3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

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Three Minute Theology: words about life and God for the Attention Deficit Generation

Bullets and Dancing

This is lovely.

Clive James, the poet, critic, novelist, was diagnosed with terminal cancer (leukaemia) in 2010. In 2015 he published what was advertised as his final book, a collection of poems called Sentenced to Life. It was very well received.

Unaccountably, he is still alive, and it has just been announced that he will publish another book of poems in May. In an interview with The Guardian today he said, about the slow progress of his cancer:

“I felt like I’d dodged a bullet, and when you’re dodging a bullet the best thing you can do is turn it into a dance.”

Isn’t that great?

Best ever reason for not writing

Who would’ve thought that John of the Cross could’ve turned neglect in communication into a spiritual lesson?

To the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Beas, from Granada, November 22, 1587

…My failure to write to you was not due to any unwillingness, for indeed I desire your great good, but to my belief that enough has already been said and written for doing that which is important; and that what is wanting, if anything is wanting, is not writing or speaking—rather these usually superabound—but silence and work. Furthermore, speaking distracts one, while silence and work recollects and strengthens the spirit. Once a person knows what has been told him for his benefit, he no longer needs to hear or speak, but to put it into practice, silently and carefully and in humility and charity and contempt of self. He must not then go in search of new things that serve only to satisfy the appetite outwardly—although they are not able to satisfy it—and leave the spirit weak and empty without interior virtue.

My silence was so that you might learn wisdom (<= my new Twitter strapline!)

Letter 7, Saint John of the Cross, Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973), pp. 688-689

Alternative Facts and the “Reality-Based” Community

The Unreality-Based Community

The Unreality-Based Community

Trump is inaugurated and the sparsity of the crowds, in comparison with recent inaugurations, is noted. The next day, Trump’s Press Secretary delivers a 5 minute angry vituperation to the assembled press corps in the White House Briefing Room, in which he asserts both that no one can know the true numbers that were present and also that “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” The day after, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway tells NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Spicer had merely been offering “alternative facts.” The Guardian reports that this phrase “was received with widespread astonishment.”1 Why astonishment? It’s not as if this is anything new?

In 2004 Ron Suskind of The New York Times was told by an aide for the Bush White House:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The disdain that the Bush staffer felt for the “all of you” is shown in the way he referred to the “reality-based community,” as if that were indicative of some moral failing.2

Again, why the surprise?

Siegfried Kracauer noted in 1947, that Totalitarianism meant what the description said: it was a totalizing approach to life. Nothing, nothing, was exempt from its desire and ability to rewrite what was not part of the narrative. Rather German Totalitarianism:

…endeavoured to supplant a reality based upon the acknowledgement of individual values. Since the Nazis aimed at totality, they could not be content with simply superseding this reality—the only reality deserving the name—by institutions of their own. If they had done so, the image of reality would not have been destroyed but merely banished; it might have continued to work in the sub-conscious mind, imperilling the principle of absolute leadership.3

As Chico Marx asks, in that classic movie of political suspicion, Duck Soup, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”4

The answer that Kracauer and Conway both give us is that in this unreality-based brave new world, there is no real choice.

 


 

  1. Jon Swaine, ‘Donald Trump’s team defends ‘alternative facts’ after widespread protests,’ The Guardian, Monday 23 January 2017. []
  2. Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” The New York Times (New York, October 17, 2004), sec. Magazine. []
  3. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 298. []
  4. Chico, and not Groucho as Jonathan Freedland mistakenly remembered in his comment piece in The Guardian this morning, before it was amended with a subclause correction. Perhaps it is an alternative fact that Groucho said it first? Jonathan Freedland, ‘Sean Spicer is a Groucho Marxist, asking us not to believe our own eyes‘ The Guardian, 23 January 2017 []

“Other opinions are available…

…they’re wrong.”

Mary Beard skewers the Relativizing of Knowledge:

I am with Mr Banks in believing that academics dont have a monopoly of historical interpretation. But in order to have an interpretation worth listening to, you do actually have to know something. And , although it is hard to pin down which interpretation is right, there are some interpretations that are wrong.

The Intoxication of the Masses

Victor Klemperer, discussing the plebiscite held in Germany in November 1933:

… I have been mistaken on every occasion so far. I make intellectual judgements, and Herr Goebbels banks on the intoxication of the masses. And, what’s more, on the anxiety of the intellectuals.

Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii, a Philologist’s Notebook (London: Athlone Press, 2000), p. 37

The hinterland and the Areopagus

Denis Healey. Photograph: Martin Argles/Guardian

Paul went to the Areopagus in Athens, where he found the Altar to the Unknown God. His sermon at the Areopagus is what Luke Timothy Johnson has called one of the “symbolic encounters between the world of the gospel and the many aspects of the world it was destined to transform.”1 Paul knew enough about Gentile culture, the treasures and the values of the Greeks, to be able to connect Christian story and pagan stone.

Paul’s task in his day is our task today. Every day is the chance for a symbolic encounter. But these can only take place if the ministers of the gospel understand, and can speak in the language of, the world the gospel is destined to transform. Therefore, ministers of the gospel are required not just to know Hebrew, Greek, the Scriptures, the theologians, the traditions of Christian history, and liturgy, and ethics, the best forms of teaching, and the most advanced understandings of human nature. We need to know music, art, history, politics, ethics, economics, war and violence, and the darkest parts of the human heart.

To have this skill is to have a hinterland, what Denis Healy, a British politician of the mid-twentieth century, called “the ability to find value in things beyond the discipline that provides employment.”2. To have a hinterland means that we are able, constantly seeking, to make the connections between the Church, which is God’s, and the world, which is God’s as well. We can, like Paul, recognize the Altar of the Unknown God, and tell people His name.

 

 

  1. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 319. []
  2. Michael Henderson, “Do Politicians Today Have a Hinterland?,” The Daily Telegraph, April 11, 2015 []

Life and death and football

Bill Shankly was the manager of Liverpool FC, in the glory days of their pomp in the late 60s and early 70s. Like Yogi Berra in the States, he was famous for his pithy sayings, but unlike Berra, Shankly’s were based on a cunning, hard-edged, intelligence. He once said to an injured player “listen son, you haven’t broken your leg, it’s all in the mind.” He expected a lot of his players: “For a player to be good enough to play for Liverpool, he must be prepared to run through a brick wall for me then come out fighting on the other side.” His most famous quotation though was on the importance of soccer: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

And that’s sport: 22 players kicking a ball around a pitch. If football and Liverpool FC is much, much more important than life and death, then what about our purpose at VTS? How important is this school of virtue, and how important are the things we learn here? And if we are dealing with matters of life and death, how would anybody know? What difference does it make to the way we live, the way we treat each other, the way we work for the coming of the kingdom?

 

 

 

Gamesmanship and friendship

Stephen Potter was a humorist who wrote The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating.1 Potter’s thesis was that cheating was unacceptable, but there is no law against psychological manipulation. Thus, when playing golf, it is bad form to cough during your opponent’s back swing, to put him off his stroke. Rather, compliment him: “I really like the way that you break your right elbow through the line of the swing as you open up the club’s face. It’s unconventional, but is effective for you.” Your opponent can only thank you, but for the rest of the round he will be attempting to understand exactly what you meant, so much so that his natural game will be completely ruined. The round is yours, without doing anything as distasteful as cheating.

Can the same thing happen in Church? What would happen to the prayer life of your friend if you said to her “I really like the way you pray to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Prepositions are such important things, aren’t they?” Gamesmanship applied to prayer.

Gore Vidal once said: “It is not enough for me to succeed. My friends must fail as well.”2 Our culture behaves as if that were true. The school of virtue, which is seminary, says the exact opposite: I can only become the person God wants me to be, in as much as my friends (and enemies!) find their vocation too.

 

 

 

  1. Stephen Potter, The Theory & Practice of Gamesmanship; Or, the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1947). []
  2. Nigel Rees, Brewer’s Famous Quotations: 5,000 Quotations and the Stories Behind Them (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2009), s.v. Vidal, Gore (477:5). []

Restraints and safety

Stanley Hauerwas says that seminaries should be schools of virtue, a place where people learn the serious business of soul-saving. Soul-saving is a risky business, and learning soul-saving is a serious business. What is the lee-way for error? How can we keep ourselves, and others, safe as we undertake this education?

The first thing to learn is that if we make safety our first priority, we will never learn what God wants us to learn. A nice example of the dangers of “safety-first” is in the film Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis1. Jodie Foster plays an astrophysicist, taking the first journey in a spacecraft designed by an alien civilization, who communicated the plans to earth via radio. But in the capsule NASA’s engineers have added harnesses because they don’t want the astronaut to be at risk. When the voyage starts she is jolted almost into unconscious, until she realizes that outside the restraints the capsule is calm and safe.

The paradox is clear: the attempt to safeguard the astronaut put her life in danger. As much as we seek to gain our safety, we lose our lives.

VTS is a safe place to take risks. Here we learn how to take up the vocations, the crosses, set for us by our Master. Here we can learn how to learn, and live, dangerously. Try not to strap yourself into restraints of your own devising. The school of virtue requires courage.

  1. Robert Zemeckis, Contact, Technicolor / Panavision, U.S.A. (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1997). []

Windows 10, high degrees of safety and seminary

cusackpushingtin

John Cusack in Pushing Tin (1999)

I spent the weekend installing Windows 10. One of my upgrades came with this warning: “This program has been designed on the assumption that it will be used in office, personal, and domestic applications. It has not been designed for use when a high degree of safety is required, e.g., in the control of nuclear reactions at nuclear power facilities, automatic flight control of aircraft, and missile firing control in weapons systems.” I was installing a document scanner.

This week we begin a new academic year at VTS, an environment in which a high degree of risk is required, because we are in the business of forming priests and lay theologians for God’s Church. It might not seem like a high-risk environment, perhaps because, as Stanley Hauerwas says, we have imbibed from our culture, which treats medical schools and the Marine Corps as schools of virtue, and ignores seminaries. As Hauerwas says: “No one believes that an inadequately trained priest might damage their salvation; but people do believe that an inadequately trained doctor might hurt them.”1 On the contrary: a badly installed scanner in air traffic control will damage people’s lives. A badly formed priest or lay theologian will damage people’s souls.

So, welcome to the school of virtue, where the risks are high— and if that is scary, then good. It should be. But the risks aren’t taken in a vacuum. I’ll say more about that tomorrow.

  1. Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sinsick’, in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2000), p191. []
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