3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Category: 3MT (page 2 of 14)

How to be a pilgrim, part i

Travel lightly, and lighter than you think is necessary

It is often the case that travellers take more than they think they need. If you are moving yourself from places that are familiar to places unfamiliar, isn’t it reasonable to accompany yourself with familiar objects. Thus, in the words of Neil and Tim Finn, “everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.”

When I was a teenager I was invited to take part in a youth service expedition to Lesotho, in southern Africa. We were to help build a water supply for a youth centre in the highland village of Thaba-Tseka.1 It was my first time in Africa, and I didn’t know what to expect, or how to furnish myself for being away from England for three weeks. I borrowed a suitcase from my parents, one of those 1950s heavy-duty suitcases, designed for three-week ocean transportation to the Far East, with a frame constructed from teak, good English oak, and the dreams of Empire. It must’ve weighed 50 kg empty. So, to fill its cavernous and weighty spaces, I took a box set of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books: because, you know, when you’re travelling to Africa for the first time as a 17 year old, you will want and have time to read seven allegories of the Christian life…

Ironically, C. S. Lewis himself had already addressed this tendency. In the spring of 1927 Jack Lewis went on a short walking holiday with three friends, Owen Barfield, Cecil Harwood, and Walter ‘Wof’ Field. As Jack relates, in a letter to his brother, one of them had over-prepared for the occasion:

Now for my own adventures. I was joined [on 19 April 1927] at Oxford station by two others and we proceeded together to Goring. One of them was new to the game and turned up carrying a Tommies pack filled square like a tommy’s pack, for inspection. On the way we extracted from it a large overcoat, a sponge, four shirts, a heavy tin mug holding about a pint, two strong metal cigarette cases of pudaita proportions, and a number of those insane engines which some people associate with holidays. You know— the adaptable clasp knife which secrets a fork at one end and a spoon at the other, but in such a way that you could never really use the fork and the spoon together — and all those sort of things. Having recovered from our delighted laughter and explained that we were going to walk in an English county and not in Alaska, we made up the condemned articles into a parcel wh. we compelled him to Post home from Goring. It weighed about seven pounds.

C. S. Lewis, Letter to His Brother, 26 April 1927, in Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper, Revised and enlarged edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), pp289-290

We need to learn to travel lightly.

  1. Curiously enough, this was right at the end of the period in which James Ferguson studied the work of the Tabha-Tseka development project, and criticised it as The Anti-Politics Machine . Unwittingly, I was part of post-colonial economic imperialism, a project that continues to this day – just look at the argument developing between Italy and France over the latter’s economic “assistance” program for Africa. []

One of my colleagues is a leading scholar of the work of an English poet on whom he has written some major studies. Partly as a result of a chance personal connection, in recent years he helped choose the exhibits, write the captions, and make other contributions for a display at a small museum devoted to this writer’s life and work. I spent no small amount of time in 2011 and 2012 chivvying the poor staff at this museum. Could they supply visitor numbers? Sorry, could they please document those numbers in a publicly verifiable form? Did they have evidence of what visitors to the exhibition made of the experience? Did they ask them to fill in questionnaires, did they have a comments book? Sorry, could they provide extracts in a duly authenticated form? What was the evidence of the benefit the visitors derived from their visit? Sorry, I mean evidence of what the exercise calls ‘change in their behaviours’? And so on.

…But in reality these kinds of effects, even if desirable in themselves, as no doubt many of them are, do not testify to the quality of the research at all. My colleague’s scholarship on this poet would still have been of the same high quality whether or not he had happened to be involved with this museum, let alone whether we could demonstrate beyond doubt that a thirteen-year-old visiting with a school party had written in the comments book that the exhibits were ‘ace’.

Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities (London; New York: Verso, 2017), pp 50-51

Fromm on the Art of Conformity

Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority. The consensus of all serves as a proof for the correctness of ‘their’ ideas. Since there is still a need to feel some individuality, such need is satisfied with regard to minor differences; the initials on the handbag or the sweater, the name plate of the bank teller, the belonging to the Democratic as against the Republican party, to the Elks instead of to the Shriners become the expression of individual differences. The advertising slogan of ‘it is different’ shows up this pathetic need for difference, when in reality there is hardly any left.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1957; repr., London: Thorsons, 1995), p.11

The Alphabetised Memoir

Wow… Just, wow…

(HT @MooseAllain @robertrea)

3MT redux

The blog was behaving erratically for the last couple of days, due to a severe shortage of strong and stable leadership. My apologies for the coalition of chaos and my thanks to @banbury_bill for the unpaid and unnecessary maintenance work he has undertaken.

Without silence there is no theology; with silence there is no popularity

James Alison on why silence is unpopular:

Here I  fear that I  will have to say something rather unpopular, for we are inclined to become tireless parrots of chatty theological verborrhea. But this process of letting go of being the bearers of group values and desires so as to become a theologian, is a process bathed in silence, the silence of one who does not know how to speak. The silence of those who have been caught out in an act of false witness, and who know that their only way out is to go back over their story so as to learn to articulate the non- official version, the inconvenient one in which the wrinkles haven’t been ironed out, nor the shortcuts painted over. And for this I need a good chunk of time in which I don’t say anything, and in which I pray hard to receive the light of the truth concerning what was really going on in my life. Where I have to learn to prefer the truth that comes from the Other to every lure from a more comfortable truth.

The problem is this:  No one rewards silence. Rapid response is prized; the one with sure-footed opinions or ready answers in a stormy situation is respected. There is no reward for the months and years of silence necessary for us to give up lying and make headway in telling the truth. However, that silence, and the non-reactive capacity to tell the truth with no concern for convenience, is worth much, much more than what any of us could earn by saying a lot with very little background silence. And this means that an essential part of the shape of how we receive a theologian’s vocation is learning to survive without immediate recognition. In other words, without a capacity for deferred recognition, there is no theology. And that means that without the poverty that goes along with being someone who doesn’t have anything immediately useful to offer, there is no theology.

James Alison, ‘Oracles, Prophets, and Dwellers in Silence’, in The Practice of the Presence of God?: Theology As a Way of Life, ed. Martin S. Laird and Sheelah Treflé Hidden (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1–7.

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.

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