Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Too Old For This ...

Last week, I found something light to read during mealtimes – The Gospel according to Tolkien by Ralph C. Wood, an attempt to shed light on (Catholic) Christian themes in Tolkien’s work. It contains many glimpses of insight and interesting facts. On occasion it irritates. It is meant to be ‘not a scholarly study so much as a theological meditation’, and few meditations (my own emphatically included) entirely escape the self-indulgence of the pulpit.

For instance, the overuse of adverbs to mask tautology:

Tolkien’s providentially ordered cosmos is immensely varied and complex. Its unity is not dully monolithic but interestingly differentiated.

Dramatic eulogies to placate Heideggerians:

By giving special qualities and powers to each of these beings, Tolkien reveals the wondrous particularity and divine givenness of many things that we take for granted.

Confident references to Scripture with dubious use of the superlative and comparative:

Yet it is the voices of Job and Isaiah whose cadences and sentiments resound most clearly in Tolkien’s tragic sense of our human mortality. [two quotes]
More pertinent still for understanding Tolkien’s sense of the world’s melancholy is the book of Ecclesiastes.

Equating ancient and modern worldviews under the heading of Latinate adjectives, possibly invented for the purpose:

Our Scandinavian and Teutonic forebears were thus mortalists: they believed that Ragnarok would mean the final destruction even of heaven and hell. So are most modern men and women mortalists also – except that the ancient Ragnarok has been replaced with the contemporary dread of terrorist attacks and nuclear strikes.

Conspiratorially restricting the intended audience:

Our Scandinavian and Teutonic forebears …

The strident denunciation, on one page, of two contemporary evils in apparent contradiction with each other:

The hobbits are unabashed lovers of food, enjoying six meals a day. Not for them our late-modern and quasi-gnostic obsession with slimness. …
The hobbits’ physique reveals this same paradox that greatness may be found in smallness. Tolkien makes them diminutive creatures in order to challenge our obsession with largeness.

Clumsy rationalizing explanations of characters’ natural actions:

Most often the hobbits sing for joy rather than consolation, for in their singing they break into a transcendent realm beyond their own small world.

Trying to clarify Tolkien’s views and making him sound like a nutcase in the process:

Tolkien believed that he had not devised his magnificent mythical world so much as he had found it – indeed, that it had been revealed to him by God.

You might think that this is a very negative review. So it is, but only because I have chosen to be mean and curmudgeonly. I could just as easily pick out a number of passages that taught me something new or helped me to make new connections. But I have had two thesis advisors (one agnostic, one Catholic) of a very analytical nature; they believed that if an argument was worth making, it was worth making soberly and with the caution that the subject required. Their love for literature did not suffer because of it; but their compassion was sharp as they bent over the enigma of the fever chart.

It was one particular passage in Wood’s work, at the very beginning, that got my particular attention. He tries to defend Tolkien against the charge of being a male chauvinist, on the grounds that there are hardly any women in his work and that these are depicted in an idealized way. Wood argues:

Tolkien’s women are not plaster figures. Galadriel the elven princess proves to be terrible in her beauty – not treacly sweet and falsely pure; in fact, she is an elf whose importance will diminish once the Ruling Ring is destroyed. So is Éowyn a woman of extraordinary courage and valor, a warrior who can hardly be called a shrinking violet or simpering coquette. Though we see but little of Arwen … there is nothing saccharine about her character.

This is a weak defence, because it assumes that there is only one way to idealize women, namely by making them weak-minded and naïve. But a woman ‘terrible in her beauty’ is just as much idealized. Have you ever met someone like that walking across the street or chatting with her friends? (Well, I have, but then again, I am an incorrigible idealist.)

Although Wood’s defence is unsatisfactory, I can let Tolkien get away with idealizing women because his men are also idealized. Middle-earth is an idyll, even if it is painted in chiaroscuro. It is a place where all vices are intellectual and spiritual; where great grief exists, but no awkwardness; where indignation is expressed without a stammer and desire without a hoarse voice. A woman in that rarefied atmosphere can be terrible in her beauty; in such a world it is possible that a man and a woman meet and find themselves unable to move a muscle for a long time, moved as they are by shared astonishment. And this clarifies something about our own world.

When idealization occurs in the real world, however, I find it rather chafes my patience. Another book I am reading is Reclaiming our Priestly Character by Fr. David Toups, who has merited the title of Doctor in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.). He argues that priests will lead more stable and happy lives if they are convinced that the priesthood, once received, can never be lost. So far, so good. But a passage like this, about the road leading there, makes me uneasy:

Through a searching discernment, the candidate has sifted out the misleading tugs of self-interest and the always corrosive distortions with which the spirit of evil infects the human heart. So purified, the seminarian places before the Trinity his heart’s desire clarified in the light of the Spirit, so that God may confirm the decision at hand.

This is a beautiful and highly stylized description of a decision-making process that tells me exactly nothing about what actually happens. At moments like these I think: I’m getting too old for this …

Saturday, 23 April 2016


Quite some time ago I happened to find a Conrad novel among the discarded books. It was a work I had never heard of, Nostromo, not nearly as famous as Heart of Darkness. An intriguing story, set in the fictional, dysfunctional South American republic of Costaguana.

One of the protagonists of the story, Charles Gould, comes from a British family which has been established in Costaguana for a while. Born in Costaguana, he has received his education and married in Britain, as is the custom in his family. During this period, he receives letters from his father, who is angry and desperate at having been granted ownership of an abandoned silver mine. The government expects revenues which Gould senior cannot deliver, so they demand the money from Gould himself, in the form of fines and other juridical measures. All he is capable of doing is writing frustrated epistles to his son Charles, exhorting him never to return.

Charles meets Emilia in Italy and the two become a couple. The narrator remarks:

Charles Gould did not open his heart to her in any set speeches. He simply went on acting and thinking in her sight. This is the true method of sincerity.

Then death intrudes. Charles receives the news that his father has died, and draws the conclusion that the anxiety over the silver mine has killed him. (I am summarizing; the scene in the book, told in a long flashback, is brooding, foreboding, all silences and eruptions.) At once he comes to the conviction that his vocation consists of turning the dead, lethal silver mine into a life-giving thing – an improvement on his father’s helpless attitude.

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our action can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.

So Charles Gould returns to Costaguana with his wife Emilia. And they succeed: the San Tomé silver mine blooms beyond belief, with financial backing from the US and a British working ethos among the employees. Several times it is referred to as an imperium in imperio, a state within a state; its economic strength gives it a measure of independence from the government. The narrator remarks about the Goulds:

It was as if they had been morally bound to make good their vigorous view of life against the unnatural error of weariness and despair.

Charles Gould hopes that the mine will bring prosperity to Costaguana and thus establish the conditions necessary for law and order to arise. At one point he explains this to his wife, and ends with the remark:

‘What should be perfectly clear to us, is the fact that there is no going back. Where could we begin life afresh? We are in now for all that there is in us.’

However, because he is such a power in the land, he has to deal with all sorts of political figures. With corruption being prevalent everywhere, from the established government to the bandits roaming the wild, it is difficult to do this without being implicated in the messy affairs of Costaguana. Charles chooses to go his own way and observe a scornful silence as much as possible.

At the beginning of Chapter II.6 we see the couple again. Charles has just started voicing the threat of blowing up the entire mine, thus sending the country back into certain chaos. Doña Emilia complains that there is an sense of unreality about everything:

‘My dear Charley, it is impossible for me to close my eyes to our position, to this awful…’
She raised her eyes and looked at her husband’s face, from which all sign of sympathy or any other feeling had disappeared. ‘Why don’t you tell me something?’ she almost wailed.
‘I thought you had understood me perfectly from the first,’ Charles Gould said, slowly. ‘I thought we had said all there was to say a long time ago. There is nothing to say now. There were things to be done. We have done them, we have gone on doing them. There is no going back now. I don’t suppose that, even from the first, there was really any possible way back. And, what’s more, we can’t even afford to stand still.’

This is how corruption has done its work: eroding the passions, whittling away at the sincerity of the determination, leaving hollow the decision once taken. Charles has stopped thinking and acting in Emilia’s sight, which is the true method of sincerity. Thought is blinkered; it has become instrumental. Action has ceased to be spontaneous; it follows a predetermined pattern. The mine has succeeded – but has Charles?

Monday, 28 March 2016

Light in Darkness

For the past two-and-a-half years, I have been reading Light in Darkness by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, intermittently, picking it up and putting it down, probably forgetting ninety percent of it in the meantime. Anyhow it’s a recommended read for anyone interested in the 20th-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. I read his Verbum Caro and enjoyed it; he undoubtedly has many good insights and writes beautifully.

Pitstick, however, argues that Balthasar is inconsistent at certain points with himself and with the Catholic tradition. She does so very lucidly; few of her many words are superfluous. With analytical rigour, she indicates where she thinks Balthasar goes too far in his poetical theology. In particular, her critique concentrates itself on his theology of the Descent into Hell, and the implications it has for our understanding of God as Trinity.

Balthasar understands the Descent as the Son’s being forsaken by the Father and thus sharing the destiny of sinners, rather than the glorious proclamation of the Gospel and the liberation of the holy dead. This interpretation (which is at least questionable) seems to be rather central to his theology and introduces divergences everywhere. Pitstick is strict in her evaluation, but probably not unjust.

One of Balthasar’s contentions is that the Persons of the Trinity continue to surprise each other for eternity. Given that the divine life is active and desirable beyond all things, and that one of the most beautiful human experiences is the discovery of a new aspect in a friend’s character or history, this is prima facie plausible. Pitstick, however, offers this razor-sharp and somewhat sarcastic critique:

A real distinction between the divine Persons and the divine nature seems latent when he says they are “identical at every point ‘except where the distinct relationships [between the Persons] require otherwise.’” The distinction of Persons actually requires quite a large area in which they would not be identical, since “the divine hypostases know and interpenetrate each other to the very same degree that each of them opens up to the other in absolute freedom.” Given the unpredictability of what one will reveal to the other, and given that such surprise continues for all eternity, the realm in which the Persons do not “interpenetrate” each other must be quite large.

I look forward to reading the third and last part.

Blessed Easter!

Monday, 21 March 2016

The People of the Earth

I missed last week, and have nothing but a short post to make up for it today.

Currently I am reading Holy War in Ancient Israel by the German scholar Gerhard von Rad. It is an incredibly stimulating book that makes me want to go and write a novel. (That, or form a parish group dedicated to the planning and execution of holy war. Just kidding, of course!)

Von Rad argues that the phenomenon of holy war was at the core of ancient Israelite society, but that the original idea had faded by the time in which the Bible was written. Holy wars were not religious wars; they were defensive wars to protect the tribes of Israel. Israel was not a kingdom yet, but functioned as an alliance which only cooperated when they were called up for war by a charismatic leader. Von Rad refers to it as an ‘amphictyony’ (definition). This old militia is later increasingly supplanted by professional soldiers.

One of the key elements of holy war is the exhortation ‘Be not afraid’ – a command which will be taken up in Isaiah (who is, according to Von Rad, the prophet most inspired by holy war traditions) and in the New Testament.

There was one phrase which caught my attention in particular. Von Rad discusses how Judah’s professional soldiers have all been assimilated into the Assyrian army after the incursion of Sennacherib in 701 BC. Still, Judah is able to field a new army in a surprisingly short time. According to Erhard Junge, this can only be because the old militia is called up again under King Josiah. In fact, they were the ones who had brought him to the throne.

What could be more natural than that together with the renewal of the militia to its old military dignity the old conception of the real essence and meaning of the wars of Israel could also arise again. The agricultural circles from which the militia was recruited were, of course, still much more bound to patriarchal faith and patriarchal customs than the circles around the court, the officials, and the professional officers in the capital, who previously made all the political and military decisions.

And this ‘free rural population’ is called the ‘am hā’āretz, the ‘people of the earth’!

This reminded me immediately of a poem for which I have a particular predilection, Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (in fact the title of this blog is derived from the poem). In Book VII, after King Alfred’s army has been routed by the heathen Danes and the only survivors are the peasant slaves of Mark the Roman, Alfred rallies them again by saying:

Though dead are all the paladins
Whom glory had in ken,
Though all your thunder-sworded thanes
With proud hearts died among the Danes,
While a man remains, great war remains:
Now is a war of men.

The men that tear the furrows,
The men that fell the trees,
When all their lords be lost and dead
The bondsmen of the earth shall tread
The tyrants of the seas.

The ‘bondsmen of the earth’ – one wonders if Chesterton knew anything about ancient Israel’s wars!
It is an epic scene, but to appreciate it fully, you need to read the whole poem.
Well, what are you waiting for?

Monday, 7 March 2016

The King Rests

Last week I gave a small talk to potential confirmands (11/12-year-olds) and their parents. One of the kids read the passage where King David is anointed with oil. I told them that they could also receive this sign that has existed for at least three thousand years, and asked them if they knew what a king did. One of the kids ventured, ‘Not much.’

That happens to be a quite correct and Biblical answer. In I Samuel 8, when the people of Israel come to the prophet-judge and demand a king to rule over them, Samuel warns them that the king will take their sons and daughters into his service and will demand their finest possessions and products. The word yiqqāh ‘He will take’ is repeated at least five times in the short description of the king that the people crave. And yet the people demand a king, ‘that we also may be like all the nations’ – an obvious red flag, because Israel’s vocation is to be different from the nations.

Even King David falls. He sins by committing adultery with Bathsheba, but even more by his complicity in the death of her husband, who is one of his most loyal soldiers. The story of David and Bathsheba (and Uriah) is well-known. But its introduction is usually left out; a priest recently alerted me to it. After the author has narrated one of David’s many military exploits against the Ammonites, in defence of the honour of his servants, this is the opening paragraph of II Samuel 11:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle (hint, hint), David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

Well, perhaps a king cannot be in the forefront of the battle all the time. Leading a band of warriors is one thing, but ruling a nation demands administrative work, diplomacy, thought. Right? Yeah, right:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing …

He wasn’t keeping himself too busy!

Then comes the whole Bathsheba shebang, Nathan’s parable, the child’s death, Solomon’s birth – and then we go back to the beginning. Because while all these intensely personal matters are going on, General Joab is still at the walls of Rabbah. When the job is done and the gate is breached, he sends word to the king to preside over the concluding military ceremony.

Gather the rest of the people together and encamp against the city and take it, lest I take the city and it be called by my name.

After all, Davidopolis has a better ring to it than Joabtown.

Then David arrives at Rabbah, which his faithful soldiers (minus Uriah and a few unnamed others who have become collateral damage) have conquered for him. And what does he do?

He took the crown of their king from his head. The weight of it was a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone, and it was placed on David’s head. … And he brought out the people who were in it and set them to labor with saws and iron picks and iron axes and made them toil at the brick kilns.

The King of Israel wears an Ammonite crown and acts like an Egyptian pharaoh.

So much for ‘that we also may be like all the nations’.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Being and Goodness

Lately I have been reading Meditations on the Tarot. It is a book that comes with a recommendation of several Christian abbots and an epilogue by Hans Urs von Balthasar, so I figured it was safe enough. It is written by an anonymous author who pursued esotericism and Hermetic philosophy for quite a while, but eventually converted to Catholic Christianity. So at some point during a discussion of one of the twenty-two Tarot cards, he remarks that his frequent devotional visits to the relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges were instrumental in his realization of the importance of blood as a life-force. (I am paraphrasing from memory here.)

In any case, I was particularly struck by a passage which occurs in his discussion of the second card, the High Priestess. (The book was originally written in French, and the English translation also gives the French names of the cards; this one is la Papesse, the female Pope.) The author talks about his discomfort with renaming the Holy Trinity as ‘Being, Consciousness, Beatitude’. For, he argues, goodness has primacy over being.

This sparked my interest, as St. Thomas defends the primacy of being (ST Ia Q5 A2), and the first adagium of the Thomist theologian is ‘when St. Thomas is not clearly wrong, he is obviously right’. So I read on with a sort of defensive intellectual posture, looking for flaws in the reasoning. The kernel of the argument was a reference to Calvary, in which God sacrificed his existence on earth for love’s sake. But what about the Resurrection, you say? The author argues this confirms his argument, showing ‘that love is not only superior to being but also that it engenders it and restores it’.

So the revelation to St. John, that God is Love, surpasses the revelation to Moses, that God is He who is.

The author further refers to the moral neutrality of being (as a concept); one could get an idea of ‘being’ from looking at plants or minerals, but ‘goodness’ presupposes an acquaintance with psychic and spiritual life.

I was still in defensive mode, trying to recall St. Thomas’s argument, when the author dived below the surface. He said:

The consequence of choosing between these two – I will not say “points of view”, but rather “attitudes of soul” – lies above all in the intrinsic nature of the experience of practical mysticism which consequently derives from this choice. He who chooses being will aspire to true being and he who chooses love will aspire to love. For one only finds that for which one seeks. The seeker for true being will arrive at the experience of repose in being …

So far, so good. True being, yes, that does sound like my cup of tea. And repose in being, certainly, against the horizon of ST Ia Q12 A1.

… and, as there cannot be two true beings … the centre of “false being” will be suppressed …

I felt a bit uneasy about this part, but before I had quite worked it out, I read on.

The characteristic of this mystical way is that one loses the capacity to cry.

That hurt!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Pope Francis

I was going to point out an interesting inconsistency (?) in the encyclical Laudato Si. But this past weekend, I was confronted with major headlines about something else Pope Francis has said. It started with a Dutch news site, which was shared in a WhatsApp group:
Pope: contraception is allowed against Zika

Going to the Internet to find out the truth of the matter, there were many more such headlines from international news sources:
BBC: Zika virus: Pope hints at relaxation of contraception ban…
CNN: Pope suggests contraception OK to slow Zika
Wall Street Journal: Pope Francis Says Contraception Can Be Acceptable in…
New York Times: Francis Says Contraception Can Be Used to Slow Zika
Los Angeles Times: Pope opens the door to contraception in averting harmful…
Washington Post: Pope Francis suggests contraception could be permissible…
The Guardian / USAToday / ABCNews: Pope suggests contraception can be condoned in Zika crisis

Fighting my own little guerrilla war on misinformation, I posted a link to the actual interview. It was conceded that the Pope had not quite said it in those words.
There was a brave attempt by an alumna of the University of Nebraska to explain that ‘avoiding pregnancy’ does not necessarily mean using contraceptives. This is true, but while writing this blogpost, I heard that Fr. Lombardi has confirmed that the Pope was indeed speaking about contraceptives. Which makes a statement like the following difficult to harmonize with Church teaching:

On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.

So not only does the Pope suggest that contraception is permissible to counteract the Zika virus, but he suggests that it is clearly permitted.

Of course, questions now arise why this should be the case for Zika but not for AIDS.

I think I will wait for the dust to settle.

So, what is the inconsistency in Laudato Si? This concerns the addressees of the encyclical. In 1963, Pope John XXIII made a significant change in addressing his encyclical on world peace (Pacem in Terris) not only to his fellow-bishops and the other faithful, but to all people of good will. This precedent has been followed in some other encyclicals, such as Caritas in Veritate (but, oddly enough, not Fides et Ratio).

In Laudato Si, the circle seems to be drawn even wider. In one of the first paragraphs, Pope Francis writes,

Pope Saint John XXIII … addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire “Catholic world” and indeed “to all men and women of good will”. Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.

A good will is not required; if you are a person, then Pope Francis is speaking to you, whether you are benevolent or hostile. However, further on in the document, this open address seems to be narrowed down again, in the first sentence of Chapter 2 about the Gospel of creation:

Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?

What happened to the villains inhabiting this planet? Do they not exist or are they no longer in view? Perhaps it is supposed that they do not read encyclicals? That would be a wrong assumption, because I have in fact read Laudato Si.

Questions, questions. Well, let me end with an assertion, again from Pope Francis, from the airplane interview that has so quickly become (in)famous. This is a good bit, in response to a question about the friendship between Pope John Paul II and Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, that threatens to get overlooked:

A man who does not know how to have a relationship of friendship with a woman – I'm not talking about misogynists, who are sick – well, he's a man who is missing something. …

I also like to hear the opinion of a woman because they have such wealth. They look at things in a different way. I like to say that women are those who form life in their wombs – and this is a comparison I make – they have this charism of giving you things you can build with.