Uncle Jan and his garlic

I reckon that my Uncle Jan grows the best garlic in Australia. So it’s good to see his hard work – and bio-dynamic farming really is labour intensive. Try clearing 250 acres of weeds and rocks by hand! – being recognised and celebrated in this short doco on his gorgeous Barrington River Organic Farm.

Manus

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They were returning from the clinic
in Yaqubi district. [Name] was a teacher
at a little school on the edge
of Khost, eastern Afghanistan, where

the Soviets once set up camp but now
the Americans – who shot a bullet into his wife’s
mouth (it was nothing personal, you see;
‘friendly fire’, they said) and into their

newborn. It was the final straw. And
three months later, a long
long journey, via ‘Little Kabul’,
Belantik, Pekanbaru, with

tuberculosis, PTSD,
leptospirosis, to arrive, finally,
nowhere. Nowhere. No where.
Four-and-a-half years nowhere – were here. And

him who moved more deeply into
the world, its fears and its violence – violence
that splits the human soul –
upon an ass, among the mob

somewhere, somewhere political adversaries might reach
across the seemingly unresolvable contradictions and
shake hands, shake hands – when all is said and done, there are
profits to be had and votes to procure from such

goods – a new resolve to resist death’s proliferating
machinery. And Tansey’s three figures hang tangled,
tangled and exposed above
the lawn somewhere in St Kilda, a long

long way from home.

Jason Goroncy
8 December 2017

[Image: Renate Els Aerts, ‘Vluchtelingen/Refugees’. Photo: Dirk A.]

When church architects experiment with ‘untheological ideas’

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Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Ticino, Switzerland

This morning, I’ve been packing up books, making ready some space for what promises to be a new whizz-bang modern office that will appear sometime over the Summer. This offers the perfect opportunity for procrastination – for blogging, for example – and for opening up some dusty tomes long neglected by all but the various arthropods who have died under their weight. One such example is Peter Hammonds’s Liturgy and Architecture (published in 1960) under whose spine a huntsman spider took its last breaths, and among whose pages I happened upon these words lamenting, in tones more sanguine than one might employ today, the absence of theological and liturgical wisdom in architectural decisions about spaces designated for worship. Those pastors and others who have grieved when many of the most important decisions about such things are left in the hands of some 17-year-old salesman at the sound system shop, or by the church bean counter, will understand why these words struck a note:

‘Whereas on the Continent church architecture has been in deep communication with theology and liturgy since the early ‘twenties, in this country it has been carried on in an æsthetic vacuum and treated as something quite peripheral to the Church’s pastoral and missionary task: the preserve of antiquarians, archdeacons, secretaries of boards of finance and church-furnishers. Though ample resources of fresh thinking have been available, they have not been brought to bear on the design of our new churches. Those who have been building have held little converse with those who have been theologising or liturgising. The results have been disastrous. Lacking the brief which only the theologian and the liturgist could supply, architects have experimented with untheological ideas, and for want of any guidance as to fundamental principles have been forced to rely upon fashionable clichés culled from the architectural periodicals, or from a Scandinavian holiday, to give their churches a superficial modernity’.

Talkin’ ’bout the Reformation

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Geoff Thompson (Pilgrim Theological College) and I were recently interviewed by Penny Mulvey for a little article in Crosslight.

The topic? The Reformation project – what it was about once, and what it might still be about today. I had great fun chatting with Penny about this stuff.

You can read the piece here.

[Image: Beverly Brown, ‘A Flock Of Pigeons 2’ (2011)]

A little pre-Advent, Advent, and post-Advent ecclesiology

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‘The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which he will bring; she is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here she does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds her with Word and Sacraments, and she has the gift of the Spirit in order that she may not lose the way’.

 – Uniting Church in Australia. The Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1992), §3.

#Manus

Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea

Richard Flanagan writes:

So this is what we have come to as a nation.

The wretched of the earth, because they were no longer safe where they lived, sought to come here. With a determined cruelty, we kidnapped and imprisoned them in Pacific lagers. These lagers became synonymous with the idea of hellholes because it was important to our government that they be – ­and be known as – hellholes.

On this policy of deterrence, as it was called, which had as its declared purpose to make innocent human beings suffer indefinitely, we spent billions of dollars. To this end we had truck with vile regimes such as Sri Lanka’s. And to this end we began forsaking our democratic rights.

In the camps the refugees were made to answer to numbers given to them as their new identity. Denied their names they were not even allowed their stories. Every attempt that could be made was made by the Australian government, from the petty to the disturbing, to deny journalists access to the Pacific lager. When it came to imprisoned refugees free speech became a crime: for some years any doctor, nurse or social worker in the camps who publicly reported on the many instances, now well-documented, of rape, murder, suicide and sexual abuse of refugees was liable to two years’ imprisonment.

And why?

Because evil was being done to the innocent, and to that truth there is finally no justification that even the most powerful could make. And so it mattered that Australians not know of the mounting crimes for which all Australians will be finally accountable.

All this too was done in our name by our governments, of both left and right. And, more or less, if we didn’t tacitly agree, few of us disagreed enough. And perhaps we didn’t really want to know.

Once we Australians had led the world in democratic reform. Once it seemed possible that we might overcome the violence of our wars of invasion and reconcile with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Once it seemed that we might make of ourselves a beacon for freedom and tolerance, a country of many peoples that welcomed the newly dispossessed as we had in turn once been welcomed. We were a nation born out of the evils of invasion and convictism. It was not that we saw ourselves as infinitely perfectible. It was rather that we were aware of what the alternatives were.

Now we are seen globally as the inventors of a particularly vile form of 21st century repression, in which the innocent are subjected to suffering in a prison where the crime is never named, no sentence is ever passed, and punishment is assured. For this achievement Australia now enjoys the praise of European neo-fascists and American white supremacists.

Some praise. Some achievement.

It is hard to say what is most horrifying in this long saga but the intent of the Australian government to now abandon the refugees it kidnapped, scattering them across an impoverished and corrupt country with a notorious reputation for violence, is an affront to any notions of humanity or decency.

When, out of fear for what might befall them should they leave, some hundreds of refugees refused to move from the Manus compound, there began a protest in which the refugees used the only thing left to them: their bodies.

Over the years we had taken away their rights, their future, even their hope. Three weeks ago we cut off their water, food and medical supplies. Risking starvation, dysentery, cholera and violence, some hundreds of refugees asserted with their flesh the one thing which Australia could not steal: their human dignity.

On Wednesday the UNHCR described what was now unfolding on Manus as a humanitarian crisis that was entirely preventable and a “damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations”.

On Thursday 12 Australians of the Year signed an open letter calling on the government to restore water, food supplies, electricity and medical services to the refugees, warning it was a “human disaster that was unfolding” and that “it was inevitable that people will become sick and die”.

Instead of this moderate course of action, on the same day police in Papua New Guinea began clearing the Manus compound. According to witnesses, refugees were beaten with sticks to forcibly relocate the remaining hundreds of protesting men. This violence against the most powerless and weak was supported and promoted by the Australian government, as it has previously supported and sanctioned the poisoning of the refugees’ water collected in from sumps and rainwater, the destruction of the few pieces of property they possess, and the destruction of their scant remaining food and medicine supplies.

And then there came the news the Iranian journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani had been taken away by PNG’s much-feared mobile squad, a notorious paramilitary police unit which, according to a report in the Age in 2013, is “allegedly responsible for rapes, murders and other serious human rights abuses” and funded by Australia’s immigration department “to secure the Manus Island detention centre”.

Behrouz Boochani was targeted for one reason and one reason only: he has been the voice of truth speaking from the appalling reality of the Pacific lagers.

It is difficult to believe that all this is not being masterminded – if the word is not too grand for such thuggery – at the highest levels of the Australian government.

Released some hours later, Boochani tweeted that he had been left handcuffed for two hours while he was “pushed several times”, had his belongings destroyed by the police, and was yelled at by the police commander that he “was reporting against us”. Boochani knows now, more than ever, that he is a marked man.

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And in these circumstances he has, in characteristic fashion, continued to report.

His courage over the four years of his internment in the face of the horror of Manus – a hell of repression, cruelty, and violence – has been of the highest order. Behrouz Boochani kept on smuggling out his messages of despair in the hope we would listen.

It’s time we did.

All states commit criminal and sometimes wicked acts. The necessary mark of a democracy is the freedom to tell the truth about these crimes so that they can be ended and the guilty punished.

To be a writer is not to simply believe in freedom but to practise it every day with your words. Each word allows us to find ourselves in others, and in others to know we are not alone.

In the vacuum of reportage that the Australian government created one man kept getting the truth out. Behrouz Boochani’s words found me as they found so many others.

Now I hope mine find him.

We choose whether we live or whether we wait for death. Through his words Behrouz chose to live. His words showed that while our government had jailed his body, his soul remained that of a free man.

I am not sure if I would have had his courage were I to find myself in his situation. Perhaps that is why I admire it deeply.

Behrouz Boochani reminded Australia of what it had become. We should thank him and honour him for his warnings of what was happening to our country. Instead we enabled his imprisonment, and who can say what this marked man’s fate may yet be?

His detainment yesterday highlights the moral bankruptcy of the Pacific solution, its essentially criminal nature, and the growing dangers it presents to our democracy.

The shame of this time will outlive us all. Our children and grandchildren will have to remake the broken trusts, the sacred freedoms, the necessary liberties, that we traded away in our ignorance and our gullible fear. They must rekindle as necessary national virtues kindness and compassion to the weakest.

But we must begin the work now, with urgency, with determination, of rebuilding our nation’s honour, and our collective dignity. Because if we don’t, if we think it doesn’t affect us, the alternative is that what is happening on Manus will begin to happen here.

At the time of writing, Manus remains in crisis, with 300 refugees still in the compound. Who knows what fresh onslaught of violence is awaiting them? While outside wait the paramilitary thugs, inside the refugees search in the darkness for drinkable water, they scrounge for what little food was not destroyed, these 300 men who now face the determination of our government that they vanish from the face of the earth, and with them their terrible story that shames us all.

But that story demands investigation, not obliteration.

There must be a royal commission into the Pacific camps, the grotesque amounts of money wasted on them, the lies, the deceit and undemocratic practices used to ensure their ongoing existence, to determine the extent of Australian involvement in the PNG police’s latest acts, and to ascertain and if necessary prosecute those responsible for the many well-documented cases of the abuses of human rights on both Manus and Nauru.

If we can muster no feeling for the starving, sick and thirsty refugees waiting in the ruins of their prison for the next attack, spare a thought for what our future might look like if Peter Dutton begins persecuting journalists here with his newly acquired secret police powers. We should not forget the plans in 2015 for Dutton’s newly militarised Border Force officials to patrol Melbourne streets checking people’s papers, abandoned only in the face of overwhelming public anger.

Behrouz Boochani may be the first journalist to be detained for revealing the evil of our Pacific gulags. But how can we be confident he will be the last, and who knows what new government folly will need a repressive cloak of secrecy to safeguard its many failings?

In Boochani’s writings is a spirit Australia has lost: brave, honest, generous and free. Once he wanted to come here. Now we need him and all that he stands for more than ever.

And if, in these next few days any harm should come to Behrouz Boochani, for whose safety many now fear, the responsibility for that crime will not fall to PNG government or its police. It will be Peter Dutton’s.

[Reprinted with permission from The Guardian]

[Image: Reuters]

David Bentley Hart on the death penalty

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David Bentley Hart has written an excellent little piece (a review of Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment) on why those who argue that there could be any theological justification for the death penalty ‘have essentially excused themselves from civilized Christian discourse’.

[Image: Stefano di Giovanni, ‘Burning of a Heretic’, 1430–32]

Reformation and Secularity

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Recently, I was invited to give a paper to the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. The event was billed as ‘Luther, Protestantism and Society’, and was a low-key way to mark Reformation Day. There was, however, no beer to be found, and so the event was always going to struggle to be true to character.

There were, however, four speakers. Monica Melanchthon (Pilgrim College) spoke on ‘Luther, Bible, and Gender’, focusing especially on Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 38. Gordon Preece (Director of RASP) spoke on ‘Luther, Vocation, and Precarious Work’, and Andreas Loewe (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) spoke about ‘Luther, Music, and Bach’.

I offered some reflections also, abbreviating parts of a larger project that I’ve been working on. A published version of the paper will appear soon, but here’s a little section:

 

For most of its life, Western forms of Christianity have not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor have they placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘… crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Instead, they have been made inebriate by drinking from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and the United States.

Signs that the keg may be running a little low occasions another opportunity for Protestant communions to dissent from all ‘stupid allegiance to political authority as if that were service to the church and, a fortiori, to God’ (William Stringfellow), and to embrace instead what Davis McCaughey called a ‘transitory character’. Without minimizing Christendom’s remarkable achievements, it seems judicious, imperative, and overdue for those traditions forged under its assumptions, atmosphere, and protection to undergo appraisal. This, as John de Gruchy rightly reminds us, does not mean ‘adopting a politically neutral stance or eschewing the responsible use of power’. Indeed, a project like the Reformed’s is, after all, essentially public and acutely concerned for the public commons. ‘The question is not’, therefore, ‘whether the church is going to use political influence, but how, on behalf of whom, and from what perspective it is going to do so. Is [such influence] going to be used “to preserve the social prestige which comes from its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from the prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed”?’

For those who hanker after a secure life, a kind of invulnerable area in the world, the Word of God holds out no promise, no escape, no counterfeit security, no withdrawal from the actualities, ambiguities, uncertainties, and instabilities of human life. The idolatry of certainty – whether cultural, political, or intellectual – signals ‘a withdrawal from accepting the peril and the promise of the Incarnation’; namely, the call to live ‘an exposed life’ before God, one ‘stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows’ (Donald MacKinnon). This is the church’s atypical and baffling existence. It also goes by another word – ‘discipleship’. It was this direction towards which a young Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was looking when in London in the early 1930s he preached that:

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak … Christendom has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should … take a stronger much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.

During his first American tour, Bonhoeffer spoke also of a church ‘beyond religion’. While his now-famous wrestlings with the question of a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of ‘interpreting biblical concepts nonreligiously’ seem to have had their main geneses in Karl Barth’s theological critique of religion, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was pressing beyond Barth towards something more as-yet unknown. Neither an ‘extra’ to the normalities of human existence nor a ‘stopgap’ for when we have reached ‘the limits of our possibilities’, Bonhoeffer’s God is fully present in all of life’s ‘polyphonic’ dimensions. ‘We cannot, like the Roman Catholics’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘simply identify ourselves with the church’. For ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life’, the content of which is a participation in God’s powerlessness in and suffering ‘at the hands of a godless world’.

Bonhoeffer’s is a call to reject the claim that ecclesiocentricity and its institutional permanence are necessary in order to make the world coherent. He rejects, in other words, the myth that the church is the telos of world history wherein ‘the whole space at one’s disposal is filled with ecclesiology’, and where ‘the world has disappeared from the horizon’ (J. C. Hoekendijk). He rejects, therefore, a church turned in upon itself (ecclesia in se incurvata) and so the reduction of mission to proselytism into particular cultural forms.

Here we come to modern Protestantism’s failure to know why it exists anymore. As a commentator noted in The Washington Post just last week, ‘Protestantism has become an end in itself … The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share’. Bonhoeffer did not make this misjudgement. Firstly, because he had no problem with saying the third article of any ecumenical creed. He refused, in other words, to not hope for and work towards the genuine and international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And secondly, because in his terms: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others … The church’, he wrote, ‘must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving’. This refrain found echo in the World Council of Churches’ report, published in 1967 as The Church for Others and the Church for the World. The report grappled with the perception of a growing secularization in the West, pleading that the Church not discern in its ‘change of social function’ a ‘loss or emigration from society’ lest it understand mission to be ‘a counter-attack to restore’ Christendom. It argued also that we might be wisest to consider the possibility that secularisation might in fact be ‘a fruit of the gospel’, and a much-welcomed invitation to seek traces of Christ’s transforming work ‘outside the walls of the Church’ and among those ‘who may have little or no connexion with the churches as they are today’.

Brad Gregory’s long threnody for medieval Christianity masks an unwillingness to consider that, however unintended they may have been, the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ congeniality with what we today might call ‘secularity’ was a deliberate theological move. It was a move birthed of the instinct that the hegemony of the ecclesia meets its counter story in the truly catholic authority of the free and freeing Word who ‘came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1.13).

 

Karl Barth: Gottes fröhlicher Partisan

Divine bias

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‘Our world still needs to learn that the reason every person and every kind of person must be seen with equal respect is not that their culture is equally healthy, or that they have earned equal treatment, but that equal dignity is ascribed by virtue of a divine bias in favor of the Other’.

– The not-exactly-kosher-these-days John Howard Yoder, ‘Firstfruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People’, in For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 30.

Lazarus

After the wake and speeches, when the guests in black
Had with the charm of ordinariness
Dispelled the gross terror of a fellow dead
(Eyelid grown waxen, the body like a sack
Bundled into the tomb) and the women with their mindless
Ritual of grief had murmured abroad all that could be said –

Then, as the world resumed its customary
Mask of civil day, he came, too late to mend
The broken vase (a cracked one could have been mended)
God’s image blackened by causality.
And the woman said, “Since he was called your friend,
Why did you not come then? Now it is ended.”

And when, the army blanket of grey earth
Put off, Lazarus from the cave mouth stumbled
(Hand, foot and mouth yet bound in mummy cloth)
To the sun’s arrow, furnace of rebirth –
What could they do but weep? infirm and humbled
By Love not their love, more to be feared than wrath.

– James K. Baxter, who died on this day, 45 years ago.

You can read more about Baxter here, and more of his poetry here.

Why teach and study (and fund) the humanities?

Alexis de Tocqueville; portrait by Théodore Chassériau, 1850Amen! The NYRB has just published a(nother) brilliant piece by Marilynne Robinson. The entire essay is well worth reading, and re-reading. And here’s a snippet:

Why teach the humanities? Why study them? American universities are literally shaped around them and have been since their founding, yet the question is put in the bluntest form—what are they good for? If, for purposes of discussion, we date the beginning of the humanist movement to 1500, then, historically speaking, the West has flourished materially as well as culturally in the period of their influence. You may have noticed that the United States is always in an existential struggle with an imagined competitor. It may have been the cold war that instilled this habit in us. It may have been nineteenth-century nationalism, when America was coming of age and competition among the great powers of Europe drove world events. Whatever etiology is proposed for it, whatever excuse is made for it, however rhetorically useful it may be in certain contexts, the habit is deeply harmful, as it has been in Europe as well, when the competition involved the claiming and defending of colonies, as well as militarization that led to appalling wars.

The consequences of these things abide. We see and feel them every day. The standards that might seem to make societies commensurable are essentially meaningless, except when they are ominous. Insofar as we treat them as real, they mean that other considerations are put out of account. Who died in all those wars? The numbers lost assure us that there were artists and poets and mathematicians among them, and statesmen, though at best their circumstances may never have allowed them or us to realize their gifts.

What was lost to those colonizations? The many regions that bore the brunt of them struggle to discover a social order they can accept as legitimate and authoritative, with major consequences for the old colonizers and the whole world. Who loses in these economic competitions? Those who win, first of all, because the foot soldiers of those economies work too much for meagre, even uncertain pay and are exposed to every insult this cheapening of fundamental value visits on the earth and the air. How many artists and scientists ought there to be among those vast legions? And among their threatened children? There is a genius for impoverishment always at work in the world. And it has its way, as if its proceedings were not only necessary, but even sensible. Its rationale, its battle cry, is Competition.

A great irony is at work in our historical moment. We are being encouraged to abandon our most distinctive heritage—in the name of self-preservation. The logic seems to go like this: To be as strong as we need to be we must have a highly efficient economy. Society must be disciplined, stripped down, to achieve this efficiency and to make us all better foot soldiers. The alternative is decadence, the eclipse of our civilization by one with more fire in its belly. We are to be prepared to think very badly of our antagonist, whichever one seems to loom at a given moment. It is a convention of modern literature, and of the going-on of talking heads and public intellectuals, to project what are said to be emerging trends into a future in which cultural, intellectual, moral, and economic decline will have hit bottom, more or less.

Somehow this kind of talk always seems brave and deep. The specifics concerning this abysmal future are vague—Britain will cease to be Britain, America will cease to be America, France will cease to be France, and so on, depending on which country happens to be the focus of Spenglerian gloom. The oldest literature of radical pessimism can be read as prophecy. Of course these three societies have changed profoundly in the last hundred years, the last fifty years, and few with any knowledge of history would admit to regretting the change. What is being invoked is the notion of a precious and unnamable essence, second nature to some, in the marrow of their bones, in effect. By this view others, whether they will or no, cannot understand or value it, and therefore they are a threat.

The definitions of “some” and “others” are unclear and shifting. In America, since we are an immigrant country, our “nativists” may be first- or second-generation Americans whose parents or grandparents were themselves considered suspect on these same grounds. It is almost as interesting as it is disheartening to learn that nativist rhetoric can have impact in a country where precious few can claim to be native in any ordinary sense. Our great experiment has yielded some valuable results—here a striking demonstration of the emptiness of such rhetoric, which is nevertheless loudly persistent in certain quarters in America, and which obviously continues to be influential in Britain and Europe.

Nativism is always aligned with an impulse or strategy to shape the culture with which it claims to have this privileged intimacy. It is urgently intent on identifying enemies and confronting them, and it is hostile to the point of loathing toward aspects of the society that are taken to show their influence. In other words, these lovers of country, these patriots, are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love, and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate. Neither do they feel any need to answer the objections of those who see their shaping and their disciplining as mutilation.

What is at stake now, in this rather inchoate cluster of anxieties that animates so many of us, is the body of learning and thought we call the humanities. Their transformative emergence has historically specifiable origins in the English and European Renaissance, greatly expedited by the emergence of the printing press. At the time and for centuries afterward it amounted to very much more than the spread of knowledge, because it was understood as a powerful testimony to human capacities, human grandeur, the divine in the human. And it had the effect of awakening human capacities that would not otherwise have been imagined ….

In the history of the West, for all its achievements, there is also a persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind. It can make us very poor servants of purposes that are not our own. A Benthamite panopticon would have radically reduced the varieties of experience that help to individuate us, in theory producing happiness in factory workers by preventing their having even a glimpse of the fact that there could be more to life. Censorship, lists of prohibited books, restrictions on travel, and limits on rights of assembly all accomplish by more practicable means some part of the same exclusions, precluding the stimulus of new thought, new things to wonder about. The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.

(Little wonder that Ben is so excited about his new job!)

Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

A little something for the Catholic cats and pigeons to have fun with:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

– Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

Peter Brown on Sarah Ruden’s translation of St Augustine’s Confessions

confessions-88.jpgWhile some reviewers have found Sarah Ruden’s recent translation of St Augustine’s Confessions unnecessary, ‘jarring’, and marked by too many ‘aesthetic costs’, many, it seems, have welcomed it, and that not least because of the ‘vivid, personal prose’ that characterises its pages. Among the latter we might now add the brilliant Augustine scholar Peter Brown who, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, notes that one of the things that he most appreciates about Ruden’s work is its presentation of God’s lively personhood, a liveliness that makes Augustine more alive also. Here’s a taster:

So what is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment – standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his prayers, we are expected to find ourselves pulled into them, as we listen to a flow of words spoken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side – to a being, to all appearances, vertiginously separate from ourselves.

The measure of the success of [Sarah] Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God” – suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall.

How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus – a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw – life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage ….

To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life. In relation to God, Augustine experiences all the ups and downs of a household slave in relation to his master. He jumps to the whip. He tries out the life of a runaway. He attempts to argue back. Altogether, “Augustine’s humorously self-deprecating, submissive, but boldly hopeful portrait of himself in relation to God echoes the rogue slaves of the Roman stage” [Ruden]. (Indeed, the thought of the bishop of Hippo as having once been the slippery slave of God – like Zero Mostel as the plump and bouncy Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – somehow lightens the impression of a seemingly inextricable roller coaster of sin and punishment that we usually derive from reading the first part of the Confessions.)

For God can change His mood. Like any other free person, He can show a different side. The Confessions is about the marvelous emergence of new sides of God as Augustine himself changes in his relation to God, over the years, from slave to repentant son to lover. Ruden may have to defend her re-translation of the name of God from “Lord” to “Master.” But her approach is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a determination to present Augustine’s relations with his God as endowed with the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She takes no shortcuts. Small departures from conventional translations show her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very different from that of the slave owner) in God’s relation to Augustine and in Augustine’s to God.

To take small examples: Ruden does not have Augustine “embrace” Jesus as if He were a proposition. He takes Him in his arms. When Augustine looks back at his first mystical awakening, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this – the less dramatic but more human turn of phrase – is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the humble, human roots of Augustine’s imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of the Being before Whom we find him transfixed in prayer: “Silent, long-suffering and with so much mercy in your heart.”

So far, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Ruden’s translation, and it will sit happily alongside my copy of Chadwick’s translation of the same. The latter remains my go-to translation, but Ruden certainly helps me to notice things that I have otherwise missed while reading Chadwick and others. I can also imagine setting some of its chapters as readings for my students, precisely because of the reasons Brown names. For both of these reasons, I am grateful for Ruden’s work.

And how perfect is that cover!

What to do with your Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey form: a 5-step guide

Step 1. Draw a pretty picture of yourself on the form. Claim it as ‘yours’.

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Step 2. Add some style.

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Step 3. Create a little jigsaw. Be sure to ‘lose’ a couple of pieces too. That way, your form can serve as a kind of parody of the process itself.

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Step 4. Help the little bastard find its way to the recycle bin. The ‘lost’ pieces should be placed in the regular rubbish.

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Step 5. Brew yourself a nice cup of tea.

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Note: In my view, the postal survey is an insane and destructive process that undermines the integrity and responsibility of the federal parliament, and in so doing weakens a key mechanism whereby human rights are legislated and implemented. While I certainly welcome a change in law (something I’ve written about here) the ends do not, in my view, justify the means. On this, I agree with Michael Kirby v.1. That said, I am open to the possibility that time will prove me wrong about that. In the short term, at least, the process will, one hopes, assist No voters to accept the outcome less painfully than they might have otherwise.

Theological ‘bush camps’

20170701.jpgThere is a wonderful little documentary here on the Hermannsburg Mission and the work of the theological ‘bush camps’ organised by the Finke River Mission as part their commitment to the continuing education of pastors.

Philosophising: 13 questions with Michael Leunig

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1. What is the biggest threat to our minds?
Our minds.

2. What is freedom?
Non-compliance and creativity.

3. What illusion do you suffer from?
Other peoples’ illusions.

4. Where are humans heading?
To hell, as always – but you have to go through hell and survive it in order to get to heaven. So in the unlikely event that you do get to heaven, you’ll be in a pretty bad shape and then things are not so heavenly after all.

5. The most important part of your education?
My failure.narcissist

6. Which “thinker” has had the greatest influence on your life?
For all I know it may have been the butcher who employed me to clean up his shop every Saturday morning when I was a kid. He was a thinker in the ordinary sense – as most people are. The heart thinks too. The early primal unconscious or semi-conscious influences may have been as important to my developments as the writings of Lao Tzu or D. W. Winnicott.

7. What do you doubt most?
Humanity.

8. Your favourite word?
Hello.

9. If you could change one thing about the world, what would that be?
Myself – obviously.

10. The question you’d most like to ask others?
I wouldn’t like to ask anyone a question unless they inspired a particular curiosity.

11. What is a good death?
I’m not sure what the choices are but I’d like to doze off smiling after lunch  in a quiet, sunny paddock near the forest, listening to the birds and not wake up; a death where the coroner’s report says ’cause of death: unknown’.

12. What do people accuse you of?
I have been accused of many things and they all amount to a nicely balanced and hugely varied array of offences, shortcomings and failures. Pretty much the full spectrum. I regard many of these accusations as compliments or testimony to my more interesting nature.

13. What is the meaning of life?
For humans as for all the plants and creatures: know yourself, grow yourself, feel yourself, heal yourself, grow yourself, be yourself, express yourself.

[Source]

On Tolkien’s vision of sorrowful joy

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Ralph Wood has written another excellent piece on J. R. R. Tolkien’s assessment of history, evil, being a company, eucatastrophe, impatience, joy, Beowulf, mercy, patience, pity, providence, sympathy, and ‘sorrowful joy’. Here’s a taster:

For Tolkien, the chief question – and thus the real quest – concerns the proper means for “redeeming the time.” The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle-earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. Both ancient and modern magic provide what Tolkien called immediacy: “speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.”

The magic of haste is the method chosen by those who are in a hurry, who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to achieve such instant results by coercing the wills of others, giving them brute strength to accomplish allegedly grand ends by cursory means.

The noble who refuse such haste prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who quite literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring – not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Gandalf’s native pity, when combined with the omnipotent strength of the Ring, would transform him into an all-forgiving, justice-denying magus, not a figure befitting the origins of his wizard-name in the Anglo-Saxon word wys (“wise”).

You can read the full essay here.

[Image: ‘Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Source.]

Calling Bullshit

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Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West, from the University of Washington, have developed a course called ‘Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age’.

The lectures and readings might be crap, but they are at least easily accessible online, and the little assignment looks fun. But what I think I most like about the look of the course is the format, and the refreshing use of Benny Bloom’s silly taxonomy:

Learning Objectives

Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.

That said, would it not be considerably more interesting – and manifestly more important – to take (and to teach) a course on the possibility, nature, and habits of ‘truth’ and its relationship to the cardinal virtues, rather than one on ‘bullshit’?

Pontius Pilate, in his greatest moment, probably thought so too: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; It’s a pity he ‘would not stay for an answer’ and so risk having his ‘mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth’ (Francis Bacon).

[Image: Chen Wenling, ‘What You See Might Not Be Real’, Beijing Art Gallery, 2009. Photo credit: Ng Han Guan/AP]

On euthanasia for Alzheimer’s patients

‘If only euthanasia advocates could be sued for false advocacy. For years, they have soothingly assured wary societies that only those with the capacity to choose to be killed would have access to facilitated death. That promise was always highly questionable. “Choice” has never been the point of euthanasia—otherwise euthanasia should be available to anyone, sick or well, who wants to die. Rather, the goal is to normalize killing as an acceptable remedy to suffering, even—as we are seeing with the Alzheimer’s policy—when the patient is incapable of making a rational decision’.

– Wesley J. Smith, ‘Euthanasia for Alzheimer’s patients?’