anglican university chaplain dreaming, hoping, praying
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Sunday, September 18, 2011
A Point of View
John Gray is writing/broadcasting some interesting stuff.
I don't quite agree with everything he has written here, particularly his final conclusion that it doesn't matter what you believe. I don't think he's recognised that there's a difference between 'belief that' (which he rightly wants to avoid as a fundamentalistic fallacy) and 'belief in', which is more open to his valuation of myth.
Unless there is some sort of 'belief' (i.e. some sort of semi-/conscious acceptance of a mythical framework to make sense of the world) than it seems to me it is impossible to do 'practice'. Belief enables action... Nevertheless, knocking Frazer's view of religion on the head is a sensible thing.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Review of Anathem, Neal Stephenson.
Several years ago a science PhD student virtually compelled me to read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I think it followed a discussion about how to get scientists to enjoy reading novels, and whether serious scientific ideas could find expression in good fiction. Despite resembling a brick, and containing not a few dense paragraphs about WWII code, the plot was good and Stephenson’s unashamedly nerdy-but-keen style had me intellectually hooked, too.
I’ve since ploughed (I choose this verb advisedly) through two of the three volumes of his Baroque Cycle that mix an evocation of the world of seventeenth century philosophy, the rise of capitalism and piratical swash-buckling. In the first two novels in the sequence I have to admit that I think that the balance of educative lecture-to-entertainment ratio is rather skewed towards the former – but hey: it got me thinking about global economics and the flow of money... In Anathem however I think he’s achieved a better balance.
On the intellectual side Anathem melds together a number of themes, particularly platonism, mathematics, quantum theory and consciousness. (In simple form: do mathematical formulae have a reality outside of our heads? Would they take the same form in parallel universes? Could such ideas be shared between universes by sentient beings?).
Stephenson also plays with ideas about how different forms of thinking deposit socially and culturally. He sets his pure scientists within monastic communities playfully reversing the historical relationship between science and religion (think what the Church would look like if Moses were replaced by Pythagoras, Jesus by Plato).
Carrying all this is a rip-roaring plot. I found echoes of older sci-fi (notably Clarke’s Rama novels, and Greg Bear’s The Way series, for example): an alien ship turns up and disturbs a planet’s culture; questions arise about how they will relate etc.. Well-worn it may be, but I think it works – especially when you factor in the kung-fu, some sympathetic characters, and a fair dose of humour. Stephenson’s invention of a whole new language, particularly when applied to philosophical ideas (‘Occam’s razor’ becomes ‘Saunt Gardan's Steelyard’), also helps to avoid the novel becoming too didactic.
Readers from a faith perspective will quickly pick up an antipathy to various expressions of religion, several of which bear an uncanny resemblance to American evangelical Christianity and others to Catholicism. However there are hints of a more sympathetic treatment of liberal forms of faith. The treatment of religion in the novel has presumably been the subject of several reader comments, as I note that Stephenson’s own website issues something of a clarification, reminding readers that the views expressed are those of the narrator, not necessarily the author. Stephenson also mentions the more liberal Christianity practised by his parents (embracing evolution and non-fundamentalistic ways of reading scripture) which he commends, noting that the book was dedicated to them.
In all, a thrilling and often funny page-turner that also got me pondering the philosophy of maths. Someone who can write a book that does both things, is clearly one talented guy.
Review: The Stature of Waiting
This is a book that was recommended to me, I believe 14 years ago, by the former archbishop of York on some kind of preordination retreat. Only now have I got around to reading it.
It is a fairly short book-length meditation on passivity: the condition (the author argues) we are all likely to experience at some time, and which is perhaps increasingly prevelant in our time.
By passivity ('passion', or waiting) Vanstone means that uncomfortable condition of being made subject to something beyond our control - illness, unemployment, frustration at work, old age. These are things that rob us of our power and independence, and thus potentially of our dignity and self-worth.
Indeed Vanstone predicts that technology will not necessarily increase our independence and sphere of autonomous action, but in many cases instead make us even more susceptible to to frustration as we depend on even greater systems beyond our control.
Being made a 'patient', being rendered a passive subject by illness or unemployment is clearly a bad thing. And yet Vanstone notes that the passion narratives in Mark and John speak of almost nothing but Christ's passivity. (There a particularly nice study in ch. 2 of how verbs describing Jesus shift from active to passive in Mark, and in John how the images of energetic work and day give way to night and inactivity/powerlesness).
Western culture has typically mostly come to value production, creativity and those who can do active things. Vanstone offers a nice critique of any assumption that this is natural, pointing out that prior to the nineteenth century 'idleness' or 'leisure' was the mark of civility, not work. Rather, he argues, the valuing of activity (the work ethic) can be seen as the necessarily ideological myth that enables the growth of capitalism.
Vanstone notes though that we may be moving out of the capitalist phase and its need for producers, and instead we are perhaps moving towards the need for consumers (i.e. for passivity, once more). If so we need to reclaim the value of being rendered passive (and Vanstone gives some interesting examples of how even the ill or the weak can sometimes hold a key and powerful role in a society.)
Nevertheless the myth of activity remains, and Vanstone suggests it may ultimately be rooted in the Christian tradition of describing the God in whose image we are made as 'pure act' and all powerful creator, as impassible.
And yet are we to say that anyone who is inactive, reduced to dependence or passivity is less than human, or less fully made in God's image? Here Vanstone's careful exegetical work on the latter part of the Gospels revalidates 'passivity/dependence' by suggesting that the primary purpose of the Passion stories is not to show that Jesus death sacrificially atoned for us, but rather that his passion as a whole (his acceptance of being 'handed over' and loosing his freedom) gives dignity to all such experiences. 'Glory' is found as much in God's acceptance of passivity in Christ, in his waiting in love for a human response (will Israel's rulers turn to him?), not just in his actions.
Vanstone thus fundamentally modifies the view of God's impassibility. God is certainly not, by nature, dependent on the world, not manipulable by us, and thus is indeed impassible. However God voluntarily adopts passibility - God makes space for the other (us) to respond freely - in the loving hope of relationship. There is a wise insight that the lover is often depicted not as the active one, but as the one who patiently (passibly) waits. So it is shown to be in God, when the supreme moment of the revelation of God's glory in Jesus is his surrendering of himself into the hands of men.
Surrunder, passibility, suffering, receptivity are all, according to Vanstone, modes in which the world is endowed with meaning and significance. The world needs us to be more than just creators, we need also to be receivers: those who value life in their being made subject to it, who notice its value, beauty, even its terror. In doing this mere existence becomes endowed with grandeur.
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The Trinity is really a very simple practical teaching.
The aim of religion is to point by its rituals beyond them to the truth that the universe is a gratuitous gift (Father/Creator), showing us how we should best respond to it with gratitude (Son), which manifests in changed lives (Spirit).
(thoughts on retreat)
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Thursday, September 01, 2011
More from Julian of Norwich
Like many keen Christians, Mother Julian says she desires a supernatural revelation of God, and so she asks for three things:
1) a 'memory' of the Passion, as if she were actually a witness of the crucifixion
2) (bizarrely) she desires a life-threatening illness, so that afterwards she might be more grateful.
Both of these desires fade away (although she does receive them).
It is the third that remains:
"I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds...
the wound of true contrition
the wound of natural compassion, and
the wound of earnest longing for God...
This desire dwelled with me constantly".
How curious - when we naturally seek wholeness and independence, Julian asks to be lamed by God, so that she might become helplessly open to loving herself appropriately, loving others and loving God.
(Revelations, ch. 2)