Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The End of History

Today I finished reading Weisheit in Israel (Wisdom in Israel) by the renowned Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971), a German Lutheran. The book is about Jewish wisdom literature. I shall not summarize it, but for an interesting thought in the chapter on the ‘determination of times’.

Von Rad says that Israel always believed that our lives were in the hands of the Lord. His ordering activity determines our destiny. This does not exclude the freedom of the will; God’s foresight and shaping of ends is not as deterministic as that. He merely arranges things so that they end up according to his will: for instance, with Joseph as vice-regent in Egypt. When necessary, He intervenes, by sending plagues to Egypt, lengthening the day, calling Isaiah, or something of that sort. When apposite, He changes his mind, e.g. after Jonah’s mission to Nineveh.

The apocalyptic vision in late Judaism represents a significant shift. For the apocalyptic authors, everything is already set in stone – or worse, in the ‘tablets of heaven’. This means that those who have had a vision of God have received knowledge of history, rather than God’s will for the moment. According to the (apocryphal) Book of Jubilees, God has shown Moses the events that had been and that were to come; it is this history that Moses recorded, from the creation to the day of the new creation. Jacob, too, would have read the entire history of his descendants on a tablet shown to him by an angel. In other apocalyptic literature, Henoch is said to have gained knowledge of the future through looking in the heavenly books.

As Von Rad says: ‘The image of the divine determination … has forced the old image of history as a place of tension between occurring promises and unfolding fulfillments into the background.’

This drastically changes the view of history. There are no ‘innergeschichtliche Heilsgr√ľndungen’ (foundations of salvation within history). Certainly salvation takes place within history, but it is, in a sense, salvation from history – from what St. Paul calls the ‘aeon’, the spirit of the time, the prince of the world. Salvation occurs ‘at the margins of history’ from a world that has been permeated by evil. It is not prepared in time; it intrudes upon it.

Von Rad again: ‘The end breaks abruptly into an ever-increasingly darkening world of history, and the benefits of salvation, which had long been pre-existently available in the heavenly world – ‘until the times are at an end’ – (Son of Man, the new Jerusalem), come into appearance.’ The recipient of salvation is not Israel, but a holy remnant, or a congregation of individuals.

The story of God’s blessings in history (like the election of Abraham ‘to be a blessing’, the gift of the Law to Moses, the establishment of David), is replaced by knowledge of the periods or ages of history, in which God’s sovereignty can be seen. (Despite the appearance of the present age, there really is a plan!) But the events of the past do not provide any legitimacy to present affairs; the anticipated future is the measure of things.

In the Apocalypse of Ezra, Ezra complains that God has not given Israel a way to attain to salvation, despite his great plans. The promise of eternity has become useless in view of the evil works that Israel has done. Ezra’s angelic interlocutor confirms that little good has come to Israel in history, but there is a possibility for Israelites to attain to life and salvation in the age to come. Abraham was elected to understand the mysteries of this age.

In conclusion: ‘A view on history has arisen without praise for the historical sources of God’s salvation. Praise only springs forth in view of the apocalyptic end. The sense of the present meaning of God’s past deeds has disappeared. History has become matter of fact, to be adduced for instruction, but above all to turn the hour in which one lives to the right purpose.’

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

To Cambridge

There was a Plaza acquaintance of mine, Scea, beloved of Silendra and Gerontian, whose blog I have the rewarding habit of reading. A few months ago I heard she was coming to England to study in Cambridge for a while. Since her time on the island was already nearing its end, I asked if I could visit. It was time for another Eurolines adventure.

I had booked the 20.30 coach from Amsterdam to London and arrived an hour in advance; as there were still some seats left on the 19.30 coach, I could leave before I even finished my coffee.

There were a lot of empty seats – in the beginning; but we picked up more passengers in The Hague, Rotterdam, Roosendaal and Breda, and ultimately I ended up wedged between a big man of colour and the window. I was reading A Dance with Dragons on my e-reader; as I had started reading the first part on my first Eurolines experience, I hoped I might finish the latest book on the second. This turned out to be too ambitious, however; reading 200 pages took more time than estimated, and I needed to sleep as well.

We went south to France because there is a fast ferry line between Calais and Dover. Before we could board, our passports were checked at two consecutive points (we walked from the EU to the UK checkpoint). When the coach was parked in the enormous hold of the ferry, we had to go upstairs so I could drink my 3.30am coffee in the floating restaurant.

The famous cliffs of Dover seemed small and glum behind the garish harbour buildings. We moored, looked for our coach, found it, climbed aboard, and disembarked.

After a pleasant journey, we arrived at Victoria Coach Station at 5.30. The underground was still closed until 6, so we waited patiently. In the end, I arrived at Cambridge station an hour in advance, around 8.

Scea / Christy came to meet me; we sat down for a small continental breakfast at her favourite coffee place and chatted about philosophy, the upcoming exams, Socrates, ecumenism, Tolkien, and the willow-meads of Tasarinan in the Spring.

We walked to Pembroke College, her residence, between great expanses of green grass and medieval-looking buildings. It started to rain, so Christy got out her umbrella and I donned rain gear; I had been warned beforehand of impending meteorological doom.

We visited the chapel of the College, a beautiful medieval church with a fan vault, built in the time of Henry VI and a few other kings in that period. Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn were commemorated on a large ornamental wooden screen that separated the two halves of the church. Christy pointed out the greyhound, the Welsh dragon, the Tudor rose. Apparently she knew a lot about British history. There was a historical exposition in a part of the church (separated by walls from the space of worship), where information was given about the construction of the church, the making of stained glass, the politics of the time, and so on.

Duly impressed, I accompanied Christy to the dining hall of her college, a well-occupied hall with a high ceiling and large windows. We had lunch (my chance to have white beans in tomato sauce with my sausage) and talked about our future plans, Arthurian romances, and the shift from brotherly to chivalric love described by C.S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love.

Having briefly visited the library and the garden, we went on a long walk through more natural surroundings. The sun had come out. At one point we saw goslings trying and failing to climb out of the water. After a healthy ramble, we found ourselves with tea and scones in a pavilion where E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Keynes once used to sit and discuss the arts.

We walked back, visited the oldest church in the city (St. Bene’t’s, short for Benedict’s) and went down to King’s College Chapel for Evensong. Though rather sleepy initially, I did enjoy the service; the psalms and canticles were beautifully sung. Nothing beats English choirs for euphony.

And then we had dinner with stereotypical drinks (there was a rowdy crowd from town about) and walked along the river Cam, which has given the city its name, and through lively parks, while Christy explained what The Phantom Tollbooth was all about. We came across a man who seemed quite upset and quite drunk, kicking boxes and cursing Cameron and tourists, for some reason. Christy remarked he sounded rather like Gollum.

As the evening grew dark we watched the blackbirds, a new occupation for me. Christy talked about Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and his literary and philosophical erudition. She remarked, ‘He makes learning seem beautiful.’

Ultimately the time came to go to the station, to leave elegant Cambridge and Christy after a beautiful day. We said goodbye; Christy went home, I on to London Stansted, where I would fly out in the morning.

The airport was closed except for the entrance hall. To my surprise, dozens of people were already sleeping everywhere; some had brought mats, many simply lay on the floor or dozed sitting up. I tried to sleep, but woke after a while. Sleepy, but not inclined to sleep, I blinked wearily at my e-reader and managed to finish A Dance with Dragons above coffee. Until I flew off to celebrate Pentecost by attending Mass with the Bishop of Breda in his cathedral, and then home, to surprise my parents with the story of my travels.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Daenerys

This post is the second half of a diptych and contains Game of Thrones spoilers.

I’ve been reading A Dance with Dragons (Part 5), and experienced a sinking feeling when reading about Daenerys. The young dragon queen started out so well; she conquered three cities in a row (Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen) to liberate all the slaves. The end of human trafficking in Slaver’s Bay, one would think. But old habits are hard to break.

In Part 5, Daenerys is bogged down in Meereen. Astapor is destroyed and Meereen is besieged by Yunkai, where the slave trade has resumed.

Dangers are inside and outside. Innocents are killed every day within the city walls. Plague-ridden refugees from Astapor camp in the fields, while the mercenary armies of Yunkai march on the city. Food is growing scarce. Daenerys has grown afraid of her own dragons, since one of them killed a child; two are chained, while the third roams wild.

Surrounded by death and the prospect of death, Daenerys wants peace. To accomplish that, she must marry a nobleman from Meereen, Hizdahr, who can stop the killing inside the walls, appease the nobility, and make peace with Yunkai. But peace means compromise. The slave trade in Yunkai is no longer to be opposed, and the fighting pits in Meereen are to be reopened for gladiator shows.

After the glorious conquests of pure idealism with dragons, this is rather depressing.

Daenerys accepts. She marries. Her new husband takes her to preside with him at a show in the fighting pits. On the way they come across a man who has collapsed while carrying someone in a seat:

“Those bearers were slaves before I came. I made them free. Yet that palanquin is no lighter.” “True,” said Hizdahr, “but those men are paid to bear its weight now. Before you came, that man who fell would have an overseer standing over him, stripping the skin off his back with a whip. Instead he is being given aid.”
It was true. A Brazen Beast in a boar mask had offered the litter bearer a skin of water. “I suppose I must be thankful for small victories,” the queen said.

In Daznak’s Pit, a young man dies:

“A boy,” said Dany. “He was only a boy.”
“Six-and-ten,” Hizdahr insisted. “A man grown, who freely chose to risk his life for gold and glory. No children die today in Daznak’s, as my gentle queen in her wisdom has decreed.” Another small victory. Perhaps I cannot make my people good, she told herself, but I should at least try to make them a little less bad.

How can you be a proper queen-liberator in the face of all the obstacles and resistances the world presents? How do you keep the momentum of your charge and care for all your charges at the same time? How do you avoid the poison of the choice for the lesser evil?

At this point nothing serves except the draco ex machina. The wild dragon returns and lands in the Pit. Daenerys fights him, tames him, rides him into the sky. And I heave a sigh of relief. The problems are far from over, but at least the queen has found her element again.


Well, dear readers, that was it for today. I hope you are savouring the time between Ascension and Pentecost.