Usually at this time of year I write a series of posts reflecting on my favourite books, music, and films of the past twelve months. Probably nobody has been bothered overmuch by my failure to do so this year, but, in any case, let me send this reassurance into the void: I am writing those posts, and I plan to put them up during the first week or two of the new year. They are shaping up quite well, it seems to me.
Archive for December, 2013
Last weekend a big ice storm blew through our area. This is fairly unusual, and it caused a great deal of havoc for Christmas travellers. The biggest problem, however, was that the ice on the trees caused many branches to break, and the branches fell on power lines, and the power lines broke, and hundreds of thousands of people found themselves shivering in the dark on Christmas Eve.
Although the storm hit our immediate area, there seems to have been relatively little damage — certainly it wasn’t as bad here as it was downtown, where the trees are older and bigger. Anyway, I thought I’d post a few pictures that I took during and after the storm. Being more or less untroubled by the power outages, the main impression the storm left for me was its beauty: all those tree branches coated with ice, like a delicate filigree that shimmers in the light.
Yesterday we had a bit of melting, so the heavy branches have had their burdens lifted to some degree. Tomorrow we drop back into the deep freeze, and winter is expected to proceed more or less as usual.
A very merry Christmas, one and all!
A big ice storm swept through our area this weekend. A local rag has captured some photos from around the city. The biggest problem seems to have been tree branches falling on power lines, leaving many people without electricity. A good proportion of traffic lights are out, with massive traffic jams in consequence. The silver lining is that the ice on the trees is quite beautiful.
As for me and my house, we were fortunate that our power stayed on (despite some odd intermittent dimming in the evening hours). Our car was encased in a thick layer of ice yesterday; we had to chisel it out in order to open the door. And on our driveway and sidewalk the ice is an inch thick. But the kids love it, and they say that the temperatures will rise in the spring, so I’m not too worried.
[There is] another essential logical intuition that recurs in various forms throughout the great theistic metaphysical systems. It is the conviction that in God lies at once the deepest truth of mind and the most universal truth of existence, and that for this reason the world can truly be known by us. Whatever else one might call this vision of things, it is most certainly, in a very real sense, a kind of “total rationalism.” Belief in God, properly understood, allows one to see all that exists — both in its own being and in our knowledge of it — as rational. It may be possible to believe in the materialist view of reality, I suppose, and in some kind of mechanical account of consciousness, but it is a belief that precludes any final trust in the power of reason to reflect the objective truth of nature. I happen to think that a coherent materialist model of mind is an impossibility. I think also that the mechanistic picture of nature is self-evidently false, nothing more than an intellectual adherence to a limited empirical method that has been ineptly mistaken for a complete metaphysical description of reality. I believe that nature is rational, that it possesses inherent meaning, that it even exhibits genuine formal and final causes, and that therefore it can be faithfully mirrored in the intentional, abstractive, formal, and final activity of rational consciousness. If I am wrong about all of those things, however, I think it also clear that what lies outside such beliefs is not some alternative rationalism, some other and more rigorous style of logic, some better way of grasping the truth of things, but only an abandonment of firm belief in any kind of reasoning at all. God explains the existence of the universe despite its ontological contingency, which is something that no form of naturalism can do; but God also explains the transparency of the universe to consciousness, despite its apparent difference from consciousness, as well as the coincidence between reason and reality, and the intentional power of the mind, and the reality of truth as a dimension of existence that is at once objective and subjective. Here, just as in the realm of ontology, atheism is simply another name for radical absurdism…
— David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.
Good commentary on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life from Roy Anker of Calvin College:
This hardly plumbs the depth of this inexhaustible film, but it does make some astute observations about it. The emphasis on “glory” and “shining”, which were also elements of Malick’s earlier films The Thin Red Line and The New World, is spot on. I also like the way he connects the structure of the film to the prologue of St. John’s Gospel.
What a film! Truly.
The Life of Moses
St. Gregory of Nyssa
(Paulist Press, 1978) [c.380]
To read the Church Fathers is a long-standing objective toward which I have made little progress; this is my first exposure to St. Gregory of Nyssa. His The Life of Moses is, I am told, generally considered to be a good example of the practice, common to many of the Fathers, of the “spiritual interpretation” of Scripture, wherein the literal meaning of the text is enriched by allegorical, moral, and anagogical meanings as well. (Here is a brief primer.) Gregory’s approach in this book is largely moral: he takes Moses as the archetype of the virtuous man, and argues that meditation upon the events of his life is helpful to those who wish to be virtuous themselves.
To this end, he first summarizes the principal plot points in Moses’ life in a straightforward manner and then, rather like Proust writing À la recherche du temps perdu, returns to the beginning and tells the story again, but this time extending and elaborating the details, reading the life largely in allegorical and moral terms. For example, Moses’ relationships with his true mother and with his adoptive mother (Pharaoh’s daughter, of course) Gregory reads as an allegory for the relationship between study of Scripture and profane study. Or, in other place, he compares the fire which burns but does not consume to Christ in the womb of the Virgin: “the flower of her virginity was not withered in giving birth”.
Spiritual interpretation is, on many points, at odds with the general mindset of modernity, and it has fallen out of favour. Distinctively modern ways of reading Scripture, such as historical criticism, are far removed from what Gregory here advocates. Something like spiritual reading survives as an aspect of practices such as lectio divina — this, at least, was the reference point that kept coming to my mind as I was reading — but it is otherwise rare today. We are inclined to see it as arbitrary, capricious, irresponsible, wayward, fanciful, and so on. Such criticisms might be just another way of stating our prejudices. As David Bentley Hart argues in the video which is linked below, the practice was not as arbitrary as it might seem; there were criteria for assessing the value of a particular reading. Reading the Scriptures spiritually has advantages, too, which we should not overlook: it encourages an imaginative and contemplative engagement with Scripture, and so serves as a devotional, as well as a theological, labour.
The most arresting idea which I found in this book was Gregory’s doctrine of eternal progress in the spiritual life. As God is without limit, our desire for God is properly without limit, and there can therefore be no limit to our journey toward and into the life of God. God is goodness, truth, and beauty, realities which we can never exhaust. Moses desired to see God, and he was not satisfied with half-measures:
He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being.
Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.
And the bold request which goes up the mountains of desire asks this: to enjoy the Beauty not in mirrors and reflections, but face to face.
And later he summarizes the same idea:
This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied.
This image of the eternal voyage as an allegory of the spiritual life is a wonderful one. We desire, and because the transcendental realities which we desire are infinite, our desire only grows stronger on satiety. “Further up and further in!”
I learned of The Life of Moses from this address by David Bentley Hart on the subject of interpretation of Scripture:
This is frivolous, admittedly. Here are the top (non-book) search results in Google Scholar for a set of decidedly non-scholarly search terms:
It’s not surprising that papers with the search term in the title top the search results — though perhaps it is surprising to find papers with those terms in the titles. Here are a few others where the connection between search term and result is more tenuous:
This is quite fun, though there is no doubt that I should be making better use of my time.