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One of the more interesting comments about, well..

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — reading my daily dose of 3QD again after a health-induced lapse, and glad I’m back ]
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One of the more interesting comments about, well, religion, comes from a review by Robert Fay in 3QD of Chinese science fiction master Liu Cixin‘s novel, the first in a trilogy and the one President Obama so praised, The Three Body Problem, reading it in a wide world context:

Sacrifice used to be part-and-parcel of the western self-identity. Jesus on the cross at Calvary was the central spiritual truth of Christendom. The west, of course, left much of this behind during the Enlightenment. The French Revolution further asserted the rights of individuals. If anything, the consumption of consumer goods is the true religion of the west now, and it demands we all act immediately on our impulses, cravings and desires.

This hasn’t worked out well for the planet.

**

Yes, sacrifice, and it’s dual, martyrdom, have all but disappeared, although, well, the Marines understand sacrifice, and the jihadists understand martyrdom.

To take you into the audacity of sacrifice or the self-surrender of martyrdom is beyond me here. Let me just note that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and the death of Joan of Arc a martyrdom. Arguably, the two ideas are parallel, and meet at infinity, as in the Cure D’Ars observation:

If we knew what a Mass is, we should die of it.

Thus, theologically speaking, the Eucharist (present) cyclically repeats Christ‘s sacrifice on the cross (past), in a transcendent manner which makes of it a foretaste of the Wedding Feast (future) envisioned in the book of Revelation.

But enough!

**

There’s a fine alternative vision of the three body problem in Bill Benzon‘s Time Travelers We Are, Each And All, his account of brain, mind and Beethoven, which, like Robert Fay‘s account of Liu Cixin‘s novel of that name, arrived in today’s edition of 3QD. Benzon is quoting the literary critic Wayne Booth describing a performance of Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 as constituting unities out of a string quartet, Booth himself and his nwife, and, somehow, both of those and Beethoven — three bodies as one:

There is Beethoven, one hundred and forty-three years ago … writing away at the marvelous theme and variations in the fourth movement. … Here is the four-players doing the best it can to make the revolutionary welding possible. And here we am, doing the best we can to turn our “self” totally into it: all of us impersonally slogging away (these tears about my son’s death? ignore them, irrelevant) to turn ourselves into that deathless quartet.

That unity of three bodies is found, and can be joined, in Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131:

**

Reading Benzon‘s piece, we can benefit also from his presentation of neurons, their connections and internal workings:

We have no way of directly counting the neurons in the nervous systems, but estimates put the number at roughly 86 billion with an average of 10,000 synapses per neuron.

To specify the brain’s state at a given moment in clock time we need to know the state of each unit component, such as a neuron. One convenient way to do this is to say that a neuron is either firing or it is not. So it can have two states. Neurons are complicated things; each is a living cell with the full complement of machinery that that requires. There’s a lot more to a neuron that whether or not it’s firing.

This description of neurons is in service to a discussion of clock-time and brain states, which is itself in service to a wider discussion of time itself, as our wrist-watches understand it, and as our experience of Beethoven might cause us to discover it.

Following the musical branch of this discussion, we find Benzon quoting Bernstein on ego-loss:

I don’t know whether any of you have experienced that but it’s what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you’ve studied him so intently, that it’s as though you’ve written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer.

Benzon‘s three into one is Bernstein‘s two into one, and all paths lead to reliving a keynote segment of the life of Beethoven — Beethoven as a musical Everest, with Bernstein and the quartet as sherpas, Booth and his wife and Benzon and you and I as climbers, some at base-camp listening to the great Chuck Berry, some on the final ascent, some planting flags at the peak..

Peak Beethoven is phenomenological unity. Across time, time travel.

**

Oh, the numbers games one can play — Sixteen into forty into one in Tallis’ forty-part motet, Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui — where the very title speaks to the union – I Have Hope in None Other:

Oh and is not religion at the heart of this unity, this unity at the very heart of religion? And is not this braiding of voices, this polyphony, a working of this unity?

**

My early mentor and friend, Herbert Warner Allen, wrote of his own time with Beethoven. As I wrote elsewhere:

Herbert Warner Allen, a classical scholar, sometime newspaper editor and noted authority on wines, experienced a timeless moment between two beats during a performance of one of the Beethoven symphonies. Not knowing quite what had hit him, he went on to research the mystical tradition and wrote three mostly forgotten books [of which the first was aptly named The Timeless Moment] situating his experience within intellectual tradition without nailing it to any particular dogmatic structure. TS Eliot, who published the books, inscribed a book of his own poetry to Warner Allen with the words “from the Srotaapanna to the Arhat, TS Eliot”, with a footnote to explain “Srotaapanna: he who has dipped one toe in the river of the wqaters of enlightenment; Arhat: he who has arrived at the further shore”.

Here’s the almost anonymous A.T. writing to The Times, 19th January 1968:

In your obituary notice of the late Mr. Warner Allen you do not mention the books he wrote describing his “journey on the Mystic Way”. The best known of these books was The Timeless Moment in which he gave some account of a visionary experience that for him “flashed up lightning-wise during a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Queen’s Hall “. In this split second of time he received (as no one reading his books can doubt) a flash of absolute reality that broke through the normal barriers of the conscious mind and left a trail of illumination in its wake. Mr. Allen never claimed to be an advanced mystic or profound philosopher. He described himself as an ordinary man of the world. He spent years unravelling the implications of his strange experience. The resulting volumes were and are of extraordinary interest.

Amen. Warner Allen’s was a Timeless Moment, an ego-loss indeed!

I must have been fifteen or so when I had the great good fortune to meet and be befriended by this extraordinary man..

Tehom and Ruach Elohim in the Pool at Bethesda?

Friday, September 20th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — for Catherine Keller, whose book Face of the Deep is a wonder ]
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Meditating on the first quote below these days, as I gradually make my way into Catherine Keller‘s work of poetic theology, I am reminded of the second —

— as if the first were a general principle, and the second a scaled-down and localized version of that principle.

**

Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep

I’ll return for a full review of this book once I’ve finished reading it — a slower process than I’d have liked, given my current state of health!

Christian, Piano-playing, ISIS-sympathizing terror

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — it’s a good and bad speckled universe ]
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Christian terrorist?

Both words, Christian and terrorist, need examining, but they’re not the wrong words, nor the right ones. Also, note (in big print) that this is the view from a Progressive, Secular, Humanist perspective — those three words are also worth pondering.

Context, context, context, as the realtors would say if they were selling attention-space..

**

To give you some context, then, let’s consider these terrorist killings with religious targets:

  • The Gurdwara (Sikh temple), Oak Creek, WI, 2012
  • Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, NC, 2015
  • The Tree of Life and New Light synagogues in Pittsburgh, PA, 2018
  • The Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch, NZ, 2019
  • and these religions with affiliated terrorists:

  • Jewish religious terrorism
  • Christian terrorism
  • Islamic terrorism<
  • Saffron terror
  • Morals:

  • You can be hated on account of your religion
  • You can hate on account of your religion
  • Your co-religionists may have reason to feel you are outsiders
  • The proportions of violent to other believers varies between times, religions
  • Religions & groups may differ on where injustice requires redress
  • Listening, which involves humility, is a necessary feature of compassion.
  • There’s plenty of room for nuance here — as fractal theorists would say, the world is self-similar at different scales — or at the poet GM Hopkins puts it, “dappled”.

    **

    Let’s peer a little closer:

    Half the equation? Presumably terrorist would be the other half?

    Uh-oh: piano-playing and nursing…

    That’s not at all what I was expecting..

    Sources:

  • Prog Sec Hum, Christian Terrorist John Earnest Issued Manifesto
  • GetReligion, Yes, John Earnest put ‘Christian’ label into play
  • Daily Beast, Synagogue Shooting Suspect, a Piano-Playing Nursing Student
  • **

    To repeat the point that it’s not just one religion that’s involved either in violence or as a target, let’s switch religions — these things are simultaneous rather than separate:

    Islamic Terrorist?

    Source:

  • Metro, US Army vet Mark Domingo ‘plotted Isis bomb attack
  • A US army vet turned ISIS-supporter attacking neo-Nazis? That’s just one more curious instance of how these hard-to-imagine cookies crumble..

    **

    To return to our Christian:

    Before he allegedly walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and opened fire, John Earnest appears to have written a seven-page letter spelling out his core beliefs: that Jewish people, guilty in his view of faults ranging from killing Jesus to controlling the media, deserved to die. That his intention to kill Jews would glorify God.

    Days later, the Rev. Mika Edmondson read those words and was stunned. “It certainly calls for a good amount of soul-searching,” said Edmondson, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small evangelical denomination founded to counter liberalism in mainline Presbyterianism. Earnest, 19, was a member of an OPC congregation. His father was an elder. He attended regularly. And in the manifesto, the writer spewed not only invective against Jews and racial minorities but also cogent Christian theology he heard in the pews.

    That’s WaPo‘s opinion, and we don’t know how strong WaPo‘s theological understanding is.

    This pastor, however seems to me to get it right:

    “When there’s an act of ‘radical Islamic terror’ — somebody claiming they’re motivated by their Islamic faith — if we’re going to call upon moderates in Muslim communities to condemn those things, we should do the same. I wholeheartedly, full stop, condemn white nationalism,” said Chad Woolf, an evangelical pastor in Fort Myers, Fla., who was one of the first to join in heated debate online about how the attack reflects on evangelicalism. “We should recognize that somebody could grow up in an evangelical church, whose father was a leader, and could somehow conflate the teachings of Christianity and white nationalism. We should be very concerned about that.”

    Okay, I have now read the complete manifesto, and if WaPo‘s headline writers think it contains theology, WaPo is paying less than ideal attention. The manifesto quotes scriptures — Matthew 27:24-25, John 8:37-45, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, Revelation 2:9, Revelation 3:9 and one other verse of which he says “I forget where in the Bible this verse comes from, but it’s definitely in there” — but quoting (cherry-picking) scripture isn’t theology, it’s quoting scripture. And there’s one paragraph that might serve as an intro paragraph in some moderately bright student paper on Protestantism:

    To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews—remember that you are secure in Christ. Turn away from your sin. Not because it is required for your salvation—for nobody save Christ can merit heaven based on his own works—but rather out of gratitude for the gift of salvation that your God has given you. Always remember that it is God that is keeping you alive and in faith. All sin stems from the arrogant belief that one does not need God. Satan was so prideful that he actually truly believed (that he, a created being) could overthrow the Ancient of Days—the Creator of all in existence. Satan inspired this rebellion among humanity. Christ alone is the only source of life. Know that you are saved in Christ and nothing—not death, nor torture, nor sin—can steal your soul away from God.

    All else is ugliness, and I won’t quote.

    What’s more lovely? By all accounts, the shooter’s father ..

    Sources:

  • WaPo, The alleged synagogue shooter was a churchgoer who talked Christian theology
  • Reddit, I knew John T. Earnest, the shooter of the Chabad synagogue
  • Descendit ad inferos, he descended to those below..

    Sunday, April 21st, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — the low down, the vanishing point, and the exaltation ]
    .

    There is no Christ: he has died, he is not yet resurrected. According to the usual English translation of the most basic of the Church’s three statements of faith, the Apostles’ Creed, he descending into hell: or as Ephesians 4.9-10 has it:

    Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.

    This worldly world is no place into which such doctrines comfortably fit. Hell? The lower parts of the earth?

    No, there is a low doorway by which we may enter such a cosmos, encounter such a Christ. We must shed, in fact, reality and self-importance, twin delusions, and embrace imagination.

    Above all heavens?

    **

    The second to final section of Bach’s St John Passion deals with this intermediate state, the boirderland between life and death, in this melancholy yet resigned chorus, Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine:

    The lyric addresses the now dead Christ

    Rest well, you blessed limbs,
    now I will no longer mourn you,
    rest well and bring me also to peace!
    The grave that is allotted to you
    and encloses no further suffering,
    opens heaven for me and closes off Hell.

    **

    The Latin of the Apostles’ Creed does not actually say that Christ descended into hell, but that he descended to those below, and this in turn is interpreted to mean that he came to those of good character who died before his coming, and were thus unable to hear the gospel he preached until this Holy Saturday — his body in the tomb, his presence preaching to them for their salvation. We are thus offered a neat answer to the otherwise tricky question — what happened to those who, through no fault of their own,never heard him.

    For Christianity, this is the archetypal liminal moment, this day between crucifixion and resurrection, death and renewed life. How unimportant it seems, how humble, falling between Good Friday and Easter Day — yet there is beauty here, as the whole gospel story is beautiful.

    But there is more. It is characteristic of the Passion story that Christ touches the depths of human doubt on the cross — crying My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

    **

    As I have noted before, the Lakota medicine man Archie Fire Lame Deer told his biographer, Richard Erdoes:

    I am no wino or pishko, but I am no saint either. A medicine man shouldn’t be a saint. He should experience and feel all the ups and downs, the despair and joy, the magic and the reality, the courage and the fear, of his people. He should be able to sink as low as a bug, or soar as high as an eagle. Unless he can experience both, he is no good as a medicine man.

    Ifb you have not suffered as deeply as those who come to you with their sufferings, you will seem shallow to them, and be unable to console them. If youhave not experienced joy as fully as those who rejoice nearby, you will seem stiff and stilted to the, and cannot join thewir dance, their song/\.

    Christ on the cross, Christ in the tomb descending to those below — bith are instances of that same descent which is the natural accompaniment of sacent — just as Chrust’s birth in a stable — no room at the inn — is the descen to vulnerable humanity of Godhead impassible — beyond all suffering.

    It is in the descent that the ascent is prepared.

    **

    Or as Heraclitus says:

    The way upward and the way downward
    is one and the same

    Or St John of the Cross, greatest of Spanish mystics, writing of the Dark Night of the Soul:

    Although this happy night brings darkness to the spirit, it does so only to give it light in everything; and that, although it humbles it and makes it miserable, it does so only to exalt it and to raise it up; and, although it impoverishes it and empties it of all natural affection and attachment, it does so only that it may enable it to stretch forward, divinely, and thus to have fruition and experience of all things, both above and below, yet to preserve its unrestricted liberty of spirit in them all.

    And again, as TS Eliot has it, who quoted that fragment of Heraclitus as an epigraph to his Four Quartets:

    And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

    **

    I have written this post, this day, to teach myself these things, to do the necessary research, the discovery and the remembering: and I hope they will be of interest and profit to you too.

    But I must post in haste — Easter Day approaches, and with it the joyful cry, Christ is risen! Christos aneste.

    For your consideration — this I must listen to myself:

    For joy!

    The remaking of angels, their rank and sweep

    Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — on, i suppose, the uphill slog or seduction of genius — or a very different take on complexity? ]
    .

    Paul Klee‘s Angelus Novus — described by the Verso writer Stuart Jeffries as “this goofy, eternally hovering angel with hair that looks like paper scrolls, aerodynamically hopeless wings and googly if rather melancholy eyes”:

    was admired and bought for a thousand marks by Walter Benjamin, and moved with him from one lodging to the next until her fled Germany and the onrushing Nazis. It is also:

    Benjamin’s most famous image, in the 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: the “angel of history” who is blown backward into the future by the storm of progress.

    or to quote Benjamin himself:

    A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

    **

    At a time after Darwin, Marx and Freud have dissolved the basics of fundamentalism, and before the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the brilliant Christopher Hitchens proclaimed “the new atheism” in an easily-won contest with that same low, popular religiosity — all but ignoring the retreat of angels from Renaissance tryptich to Hallmark Card — we might do well to carry the God-NoBoDaddy debate up an octave, and consider the possibility that once angels have been more or less erased from modern western consciousness, they may, as in a palimpsest, reappear in new-old guises..

    **

    Principally, I think here of Rilke‘s angels in the Duino Elegies:

    Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
    and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
    I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
    For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
    and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    Every angel is terrifying.

    Ah!

    Rilke told one of his translators that she should not make the mistake of understanding the angel referred to in the elegies as a Christian angel. To the contrary, this angel was quite distinctly drawn from an Islamic tradition. Rilke writes that in the months before his trip to Duino, he had traveled in Spain and had been consumed with reading the Qu’ran and a book on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It seems fairly clear that this occurred under the influence of his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose husband, Friedrich Carl Andreas, was a leading scholar of Islamic culture in the Russian Empire, particularly including Naqshibandiyya.

    **

    Let Rilke have traveled next to India or China, the apsarases and gandharvas of Hinduism and Buddhism might have affected him, with their sensuality, their song, their dance..

    **

    But while gandharvas and apsarases capture us by their powers of seduction — in some ways like the houris of Islamic paradise — with Rilke’s angels, drawing no less on the Old Testament than on the Qur’an, our surrender is to elemental force:

    I mean the Angel who appeared
    to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
    when the wrestlers’ sinews
    grew long like metal strings,
    he felt them under his fingers
    like chords of deep music.

    Whoever was beaten by this Angel
    (who often simply declined the fight)
    went away proud and strengthened
    and great from that harsh hand,
    that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
    Winning does not tempt that man.
    This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
    by constantly greater beings.

    **

    Constantly greater beings, with which we may if we are spiritually fortunate, wrestle — these are Rilke‘s angels, and they fill the gap in the once-dominant Great Chain of Being paradigm, on a rung above human usualness, demanding, promising, skirmishing, delivering…

    To be carried in the arms of an apsara, to be swept by the gale-force storm of an angel, these are human experiences of the transhuman kind, and we need words for them, both forgetful of any surrounding dogma and delighting in their strength as imagery — gandharvas and angels named as such, and constantly revivified by the poetic imagination.

    Klee, Benjamin, Rilke, but also Jacob wrestling with — who? a man, angel, God? — and becoming IsraelGiotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo who wrestled form from Carrera marble, Dogen Zenji for whom mountains were the sages into whom, living among them, he blended.. Kalidasa with his yakshas in Cloud Messenger and perhaps supremely in the gandharva marriage in his Shakuntala..

    Isaac becoming Israel, Shakuntala the mother of Bharata.. Of such are sacred nations born.

    **

    Yet this world is wide and deep, the beings above us multitudinous, and the humans touched by them more than a single mind can comprehend. And:

    The problem of god is a problem in ballistics, Icarus discovered this,
    that to shoot for the sun is to fall short of it, those who shoot
    for beauty achieve prettiness, there is a gravity in aesthetics as there is
    in physics, and theology too has its fall, the problem of god being
    that the mind falls short of what is huge enough to conceive it, give
    conception whatever relevant definition you choose, too vast
    to think of, give birth to it — no, no, mind has sheer cliffs of fall, and
    to shoot for a conception of god is full speed ahead to fall, fail ..

    I bow, salute, prostrate, pranam, bow gassho.


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