.

Today, I hope to post four more of them. This one’s the first.

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Rabbi Froman was visiting a mosque that had been desecrated the previous day by a group of his fellow settlers, who had scribbled the phrase “price tag” and some slurs against the Prophet on the walls, then set the mosque on fire.

Harvard Professor Noah Feldman, in a Bloomberg op-ed titled Is a Jew Meshuga for Wanting to Live in Palestine? explains:

If Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing, it’s that more settlements in the West Bank will eventually make a two-state solution impossible. Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died on March 4 at age 68, thought differently.

Froman was a proud and early settler, a founder of the hard-line Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”), theologically committed to permanent Jewish settlement in what he considered historical Judea and Samaria. But Froman also fully accepted the idea of a Palestinian state there — in which he and his fellow settlers would continue to live as minority citizens.

Crazy, you say — as did just about everyone else in Israel, to say nothing of other settlers. Froman played up the appearance of madness by appearing in Palestinian villages in his prayer shawl, tefillin (phylacteries) and long white beard and blessing the people in Arabic and Hebrew. His acting and speaking like a biblical figure further underscored the impression that he was some sort of unrealistic prophet, whether utopian or dystopian resting in the eye of the beholder.

But why, really, is it impossible to imagine that religiously committed Jews might live under Palestinian sovereignty as citizens in the way that some Palestinian Arabs live under Jewish sovereignty in Israel proper? Looking at the standard reasons carefully, instead of just assuming their truth, can provide us with a much-needed thought experiment about the viability of the two-state solution, which looks increasingly tenuous to its supporters and critics alike.

Food for whatever that thing is that hearts and minds do.

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Related readings:

  • Yair Rosenberg, To Save the Peace Process, Get Religion
  • International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  • Adam Garfinkle, If Kerry Wants To Make Peace in the Middle East, He Should Just Put God In Charge
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    Allahu Akbar — God is Great. Not such an unexpected sentiment coming from a rabbi, after all?

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    In the case of NSA vs Justin Bieber…

    Friday, January 24th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- consider my mind once again blown, but not at all surprised ]
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    You may or may not all have seen this — I don’t watch TV, so such things only reach me if they crop up in my usually pristine Twitter feed — but here is a quick update from the intersection of News and Worthy. It’s like a Freudian slip — or what William Burroughs called “naked lunch” — the moment when you see all too clearly what’s on the end of your fork.
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    The news media, my friends, aren’t biased “left” or “right”. I mean, they may be and in fact are, but that’s not the only bias. The bias I’m seeing here is in favor of the superficial over the serious, it’s pervasive, and it’s beautifully captured in this short video.

    This bias is obvious, we all know it so well that it’s easy to miss. But it’s also a leading indicator of the advertiser-popularity-media loop, and is to be taken seriously.

    And if you know, you know, you already know, and are ready for the occasional laugh — put @KimKierkegaard on your own Twitter feed, for “philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard mashed with the tweets and observations of Kim Kardashian”.

    Double or quits?

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