Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Around and about

July 4, 2014

A few things worth noting:

  • Today is the anniversary of the death of William Byrd in 1623. Let’s hear his luminous setting of Ave Verum Corpus, sung here by the Tallis Scholars: 
  • Maclin Horton has some good commentary on the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the US Supreme Court, here and here.
  • North of the border, we’ve had our own, politer brand of cultural politics to contend with. Our Golden Boy decided, out of the blue, to bar pro-life candidates from the Liberal party and to crack the party whip on the backs of those already elected to Parliament. Raymond de Souza’s blunt criticism of those who have buckled under this mistreatment is sobering but very much to the point.
  • Also from Maclin Horton: somebody at Salon woke up and realized that Pope Francis might not be the Great White Hope that some thought he was. Instead, he’s a “sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe”. That’s as clueless an assessment as its opposite was, but it is nonetheless oddly refreshing to hear it.
  • Andy Whitman has high praise for Joe Henry’s latest album, Invisible Hour. Maybe this will be the Joe Henry record that finally wins me over? Andy sure makes it sound great. 

Beauty and a numinous glory

January 27, 2014

In the experience of the beautiful, and of its pure fortuity, we are granted our most acute, most lucid, and most splendid encounter with the difference of transcendent being from the realm of finite things. The beautiful affords us our most perfect experience of that existential wonder that is the beginning of all speculative wisdom. This state of amazement, once again, lies always just below the surface of our quotidian consciousness; but beauty stirs us from our habitual forgetfulness of the wonder of being. It grants us a particularly privileged awakening from our “fallenness” into ordinary awareness, reminding us that the fullness of being, which far exceeds any given instance of its disclosure, graciously condescends to show itself, again and again, in the finitude of a transient event. In this experience, we are given a glimpse — again, with a feeling of wonder that restores us momentarily to something like the innocence of childhood — of that inexhaustible source that pours itself out in the gracious needlessness of being.

Beauty is also the startling reminder, even for persons sunk in the superstitions of materialism, that those who see reality in purely mechanistic terms do not see the real world at all, but only its shadow. Standing before a painting by Chardin or Vermeer, one might be able to describe the object in terms of purely physical elements and events but still fail to see the painting for what it is: an object whose visible aspects are charged with a surfeit of meaning and splendor, a mysterious glory that is the ultimate rationale of its existence, a radiant dimension of absolute value at once transcending and showing itself within the limits of material form. In the experience of the beautiful, one is apprised with a unique poignancy of both the ecstatic structure of consciousness and the gratuity of being. Hence the ancient conviction that the love at beauty is, by its nature, a rational yearning for the transcendent. The experience of sensible beauty provokes in the soul the need to seek supersensible beauty, says Plato: it is, in the words of Plotinus, a “delicious perturbation” that awakens an eros for the divine within us. All things are a mirror of the beauty of God, says the great Sufi poet Mahmud Shabestari (1288-1340): and to be seized with the desire for that beauty, says Gregory of Nyssa, is to long to be transformed within oneself into an ever more perspicuous mirror of its splendor. Kabir (1440-1518) says that it is divine beauty that shines out from all things, and that all delight in beauty is adoration of God. For Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674), one of the sanest men who ever lived, to see the world with the eyes of innocence, and so to see it pervaded by a numinous glory, is to see things as they truly are, and to recognize creation as the mirror of God’s infinite beauty.

– David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.

On The Tree of Life

December 12, 2013

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.

Palestrina: the untold story

August 19, 2013

Some interesting background on several of Palestrina’s most famous compositions:

A favourite composition is the Missa Papae Marcelli, whose text (written by Palestrina himself) congratulates the newly-elected Pope Marcellus IV on the purchase of a new diamond-encrusted chasuble. Other works often heard are the battle hymn Sicut cervus, which prays to St Januarius to send a plague of rickets upon all loyal churchmen, and the interminable Stabat mater, which expresses the deep sorrow of the Virgin Mary at the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

So it appears, at least, to a vigilant low-church Anglican. There’s more gold where that came from.

Let’s hear that tuneless, meandering battle hymn:

(Hat-tip: The Chant Cafe)

Sirens and prizes

June 24, 2013

Last year my dear friend David Elliot wrote an essay for Touchstone entitled “Passing Through the Sirens: The Trials of the Christian Wayfarer in the World”. It is a splendid essay, and I am not the only one to say so: I am delighted today to learn that it has been awarded an essay prize from The Character Project, an initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation.

The essay was previously accessible only to subscribers, but it seems that now it is available in full to one and all. It would be well worth your time.

Hart on atheism

April 18, 2013

It might be that the “New Atheist” phenomenon has fizzled out by now — I haven’t heard much from those quarters since the untimely death of Christopher Hitchens — but if you’ve a lingering interest in such matters let me recommend this lecture by David Bentley Hart. He offers an appraisal of the leading “New Atheists” (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris), but does us the service of viewing them in a broader historical and cultural context. He wishes they were more like the old atheists (pre-eminently, Nietzsche), and, in a nice ironic reversal, sees them as textbook examples of Nietzsche’s detested “last men”.

The lecture was apparently delivered some time ago — reference is made to Hitchens in the present tense — but it only recently made its way onto YouTube. Some of the content, including an amusing foray into the world of enthymemes, also appeared in Hart’s 2010 essay “Believe It Or Not”. The “video” below is actually just audio ornamented with a photograph. Highly recommended nonetheless.

Laird: Into the Silent Land

February 5, 2013

Into the Silent Land
A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
Martin Laird
(Oxford, 2006)
154 p.

In this short but substantial book, Martin Laird gives a practical introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is a difficult, because profound, subject, and an adequate treatment calls for humility and fidelity and, not least, personal experience. Insofar as I can judge, Laird is a faithful guide. He draws widely on the Christian tradition of prayer, from the Church Fathers, the Carmelite mystics, spiritual masters east and west, and from contemporary writers such as Simone Weil. Despite his academic credentials (Laird is a professor at Villanova University) he wears his learning lightly and the tone of the book is personal and pastoral.

The purpose of contemplative prayer is to dispose one to encounter God. I phrase it this way intentionally: contemplation is not a technique with a guaranteed outcome, but a practice that prepares one for a personal encounter that comes at a time and in a manner not of one’s own choosing. Laird uses the image of the sailor: there is nothing he can do to make the wind blow, but there are skills he can develop to take advantage when it does, and the Christian contemplative tradition is substantially about developing this receptive attitude.  For it is an illusion, says Laird, to think that we are separated from God; in Him we live and move and have our being, but we are not aware of this. Contemplation is about slowly “excavating the present moment” in order to become aware of and receptive to God’s loving presence.

The principal contemplative practice is the cultivation of an intentional silence, a silence of body and mind. In a sense, it is quite simple: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God,” says St. John of the Cross. But inevitably there are difficulties, and chief among them are distractions — wandering thoughts, worries, day-dreams, and so on, which prevent the mind being quiet and attentive. Laird is particularly helpful in describing how to deal with such problems. He describes controlled breathing exercises (which remind me of non-Christian meditative practices, but which he plausibly argues is a neglected part of our own tradition too) and, most importantly, the “prayer word” which is repeated quietly, over and over, as a way of maintaining focus. The most common “prayer word” in the Christian tradition is the Jesus Prayer — more common in the East than the West, it is true — but it is a personal choice. (I myself lean on fragments of Psalm 46:10 and Ezekiel 36:26, or something from St. Augustine.) Laird gives quite a lot of attention to psychological aspects of contemplative prayer — to the abandonment of false personae, encounters with old emotional wounds, and other stages of spiritual maturation that are typically encountered in a dedicated contemplative practice.

This book has been for me an encouragement. The contemplative tradition has always attracted me, and I know that it is my path, but I have not been diligent in walking it. At some level I am afraid of delving too deep and dredging up a spiritual crisis of some sort; this has happened before, and it rendered me largely unfit for anything else. These days I have more or less all-consuming family responsibilities and I haven’t the luxury of being unfit. Hence my hesitation. But this book has made me reconsider my situation. Perhaps it cannot hurt to take up the Jesus Prayer again and see what happens. It’s a baby step, but one in the right direction.

[St. Augustine]
The third commandment enjoins quietness of heart, tranquility of mind. This is holiness. Because here is the Spirit of God. This is what a true holiday means, quietness and rest. Unquiet people recoil from the Holy Spirit. They love quarreling. They love argument. In their restlessness they do not allow the silence of the Lord’s Sabbath to enter their lives. Against such restlessness we are offered a kind of Sabbath in the heart. As if God were saying ‘stop being so restless, quieten the uproar in your minds. Let go of the idle fantasies that fly around in your head.’ God is saying, ‘Be still and see that I am God.” (Ps 46) But you refuse to be still. You are like the Egyptians tormented by gnats. These tiniest of flies, always restless, flying about aimlessly, swarm at your eyes, giving no rest. They are back as soon as you drive them off. Just like the futile fantasies that swarm in our minds. Keep the commandment. Beware of this plague.

Christmas isn’t Christmas, and other surprises

November 23, 2012

Finding silliness in religion-related journalism is almost as easy as finding silliness in science-related journalism, but, even so, this half-baked article from The Telegraph qualifies as an unusually egregious example. The article is occasioned by the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s third volume on the life of Christ, which is devoted to the infancy narratives in the Gospels.

The Telegraph is aghast at the scandalous revelations that have dripped from the pen of the pontiff! To wit:

“The calculation of the beginning of our calendar – based on the birth of Jesus – was made by Dionysius Exiguus, who made a mistake in his calculations by several years,” the Pope writes in the book, which went on sale around the world with an initial print run of a million copies.

“The actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before.”


“Christ’s birth date is not the only controversy raised by the Pope in his new book – he also said that contrary to the traditional Nativity scene, there were no oxen, donkeys or other animals at Jesus’s birth.”


“The idea that Christ was born on Dec 25 also has no basis in historical fact.”

To an audience ignorant of Christian history I can see that this might be somewhat surprising, but that any of it has the authentic whiff of scandal is ridiculous. The folks at Get Religion have written a good commentary, which I recommend.

The same Telegraph article repeats the old story about the date of Christmas being related to pagan festivals. As I always do when this comes up, I will recommend a good article by William Tighe that was published a few years ago in Touchstone; it deserves wide exposure. (I notice the Get Religion commentary also links to it, which is great.)


Apparently not picking up on the absurdity of the Telegraph article, our very own National Post has piled on with an opinion column (by Kelly McParland) proposing that the Pope’s book provides the Church with an “excuse” to move her celebration of Christmas from December 25 to some other date when it won’t interfere with everyone else’s celebration of … something or other.

If this is a good idea, then I have another: we should move the date of New Years out of deference to those who do not observe the Western calendar but who love to stay up late singing “Auld Lang Syne” ten days or so after the winter solstice.

Scruton the Anglican

November 9, 2012

Today’s confirmation of a new Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded me that Roger Scruton has a forthcoming book entitled Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England. Knowing what I know of Scruton I’d be surprised to find him going to bat for even one of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and this interview seems to bear that expectation out. Scruton is a convert to Anglicanism, but he is also a Kantian, and so he believes that his attitude toward noumenal claims, including most religious claims, must be agnostic. His intention in the book is apparently instead to defend the historic place of the Anglican Church in English culture, to praise the beauty of its rituals and the quiet persistence of its wisdom, and to argue that nothing is likely to replace it.

It would be easy to satirize this kind of thing: stuffy Englishman likes his organ music and his beautiful churches, but doesn’t linger over all that business about sin and salvation. Such criticism has a place — though given that the aim of the criticism ought to be to encourage deeper engagement with the substantive claims of the faith, I doubt that satire is the most effective means. I will admit that I am myself sometimes tempted to cast a withering look upon this “cultural Christianity”, yet if I succomb to this temptation I lack charity. Why should I object when someone, especially someone as thoughtful as Scruton, though unable to assent to the Church’s doctrines nonetheless seeks shelter under her wings? Doctrine is important, unquestionably, but sometimes people connect with the faith through the chest rather than through the head.

It seems to me that Pope Benedict, by promoting certain liturgical traditions within the Church — I am thinking here of the special provisions he has made for the (so-called) Tridentine liturgy and the Anglican liturgy — is acknowledging that, quite apart from doctrinal questions, aesthetics carry real and legitimate weight, and that love for a particular liturgical tradition deserves respect, for it is largely by means of liturgy that we encounter the faith, and through the faith God. And so a man like Scruton, who loves to play the organ for his congregation, and who appreciates the eloquence of the Book of Common Prayer, and who seeks out, week after week, the restful poise of the Anglican liturgy, may in fact be more than a mere dabbler. In charity we should welcome him warmly, as good hosts.

At the end of the interview, when asked to play a favourite hymn on the organ, he chooses “Come Down, O Love Divine”, which I recall is someone else’s favourite hymn too. Let’s hear it again:

The end of the affair?

October 11, 2012

You may have heard about the “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment which made waves in the news a few weeks ago. Briefly: Karen King, of Harvard Divinity School, submitted an article to the Harvard Theological Review claiming probable authenticity for a newly revealed (and privately owned) papyrus fragment which includes a phrase in which Jesus uses the phrase “my wife”. The papyrus is claimed to be of fourth-century origin, and the text is claimed to be of second-century origin. Harvard Theological Review‘s agreement to publish the findings was contingent on independent confirmation of the authenticity of the fragment.

I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the story at the time. No-one, not even Dr. King, who believes the fragment is likely authentic, claims that the fragment is evidence that Jesus actually had a wife, but only that at least one second-century author may have believed this. (As has been pointed out, the fragmentary nature of the text makes it difficult to rule out the possibility, for instance, that this literary Jesus was not using “wife” in a sense similar to that in which the New Testament Jesus speaks of himself as “bridegroom”.) It seemed a matter for specialists to sort out, without any apparent bearing on our understanding of the historical Jesus or the authenticity of the Gospels.

But the attention the fragment received in the media suggested that not everyone understood that. It is interesting, therefore, to revisit the question of the fragment’s authenticity, to see how things are shaping up.

Interestingly, the evidence is mounting that the fragment is a modern forgery. First, apparently the great majority of the phrases on the fragment occur in a known Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas, a version from Nag Hammadi known as Codex II. The phrases have been pieced together, as a kind of pastiche, and in a manner which apparently introduced grammatical errors that are evident to an expert in Coptic. This strongly suggests that we are not dealing with an independent composition, and casts doubt on its claimed historical provenance. As Marc Goodacre, an expert on the Gospel of Thomas, puts it:

As I see it, there are two options here. Either the author of the Jesus fragment got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar in Nag Hammadi in the late fourth century to be buried for 1500 years, or s/he got hold of it after it came out of the jar in 1945. While we cannot rule out the possibility that s/he got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar, it is much more likely that the author got hold of it in the modern period with its multiple reproductions, in print and internet, of that one witness.

(In fairness, there is a third possibility: perhaps the author of the fragment worked from another copy of the Codex II version of the Gospel of Thomas, now lost. This could have occurred after the Nag Hammadi scrolls were buried.)

Second, just today it was revealed that the fragment reproduces a typographical error found in an online version of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. A single character is missing in both documents. Now, it is not totally beyond possibility that an ancient scribe might have omitted a character that a modern scholar, working independently, also omitted, but it is unlikely. To my mind this is fairly convincing evidence that the fragment has been forged at a date sometime in the past 15 years. (The online version went live in 1997.)

Experts are still awaiting the results of spectroscopic studies of the ink on the fragment. If the ink contains synthetic chemicals, it will show decisively that the text is modern; if not, the test is indecisive as to date.

In the meantime, this story showcases some fascinating literary detective work.


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