The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, August 23, 2008

John 6: The Walk on Water and the Arrogance in Prayer

As the Daily Office for this week takes us through part of the 6th chapter of the Fourth Gospel, the passage that leaped out at me was John's depiction of the walk on water:
When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.

And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea,
And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.
And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.
So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid.
But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid.
Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.
Jn. 6: 16-21.

William Temple, in his Readings, has a great comment on this account:
St. John tells the familiar story in such a way as to minimise, if not eliminate, the miraculous element in the sign, and to let the significance stand out. For his version does not necessarily imply a miracle at all; the phrase for "on the sea" is also used for "on the sea shore (xx, 1). So his narrative can be read as meaning that the Lord was on shore to welcome the disciples as, after much toil, they approached it. . . .But for St. John the meaning is to be found in the peace of attainment which immediately supervenes when, tossed with trouble, we willingly receive Jesus to be our companion. Christ is the Guide of Life, whom we may follow in the strength that he supplies into the way of peace.
Readings at 77.

Just prior, and after the feeding of the multitude, the crowd is bestirring itself to make Jesus king, leading him to depart. Temple's insight on this impulse is also worth quoting:
Here we see natural religion--the religion to which we are impelled by our natural impulses, and which tries to make use of God for our own purposes. That popular sin ultimately found its focus and final expression in Judas who will very soon now stand as a "cell" of disloyalty within the Twelve. (70, 71). But the same sin was in Simon Peter, who could not endure that the Lord should suffer (St. Mark, vii, 32, 33). How close together in common sinfulness are the disciple whose faith is the foundation of the Church and the disciple whose treachery has made his name the worst insult that one man can fling at another!...Of course, the selfishness of this arrogance masks itself as a generous desire to give honour to our leader. But we make ourselves the judges of what is to His honour. If we are not careful, much of our prayer is like that. We batter at the doors of heaven, demanding audience for our proposals, whereby God may save His world, or promote His purpose. But faith consists in leaving Him to take His own way.
Readings at 76.

Temple has a lesson for us all, not just in daily life, but in the current Anglican flap: to what extent are we, on either side of the divide, seeking to sway God to our own beliefs, or worse, assuming in our righteousness that what we believe is right must reflect God's will? Discernment requires humility, which heaven knows I find hard, and I think many on both sides of the "presenting issues" also find hard. But we need to be humble, to hear the small, still voice of God, and not merely listen to the devices and desires of our own hearts.

Update: I'm not the only one appreciating Temple's work this week, I'm glad to see; Archdeacon Peter Townley in yesterday's Times (London) has a nice profile on my old friend. He concludes it: "Although a much different world than that of 60 years ago, the weight of Temple’s greatness is still felt. Once described as 'a man so broad, to some he seem’d to be Not one, but all Mankind in Effigy', his wide informed vision checks our growing narrowness and self-obsession, his realism our Utopian perfectionism, his generosity of heart a worthy riposte to the mood of cynicism and anger epitomising the age and his statesmanship a powerful reminder of what it is to serve as the national church." It's a fitting tribute (although the last phrase raises interesting questions about the appropriateness of a national church in an era of pluralism).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shaw and the Canaanite Woman

Today's Gospel, Matthew's recounting of the encounter between Jesus and the
Canaanite woman, is a hard one; what are to make of Jesus' initial indifference to the woman, an indifference tinged, it would seem, with contempt.

Agnostic and socialist Bernard Shaw, in his Preface to Androcles and the Lion (1912; p. xl-xli in the 1914 Brentano's edition), gives us an insight worthy of considering:
Matthew, like most biographers, strives to identify the opinions and prejudices of his hero with his own. Although he describes
Jesus as tolerant even to carelessness, he draws the line at the Gentile, and represents Jesus as a bigoted Jew who regards his mission as addressed exclusively to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." When a woman of Canaan begged Jesus to cure her daughter, he first refused to speak to her, and then told her brutally that "It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs." But when the woman said, "Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table," she melted the Jew out of him and made Christ a Christian. To the woman whom he had just called a dog he said, "O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt." This is somehow one of the most touching stories in the gospel; perhaps because the woman rebukes the prophet by a touch of his own finest quality. It is certainly out of character; but as the sins of good men are always out of character, it is not safe to reject the story as invented in the interest of Matthew's determination that Jesus shall have nothing to do with the Gentiles. At all events, there the story is; and it is by no means the only
instance in which Matthew reports Jesus, in spite of the charm of his preaching, as extremely uncivil in private intercourse.
OK, leave aside Shaw's description of Jesus' attitude to the woman as "sin"; remember, he's an agnostic who famously said he can admire Jesus only because he doesn't believe in him. And Shaw's reference to "melting the Jew out of him" means, in the context of the lengthy Preface, that the woman overcame his tribalistic background, not an endorsement by Shaw of antisemitism,I believe.

The real point, I think, is how the woman defeats Jesus in argument--the only person I can think of in all the Gospels to do so. And how does she do so? In Shaw's superb phrase, "by a touch of his own finest quality." In other words, she gets it, and proves she gets it. She's not looking for Jesus as a magician, but for the healing that comes only from God.

You can view it as street theater, if you like. Jesus is not trying to found a cult of personality, based on magic. He wants us to internalize his message. The Canaanite woman's story must be viewed, I believe, in context. Where, throughout the Gospels, the disciples fail, time and time again to do so, the outsider, the Canaanite woman showed that she succeeded--well enough to rebut the Teacher when he, for whatever reason (fatigue? Bad day? To test her, as His answer to her perhaps suggests?), took the exclusive viewpoint antithetical to his own teachings.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Death in the Desert

According to Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), "the most penetrating interpretation of St. John that exists in the English language" is Robert Browning's "A Death in the Desert." (Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel (1945) at xvii). Two thoughts from Browning for today.

First, as W.R. Inge notes (Christiam Mysticism Lect. VIII), Browning more than most understands the mystical path to God flourishes in loving engagement with others in the world. In "A Death," St. John, briefly revived on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples, muses:
If I live yet, it is for good, more love
"Through me to men: be nought but ashes here
"That keep awhile my semblance, who was John,—
"Still, when they scatter, there is left on earth
"No one alive who knew (consider this!)
"—Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands
"That which was from the first, the Word of Life.
"How will it be when none more saith 'I saw'?

"Such ever was love's way: to rise, it stoops.
"Since I, whom Christ's mouth taught, was bidden teach,
"I went, for many years, about the world,
"Saying 'It was so; so I heard and saw,'
"Speaking as the case asked: and men believed.
Afterward came the message to myself
"In Patmos isle; I was not bidden teach,
"But simply listen, take a book and write,
"Nor set down other than the given word,
"With nothing left to my arbitrament
"To choose or change: I wrote, and men believed.
"Then, for my time grew brief, no message more,
"No call to write again, I found a way,
"And, reasoning from my knowledge, merely taught
"Men should, for love's sake, in love's strength believe;
"Or I would pen a letter to a friend
"And urge the same as friend, nor less nor more:
"Friends said I reasoned rightly, and believed.
Note that Browning has St. John delineate revelation, experience and reason, as the three vehicles of his teaching--is it fanciful to view these as Scripture, tradition and reason? Or shall we stress the mystical element in St. John--visions--earlier in the poem, St. John describes his vision of the transfigured Christ in Rev. 1:14, direct experience of God, through Christ, and reason working to discern meaning from both?

Even pain, and age and imminent death do not shake St. John's faith in Browning's imagining, Browning returns to his core theme:
Can they share
"—They, who have flesh, a veil of youth and strength
"About each spirit, that needs must bide its time,
"Living and learning still as years assist
"Which wear the thickness thin, and let man see—
"With me who hardly am withheld at all,
"But shudderingly, scarce a shred between,
"Lie bare to the universal prick of light?
"Is it for nothing we grow old and weak,
"We whom God loves? When pain ends, gain ends too.
And, as I saw the sin and death, even so
"See I the need yet transiency of both,
"The good and glory consummated thence?
"I saw the power; I see the Love, once weak,
"Resume the Power: and in this word 'I see,'
"Lo, there is recognized the Spirit of both
Second, Browning uses the notion of the Divine Spark within the soul--most famous in Eckhart, but tracing back to Plotinus--to convey the profundity of God's creation, our being made in His image, limited by our human nature, but fortified by it too, bringing us again to the centrality of love:>
For life, with all it yields of joy and woe
"And hope and fear,—believe the aged friend,—
Is just our chance o' the prize of learning love,
"How love might be, hath been indeed, and is;
"And that we hold thenceforth to the uttermost
"Such prize despite the envy of the world,
And, having gained truth, keep truth: that is all.
"But see the double way wherein we are led,
"How the soul learns diversely from the flesh!
"With flesh, that hath so little time to stay,
"And yields mere basement for the soul's emprise,
"Expect prompt teaching. Helpful was the light,
"And warmth was cherishing and food was choice
"To every man's flesh, thousand years ago,
"As now to yours and mine; the body sprang
"At once to the height, and stayed: but the soul,—no!
"Since sages who, this noontide, meditate
"In Rome or Athens, may descry some point
"Of the eternal power, hid yestereve;
"And, as thereby the power's whole mass extends,
"So much extends the æther floating o'er,
"The love that tops the might, the Christ in God.
As we read St. John in the Daily Office these next weeks, I'll be referring back from time to time both to Browning's portrait and to Abp. Temple's "Readings." Come along on the theological prowl!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Reflections" in a Jaundiced Eye

The release of the Lambeth Indaba Reflections strikes me as a good point at which to move on from my self-imposed refusal to opine on the goings on at Lambeth. After reviewing the "Reflections," I find that I have a few thoughts.

First, I think that both "sides" of the dispute have a right to feel as if they have been baulked by the Archbishop of Canterbury. We "reappraisers" (funny, I'm starting to find these terms helpful) have been again asked--or is mandated a better reading?--to sacrifice our GLBT brothers and sisters--who were, themselves, not heard, only talked about. "Reasserters" were asked to sacrifice closure--a clear determination as to TEC's status as amember of the Communion, a juridicial determination as to whether we were "apostates." Neither is offered a clear road forward. For reappraisers, if we do not honor the moratoria, we will be subject to the criticism that we have not let our yes be yes, and our no be no--that is, we will have seemed to accept the moratoria at Lambeth, but flouted them back at home. Such a course of conduct is, to my mind, lacking in honor, even where well intended. If we intend to reject the request for a moratorium, we should say so explicitly and frankly.

And yet--just as I was recurring to my prior theme that the Archbishop's seeming desire for a Covenant to recast the Communion as one Church, with greater central governance--a popeless curia, almost--may have led him to force a compromise to achieve that result, I ran across a surprisingly irenic post by Peter Ould:
there is huge frustration amongst revisionists that many parts of the conservative elements of the church simply haven’t bothered to engage with listening, even five years after the ACC in Nottingham and ten years after Lambeth 1998. When they hear statements such as "We do not have homosexuality in our country", what they hear is a refusal to even engage with the issue at hand. It is blatantly clear to all those with just a smidgeon of anthropological and sociological understanding that homosexualities exist in every single part of the world. The refusal to admit as much is not to take a clear moral stand on the issue, but rather is a pastoral failure of the highest order, because it is evidence of an unwillingness to engage with people where they are at.


Listening though is more about just hearing stories. It is also to do with, once having listened, building and affirming relationships. What is so often disappointing in the past few years is the failure of those who have had the opportunity to influence, who have had the public ear, to use that privilege to affirm the humanity and dignity of those they disagree with theologically. We all know the websites that refer to "polysexual sodomites", but it is not just the cruder forms of language in this discourse that are a sign of no real intent to listen and build relationships. . . . Do we need to concentrate on the way that some in our western society want a "plasticisation" of sexuality and cross-generational affection, when the leadership of Integrity and the like are joined with us in condemning paedophilic and ebophilic relationships of any form, consensual or otherwise?

Unless we as the conservative church are willing to admit that we have sometimes (often?) failed in the call of the Lambeth ‘98 resolution to listen to the experience of gay and lesbian people (and post-gay and post-lesbian, for the conservative church is still shockingly ignorant in how to deal pastorally in this area) then we have no right to ask those whom we disagree with to take such resolutions seriously themselves. What we need at this point then is a serious, critical self-examination. Can we truly say that in all cases we are the ones sinned against? Can we really stand clean in front of the Lord and argue that we have not ourselves sinned in this conflict?


And let us be clear on one thing. Confession in Scripture is never on the basis of "I will confess if my enemy will". You simply won’t find such a concept. Jesus calls us very clearly to first examine our own eye before commenting on the speck in our friend’s. The plank doesn’t come out at the same time as the speck - it is only in realising that we have a plank and first doing something about it that we gain any ability, morally or practically, to address the specks in others.
Ould then goes on to call upon GAFCON and the Global South to adopt the moratorium on border-crossing--to take the first step toward reconciliation.

Note that Ould does not show any agreement or sympathy with "reappraising" theology; he firmly believes in the righteousness of the theological position he holds on human sexuality. But he is willing to come to the table, and reason together--and not from a position of presumed moral superiority. This is critical; a conservative faction willing to admit that all moral righteousness is not on its side, to engage the best of liberal thought, and to stay at the table--this is an adversary who seeks to open a channel for discernment, and for the Holy Spirit.

As Ould points out, an immediate moratorium by the conservatives would stand as a pledge of good faith for the liberals, and one to which we would then have to formulate a response. I confess I am deeply troubled that the sacrifice will fall on those who have been so often marginalized, subjected to bigotry, and all in the name of Christianity. And yet, if the conservatives engage both in the explicit component of Ould's Modest Proposal--unilateral declaration of a moratorium on boundary crossings-and its implied corollary, begin to participate in a genuine Listening Process, in which we truly seek the good in each other, and to discern the will of God in our present circumstances, I should think we liberals must join them at the table.

Update, 8/14/2008: I do want to make clear that, just as Ould meant for the moratoria he advocated to be limited in time, so too any waiting period to be observed in response would have to be (a) similarly limited; and (2) dependent not just on cessation of incursions, but on mutual listening and an end to demonization and bigotry against our GLBT brothers and sisters. We cannot purchase ecclesial peace by selling them out. In any event, as the comments on Ould's post, and the usual suspects' sites show, this irenic post appears to be a non-starter--even Ould seems to be back-tracking, no longer pointing to the beam in his own side's eye, but speaking of it as a "Reasserter's" last tactic to avoid schism, and thus be sure of their side's righteousness when schism eventuates. Pity. For a moment, I seemed to see some real Christian caritas there...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Lesson Unlearned

A lesson unlearned by the Bush Administration:
Most of the evidence was gossip: nearly all the confessions were made in answer to leading questions and under torture. Judges who examine in that way will infallibly find confirmation of whatever theory the prosecution was holding before the trial began.
--C.S. Lewis, on the witchcraft trials, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954) at 5.

Such age-old wisdom is not for the Bush-Cheney regime, as witness this summary of Jane Mayer's new book The Dark Side:
But it was only the pictures that made Abu Ghraib an aberration. The tactics the president denounced were precisely those he had authorized and encouraged in the growing network of secret prisons around the world. The detainees in these scattered sites — many of them innocent — have been held for months and years without charges, without lawyers, without notification to their families and often without respite from torture for weeks and months at a time. The Bush administration’s response to the Abu Ghraib scandal was not to stop the behavior, but to try to hide it more effectively.

No one knows how many people were rounded up and spirited away into these secret locations, although the number is very likely in the thousands. No one knows either how many detainees have died once in custody. Nor is there any solid information about the many detainees who have been the victims of what the United States government calls “extraordinary rendition,” the handing over of detainees to other governments, mostly in the Middle East, whose secret police have no qualms about torturing their prisoners and face no legal consequences for doing so.

We have traded honor, law, and our tradition, and received nothing--quite literally, nothing--in return. Lewis' famous character, Screwtape, would be so proud; he said that the ultimate goal of the Devil was "to get the man's soul and give him nothing in return." The Screwtape Letters (1943) at 49-50.