Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday Theology

C.S. Lewis once said something to the effect that for every new book one reads, one should then read an old one, and that if one had a choice between a new book and an old one, then one should choose the old one.  In his introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, Lewis urged this advice especially on readers of theology.   "Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself."

I have been very fortunate to learn about a small Christian reading group that meets regularly here at Laurier and joined them just as they embarked on a very old writer, the eastern patristic St. Basil the Great.  The group is reading a set of Basil's homilies collected and translated by Sister Nonna Vera Harrison as On The Human Condition.  This an excerpt from our reading of this Wednesday, Basil's "Homily Explaining That God Is Not The Cause Of Evil", in which he addresses the question of why God permits us to do evil things.

"But why did we not have sinlessness in our structure, one may ask, so that the will to sin would not exist in us?  Because indeed it is not when your household slaves are in bonds that you consider them well disposed, but when you see them willingly fulfil your wishes.  Accordingly, God does not love what is constrained but what is accomplished out of virtue.  And virtue comes into being out of free choice and not out of constraint.  But free choice depends on what is up to us.  And what is up to us is self-determined.   Accordingly, the one who finds fault with the Creator for not fashioning us by nature sinless is no different from one who prefers the nonrational nature to the rational, and what lacks motion and impulse to what has free choice and activity.  If indeed these points are a digression, it was necessary to say them, lest falling into an abyss of arguments, you remain deprived of the things you most desire and also deprived of God.  Therefore, let us stop correcting the Wise One.  Let us stop seeking what is better than the things that come from him.  For if indeed the detailed principles which he has planned escape us, let this belief be present in your souls, namely that nothing evil comes into being from the Good One."

Often when one reads an old book, particularly one from antiquity, there is a sense of shock with the unfamiliar.  The metaphor about "household slaves" may seem jarring and unpleasant, both because we disapprove of slavery and because we are uncomfortable with our own positioning in the metaphor, the implication that we should be slaves who willingly please our master, God.  Likewise, the overlay of the Reformation might make one suspicious of the idea that we should use our free choice to do virtuous things,  as being a species of works righteousness.   There are other passages in this homily that might give offence, such as his claim that through earthquakes and wars God "provides salvation to all, through particular punishments".   Such thoughts are indeed very alien from our own, and may make us want to toss Basil aside and find a newer book, one more agreeable to us.  Certainly that was my initial thought.

But setting aside for a moment the problem of how one explains earthquakes and other harmful things or removes God from their causation, isn't Basil offering us in the above paragraph exactly what liberalism teaches us to value so highly, namely human agency?  And if God truly gives us the gift of agency and reason, then does not that not put a fearful responsibility on us as to how we should use these gifts?   This line of thought might explain natural disasters like earthquakes, but it does force us to think about how natural disasters both expose human sin and call us to virtuous response.   The Chinese artist Weiwei, who has created moving exhibitions critiquing the government of China for covering up the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren killed when an earthquake flattened their cheap, substandard block housing, would probably agree with Basil on this last point.

Military Picture Of The Week


This gorgeous picture of a U.S. Civil War monument was taken by Chris Mackowski, one of the young historians who contribute to the blog Emerging Civil War.  This statue is in the town of Allegany, New York, where Chris teaches.  Chris writes that "I see these statues everywhere (a New England statue manufacturer was responsible for most of them), but maybe because they seem so common, we forget to really see them. That’s my challenge this fall: in the midst of the riot of autumn color, I want to see these statues and remember the men they honour."

As a bonus picture, click here to see a 19th century image of the same statue and some Union Army veterans posing in front of it.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Maria Semple Hates Canadians (But Sweden Doesn't)

 This nice lady is Maria Semple.   She looks so sweet and kind, it's a pity she hates Canadians.

Well, not her, exactly, but the namesake  character in her novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (of which, more below) , does.  Bernadette is an architect who has gone with her software engineer husband and daughter to Seattle.  She has some mental health issues and lives as a recluse, emaiing her errands and diatribes to a personal assistant in India.  Here she unload on Canadians while writing to her Indian aide.

 "… there's always this one guy who answers the phone, 'Washington Athletic Club, how may I direct your call?'

And he always says it in this friendly, flat … Canadian way.  One of the main reasons I don't like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian.  Seattle is crawling with them.  You probably think, U.S./Canada, they're interchangeable because they're both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obsess white people.  Well, Manjula, you couldn't be more mistaken.

Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass - anything and everything - the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say.  Canadians are none of that.  The way you might fear a cow sitting down in the middle of the street during rush hour, that's how I fear Canadians.  To Canadians, everyone is equal.  Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night.   Frank Gehry s no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD.  John Candy is no funner than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him.  No wonder the only Canadians anyone's ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out.  Anyone with talent who stayed would be flattened under the avalanche of equality.  The thing Canadians don't understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such." 

Well, that was funny, and it certainly plays on a certain Canadian stereotype.

Perhaps to avoid such outbursts from other Americans, fictitious or otherwise, there is a proposal being floated by Canadian journalist Diane Francis to combine our two companies.   Because Francis is a business writer, it may make sense to her to see the union of the two nations as nothing more than a a corporate merger.   Those of us who think of countries as being something more than corporations (which may sound quaint in the era of globalization) will likely differ.  Besides, I don't think conservative Americans would welcome twelve new states that would almost certainly vote Democratic. 

 Fortunately there are some Americans who are grateful that Canada is still the true north strong and free.   Writing early in the US government shutdown, US military blogger Tom Ricks is grateful that he still has access to military news thanks to the Canadian Department of National Defence (and as a bonus he gets to practice his French, too). 

Tom Ricks isn't are only fan, either.  Everyonee here in the Great White North did a fist-pump over breakfast this morning when we learned that some nice people in Sweden like Canadian author Alice Munro.  So take that, Bernadette.

Finally, and here's the book review part of this post, I really liked Maria Semple's novel and strongly recommend it.   She has a terrific satiric voice, and with her sharp eye and steady aim she riddles upper-middle class selfishness and liberal pretensions.   It is also a wonderful remaining of what was once in the 18th century called the epistolary novel, in that it does not use dialogue, but rather a succession of emails, diary entries, police reports and other forms of communication to carry the plot and let the characters speak for themselves.  It's a great book, and I'm reasonably sure that Ms. Semple doesn't really hate Canadians.  Who could?



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Seen On The Morning Run

Last weekend here in SW Ontario was unusually wet, but the sun has come out the last few days for some glorious fall mornings.  Here was the view yesterday morning on one of the trails I frequent.

Image 3

On Monday I went out earlier, on a different trail, in the predawn darkness.   I'm listening to music on my headphones, and thinking "Hmmm, these woods are rather creepy in the dark", when I hear what sounds like a large animal moving in the undergrowth beside me.  I look to my left.

"Good morning!"  It is a young woman, two thirds my height and half my weight, powering past me on the trail.  I won't say that I screamed like a girl, but I did let out a variation of the Lord's name.   "Sorry", she said cheerily as she disappeared up the trail at twice my speed and half my age.   So much for the big tough army guy.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Deliver Us From … Hypocrisy: The US Senate Chaplain Speaks Truth To Power

He's a clergyman who looks sharp in a bow tie.  He's a retired Rear Admiral US Navy chaplain with an impressive CV.   He's a Seventh Day Adventist preacher who describes himself as being "liberal on some [issues] and conservative on others".  Each morning, recently, he berates 100 lawmakers in the US Senate for being a bunch of doofuses.

If that makes you curious about Barry C. Black, the US Senate chaplain, you can read a NYT profile of him and his work here and video excerpts of his prayers during the current US government shutdown here.

Given what I'm reading about the intransigence and foolishness going on in Washington DC, I'm thinking that Chaplain Black may be the last best hope of the USA.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Friday Theology - David Martin

For one of my grad courses this fall, I am being introduced to the work of David Martin, a sociologist associated with the London School of Economics, and an Anglican priest, who has made a long and distinguished career thinking about topics such as secularization.   

This paragraph, from Martin's On Secularization: Towards A Revised General Theory (Ashgate 2006)  jumped off the page at me today as a remarkably succinct description of what can happen to Protestantism when it divests itself of its traditional ritual expressions of the holy and reserves holiness to what Martin calls "heartwork".  I also like it because of the metaphor of the road roundabout, of which Kitchener-Waterloo traffic planners appear quite enamoured.

"In spite of this necessary retention of institutional and conceptual boundaries, evangelicalism incurs a cost on account of the ease with which the heartwork can be taken to imply that there is no need for efficacious ritual and institutional mediation.  Ritual and mediation are all too easily dismissed as mere mumbo jumbo and priestcraft: that is the sentiment or sediment deposited by a receding Protestantism.  Christianity comes to be popularly received as no more than neighbourliness or decent personal attitudes and well-meaning sentiment.  Decency is the eminently natural virtue and in political terms it has to provide the agreed point of reference for moral consensus.  It offers the working version of faith in the political sphere.  The reason is that a public institution, like a road roundabout, requires a decent law-abiding citizenry, not Christianity."

I'm thinking I might make Friday theology a regular feature of this rather irregular blog.

Military Picture Of The Week

 In continuing this rather irregular feature of a fitfully published blog, I chose this picture because I think priests and tanks look funny together, and I challenge you to prove me wrong on that one.

This photo was taken at the Russian Arms Expo last month in the Urals, as covered in a recent feature published here on Foreign Policy.  The FP commentary wondered what these chaps were doing hanging out in the tank park - I'm guessing they may be Russian Army chaplains, but I'll defer to someone with more knowledge on that score.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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