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’.