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Archive for April, 2012

The other day I fell asleep in the library. Those locking up must’ve somehow overlooked the cranny I had squeezed myself into, as they left me in the dark. There I slept alone among the vain and voluminous endeavours of human knowledge. Being, of course, in the theology section, I awoke in the early hours of the morning to a soft and bright iridescence before me. A reasonably bored looking angel stood there and reflected on my fruitless mis-attempts to come to any useful conclusions. “Come on”, he said, “I’m just on my break. I’ll take you ‘upstairs’, give you a taste for what things are really like”. “Yeah,” I said, “Ok, that’s cool”.

If you ever ate chocolate with those crackly bits in it that pop in your mouth, going to heaven is kind of like that, only that you’re eating the chocolate and you are the chocolate at the same time.

My first impressions were, “Why are there so many white people here?” which I incidentally spoke aloud, as private thinking is more so a thing of the earth. My angel (‘Milhouse’, as his friends called him, in jesting reference to that popular show, ‘The Simpsons’) noted that we were in the white part of heaven, and it probably wasn’t such a good idea to go any of the ‘ethnic minority’ parts at this time of night.

As we walked on, Milhouse told me how he was going to take me to see the ‘apostles’, to give me some ‘real theology lessons’. For almost two millenia, these first century men of God had met together every Tuesday night in heaven to play poker. James the Just was notoriously good at it. And it didn’t take long to get there either. Apparently you can go anywhere in heaven in just about twenty minutes walk at the most.

When John opened the door he welcomed me with an affectionate hand shake, which pulled me into an embrace. “Good to see you boy! Where you from?”. I was a little offset by his enthusiasm. “I’m from Christchurch… the one in New Zealand… it’s like quite a wee way from, uh, Palest-, um, Israel”. “Christ Church? Well I’ll be!” he beamed, “welcome home, son!” And he pulled me into another hug.

From left Peter, John, Thomas (with back facing us), James the Just, Luke (passing the card), Paul (with the pipe), Matthew.

The men of God had just finished their game, and James had wiped the floor with them all again. I took a chair next to Matthew the Evangelist (on counting there were actually about nineteen people in the room), who had struck up a conversation with Paul, the one whom I was most eager to talk to. Matthew was deeply serious, “I’m telling the truth. I just really hate the taste of bacon. Like, really, I see nothing wrong with it at all, but bacon, pork, ham, etcetera, whatever cut of pig it is just cannot convince my tastebuds”.

After some awkward introductions, the saints addressed me, “So I hear you’ve been studying a bit of theology. You must have some questions then! Just don’t you cite us in any of your ‘essays’. They prefer you to put your own ‘spin’ on things down there!” They all laughed. Paul was a crack-up. “Well,” I started, “I always wondered who wrote Hebrews”. The air suddenly grew thicker. I was regretting what I had just asked. Clearly it made everyone uncomfortable. Seeing the need to take some leadership here, Paul solemnly addressed me. “Anastasios was a good friend of ours. But he didn’t quite make it here”.

The ‘spotlight’ was still on me so I attempted to change the subject. “In Acts, Paul, Luke portrays your theology quite contrarily to how it appears in your own letters. How much of it is in line with what you actually believe, or believed at the time?” John looked at me affirmingly and with a nod said, “That’s a very clever question, you!” Paul chuckled. “Luke and I always ‘had each other on’ a lot. One time I ‘put’ some worms ‘in’ his bedding!” Everyone laughed again. This was obviously part and parcel of some eternal prank exchange that the boys delighted to recall. “So then this one time Luke ‘sends’ me a copy of his new ‘work’, The acts of the apostles. On first reading it I was unsettled by how he ‘portrayed’ our ministry, but then I realised the pun in the word ‘acts’. It was a ‘hilarious’ bit of ‘weekend’ reading! He’s got a really ‘ironic’ sense of humour”.

I was intrigued. “Hey, and what about Peter’s sermon at Pentecost then? Did he actually say those things or is Luke having another laugh? It always seemed to me like he takes Psalm 16 out of context”. A new face emerged from a shadowy corner of the room. Paul stood up. “Come on Pete-” “No! I’m just sick of people making fun of me!” a determined, hurt and irritated Peter attempted to wrestle through the crowd before humphing and stomping out the door. John got up concernedly and followed after him. “Look, I’m sorry about that,” Paul looked at me. “But if you ever ‘get’ to heaven, then you realise there’s just a lot that you can’t ‘talk’ about. Poor old Pete was just ‘new’ to the whole ‘preaching’ thing back then. He’s very sensitive about it”.

Milhouse looked at his watch. “Righty-ho! I’ve got to get you back, otherwise I’ll be late for work!” I gave a few rushed “Pleased to meet you”s and “Thanks for your hospitality”s (they offered me an otherworldly selection of ‘fruit juices’) before racing out the door to head back to the library. My ten minutes or so in heaven had been an ‘eye-opening’ experience. But I had one more question.

“What about the girls, Milhouse? Are they in a different part of heaven too?” I was eager to know. The angel laughed. “Are you for real?” He paused to double-check if I was ‘for real’. “Take a look at your ‘body’. That’s what happens when you get to heaven”.

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When I was younger I used to share a room with my also younger brother. (If you are quite possibly a straight, single, Spirit-filled female between the ages of 20 and 28, now would be a good time to stop reading). Sometimes we had cabbage with our dinner. Sometimes various legumes. The body often responds to such stimuli in a unique way, a way that my brother the next day often bemoaningly reported wrested him from his sleep in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes the activities of my own volatile gases were enough even to wake me myself up. This then is an attempt not only to wake myself up through processing a healthy philosophio-theological diet, but to fart loud enough that Rollins himself will hear it.

* * *

Pete's new title

On recently reading Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection and following his blog for the last year and a half (?) or so, some particular ideas at the centre of his message have stuck out to me. I hope I’m not too late to the party…

In many senses the title of this post is erroneous. The ideas contribute to some of Rollins’ theology, but they are yet just a small part of it. Moreover, it appears that Rollins probably makes use of them through his reading of Zizek, who in turn is probably borrowing from Lacan, although my skinny selection of past reads cannot confirm that. I’m still giving philosophy a go at the entry-level so I probably won’t be able to throw around any of those nice words such as ‘ontology’, ‘telos’ or ‘Heidegger’. Anyway, this is my summary of the two ideas as they appear in the chapter ‘Story Crime’ (Insurrection pp.81-108, all page references refer to the UK edition), with some support throughout this post from various posts on Rollins’ blog:

(a) We construct an image of ourselves as a mask or story we tell ourselves, which in turn shields us from confronting who we really are.

(b) Our true self and our actual beliefs are not those which are reflected in this image, mask, story, etc, but those that are seen externally through operative beliefs, ie. our actions.

In regard to these ideas, I ask the following questions:

(i) To what extent is it possible to construct a sincere image of ourselves, one that authentically communicates who we are?

(ii) What are the problems in defining our beliefs as our actions?

(iii) To what extent is it possible to ‘believe’ (ie. operatively) in God as love?

* * *

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

–Emily Dickinson

(i) To what extent is it possible to construct a sincere image of ourselves, one that authentically communicates who we are?

Rollins use examples of a New York mobster who robbed and killed people writing a children’s book from prison, a pre-WWII write up about Hitler’s residence in Home and Garden magazine, and everyday use of social networking as examples of images we construct of ourselves to avoid the guilt of who we really are:

We all have a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, a story which we begin identifying with from infancy, and as long as we don’t think too much about it, we are able to maintain this story. But the personal narrative often has little direct connection to the reality of who we are.

(p.88)

Now what if Gotti (the mobster) was to, instead of writing a children’s book that communicates his humanity, compose a memoir concerning the various events he participated in, ones that would later justify to the public his imprisonment, and with that reflect upon his own depravity (to make use of orthodoxy here) and let his readers know what led him to commit such acts? What if Hitler, when the writers for the magazine article showed up, talked instead of his hate for Jews and his desires to work towards a master race? “I’m treating you as honoured guests because my image to the English-speaking world depends on you guys, but know that in my heart of hearts I desire nothing but power and revenge and will strip millions of their humanity to move towards my goal.” In the same sense, Pete outlines our duplicit approach to social networking: “On our profiles we list all the films that we want people to think we like while failing to mention some of the more embarrassing ones[…]” (p.93). Porn immediately came to mind, although I think Pete is more so exposing yours and my secret covering up of our watching chick flicks, or worse, movies with Hulk Hogan in them.

The 'What I really do' recent meme is a good example of the divide between fact and faux

The problem arises that as soon as you decide to communicate to someone about the reality of who you are, your communication is conditioned by what others will think, no matter which angle you approach it from. Pete gives a good example of this in his post, How to hide a lie in a truth (via the Marx Brothers):

[…]take the example of a religious leader who is part of a community that actively holds repressive/naive views regarding such things as gender roles, gay and lesbian rights, biblical interpretation and scientific reflection. If the religious leader actually holds such views themselves they will quickly attempt to justify the churches position in a variety of (often contradictory) ways. However there is a more interesting phenomenon whereby the leader fully and freely acknowledges the repressive positions held by their community.

What is interesting about this position is how their willingness to admit that they materially participate in a repressive community operates. For when one speaks to such a person one is generally led to think that they are not what they fully claim to be. The honesty causes one to think that they are other than what they are. We are led to think that their intelligence and ability to admit the dark underbelly of their community means that they are better than the community they are part of, that they should not to be overly identified with that community and perhaps even that they must be trying to influence it for the better.

If I take Pete’s idea into another context, I find it impossible to speak to others regarding my darker self as my very speaking to them is inextricably bound to the desires of my darker self: “I speak maliciously about people I love behind their back”, communicated in humility to someone I love cannot be removed from my desire for them to see me in a positive light apart from my actions. In a way it justifies my behaviour because they see me as someone with enough humility to admit to my faults and therefore have the desire to overcome them. Even going one step further and letting them know that you’re telling them in part because you desire them to see you as humble cannot defeat your possible motivations. To tell someone your confessions are a result of a desire to be seen as humble and honest just bumps the desire up a step with the step you take: You tell someone you desire to be seen as humble so you may very well be seen as humble, and if you take a further step and acknowledge this hypocrisy then you again bring the desire into play, and so on into infinity.

But sincerity is not just difficult in literal verbal communication — we are defined in the eyes of others by everything we do. If this is the case then can any action be performed with sincerity? If I have a heartfelt, Spirit-inspired message to relay to the congregation, is it possible to deliver it sincerely, without desiring to be seen as an insightful young prophet, or rebellious intellectual iconoclast, depending on the nature of the message? If a Red Cross collector is standing at the entrance to a mall, is not my giving to her complicated by the fact that she’s standing right in front of me and asking for money?

But what if even what we do in secret cannot be done with sincerity? I cannot find where Pete acknowledges this (there are a few similar passages but the example I was looking for I can no longer find) so I’ll just have to use my own example, based on what I’ve read of Pete so far. In the Red Cross example above, even if the woman, the mall and everybody around me is absent — I approach a donation box in a society-free vacuum, whatever — I still cannot donate in sincerity. My ‘good deed’, my giving of money to charity is conditioned by what I think of myself: “I am a good person who usually gives when there’s a need so I don’t feel required to right now” or “I usually spend my money on myself so I really need to change the way I act”, etc — thoughts such as these influence our actions because we construct an image of ourselves, not just for others but one that we ourselves see, to communicate to ourselves who we are.

To go even further, even considering actions in negative relation to the image we construct for others and ourselves is still a consideration: “I will speak in church because I don’t care what others think” or “I will give to charity regardless of what I think of myself”. Once these factors have been introduced it is impossible to act sincerely because they will always be considered consciously or unconsciously. Our motivations are legion, and we never engage in action for just one reason.

The material upto this point I feel has largely been in agreement with Pete, but just appealed to me in light of Jesus’ words such as “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8 NIV) and “These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8 NIV). Now let’s go a little deeper…

* * *

“I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.” — Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

(ii) What are the problems in defining our beliefs as our actions?

After giving examples of how we cover up who we really are, Pete expounds a true measure for who we are:

Our material commitments will show us which master we love and which we hate; not what we confess in our poetry and prose. In this way, it is often the people around us who will be better at judging what we really are love than we ourselves, for we are very adept at hiding from ourselves the truth of our desires.

(p.98)

A later sub-heading reads “Our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs” (p.102). If you’re not sold on this idea, take the example from Pete’s cleverly named post, I believe in child labour, sweatshops and torture:

Take the example of buying chocolate from a corner shop. If I know, or suspect, that the chocolate is made from coco beans picked by children under the conditions of slavery then, regardless of what I say, I believe in child slavery. For the belief operates at a material level (the level of what I do) rather than at the level of the mind (what I tell myself I believe). And I can’t hide in supposed ignorance either for if I don’t know about how most chocolate is made it is likely that my lack of knowledge is a form of refusal to care. For the very fact that there is Fair Trade chocolate, for example, should be enough for me to ask questions about whether other chocolate is made in an unfair way[…]

In the West we are very prone to think that beliefs operate at the level of the mind, however what goes on in the mind has no necessary relation to the material realty of our operative beliefs (those that we enact). For example a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe).

You can also watch this video, I deny the resurrectionwhich goes along a similar vein if you don’t quite yet understand, and the Irish passion of the short video makes it all the more worthwhile to watch.

Apart from the brilliantly challenging nature of these words, and their biblical resonance (eg. 1John 3:18; James 2:18; Luke 11:28), I think Pete makes some assumptions which need to be addressed. If we go back to the examples of Gotti and Hitler, this kind of reasoning leads here:

The truth of Hitler is not found in the story he tells about himself but in what drove him to such monstrous evils. The [Home and Garden article] is exactly the type of story Hitler would have told himself about himself in order to avoid facing up to the disgusting truth of who he was. And, of course, the same is true of Gotti […], whose truth is found in the desires and drives that are manifest in [his] actions rather than in the fact that [he writes] touching stories for kids[…]

(p.92)

Now I don’t want to discredit Pete because I think he’s just making use of Hitler as an example, rather than holding only to what he writes here. However, the immediate danger is that our worst actions, our greatest failings are the benchmark by which we ourselves and others define us. We are our lowest common denominator. It is easier to draw this conclusion with Hitler, as he spent a larger proportion of his life engaged in explicitly evil acts, and continues to stand as a point of reference to evil for many. I think Pete makes the mistake of defining Hitler completely by his evil though, dismissing his personal life as a front or cover up for who Hitler really is: “Here we must avoid the temptation to be fooled by the subjective story of the other” (p.92).

Hitler at home... from the untimely show 'Heil Honey'

An example can be taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the quote from which introduces this section in the post. In the novel, Dr Jekyll, a learned, well-respected, philanthropic member of society devises a way to live out his secret and evil desires behind the guise of his well-loved self. He concocts a formula that allows him to become a completely different person, Mr Hyde, and explore his evil self. Stevenson hints at Jekyll-Hyde’s homosexuality, masturbation, and the use of prostitutes throughout, things that were widely condemned in the era he was writing. It is in one of Jekyll’s reflections before his death not too long after that he says of himself and Jekyll, “Even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”. Jekyll was the sexually unbridled and murderous, hateful, Hyde as much as he was his loved and respected self. And even though he acknowledges the possibility of being both, his ending reflections center on Hyde being someone completely different to himself, a separate self whose actions he was unaccountable for. Jekyll then moves in the opposite direction to Pete — instead of embracing his darker side as that which truly defines him, he takes refuge in his subjective self. But what if his possibility, that he is both depraved and a loving person, rather than either, a better representation of the truth?

Faith in the Kierkegaardian sense is a passion. This is one side of the tagline under heading on my blog. Kierkegaard railed against the idea that as people we were becoming more perfect through every generation, with advances in science in and other forms of knowledge. To have perfect faith, all you needed to do was read a summary of the people who had gone before you and all the philosophers who had asked the right questions (namely Plato and Descartes). But for Kierkegaard, true faith was in the experience of finding, rather than building on what those before you had done. You needed to start from the start. This can be read as a metaphor for our daily lives. Everyday we cannot build on who we already are but must experience faith anew as a passion. To put Pete’s example to use, some days I have bought fair-trade chocolate as I feel the importance of buying ethically and teaching others to do the same whereas other days I have bought evil chocolate usually because it tastes good, is accessible or it’s cheaper. By the way, just while we’re on the subject, if you buy fair-trade Cadbury or Whittaker’s, it’s still evil. This sounds like an awkward defence of my actions to the greater internet. But it’s really just an example to show that “Our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs” only means that sometimes we believe certain things and other times we don’t. Human caprice means our beliefs can change weekly, daily, hourly even, and revert back to what they were previously. I can simultaneously hold the desires to wear nice clothes and live simply. What if the possibility to intellectually assent to a particular belief and act otherwise is not so much an indication of my own unbelief, but my human weakness, a failure to live up to my beliefs?

* * *

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:8 NIV.

(iii) To what extent is it possible to ‘believe’ (ie. operatively) in God as love?

Towards the end of the chapter, Pete touches on grace as a way of transforming who we are:

In grace we are able to accept that we are accepted and, in this very act of knowing we do not have to change, we discover the ability to change. It is in experiencing the license of grace rather than the legalism of prohibition that real transformation becomes possible.

(p.106).

His definition of grace is part and parcel with Paul’s in Romans:

[…] the law does not stand in opposition to sin but rather is interwoven with it. In other words, the law and sin do not exist at opposite ends of a spectrum but rather occupy the same space and stand opposed to a fundamentally different mode of being (that of love).

(p.103; cf Romans 7:7-8:17)

Pete’s use of grace as a factor in Resurrection life to address our sinfulness, way of life, etc, does not seem to me like he has gone far enough. In the first part of the book, Pete examines how structures in modern churches shield us from facing doubt, the fear of death and the meaninglessness of existence by providing certainty and meaning. He then examines how we also avoid our own guilt (p. 87ff), which the rest of the chapter addresses (ie. a lot of the material I have just worked through). One place that Pete alludes to but doesn’t directly address, however, is apathy.

A bit of a classic there

Yes the books we read on apologetics tell us that we actually believe in God against our hidden doubts, yes our worship songs help us to overcome our true fears of death (I particularly like this one, like I actually enjoy and value it, but I realise what role it plays), yes we listen to sermons to get a sense for meaning when we fail to find it in life, yes we avoid facing up to our guilt through the use of mask we create for ourselves and others… and yes we avoid our own apathy by speaking concernedly of horrible events in the world as they appear in newspapers, shedding a tear among friends for the neighbour’s family who is struggling financially, and posting videos on Facebook of KONY 2012. As much as there are structures in place to avoid all these things, we engage in structures to help us push under the surface the fact that deeply down we care mostly for ourselves.

What then does grace have to do with apathy? Grace is apathy’s corrective, the great elixir. Rather than acknowledging my own responsibility to care for the poor, grace allows me to actually care for the poor because I am cared for. In grace I am loved and so I will love others. Our responses to our apathy have hitherto been legalistic: I must pray for Christians being persecuted in the Middle East; it is the right thing to do. Grace allows us to desire to pray for the persecuted, out of God’s love and compassion for them.

But what if grace is a part of the structure that allows us to avoid facing up to our own apathy? I’m surprised at Pete’s orthodoxy here. He leaves a very large stone unturned. The problem with grace as an answer is in its very definition: A gift from God. To receive a gift, the giver must first give it. Nobody can choose to experience grace because the choice is completely God’s. Some people receive grace and lives are changed dramatically from that point onwards. Some come intermittently throughout their lives to a timely point of grace that allows them to move on. Some continue to strive to do good but what their experience of grace is scant throughout their lifetime.

In a response to Richard Beck’s critique of Insurrection, (It’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magic that’s in it: A response to Richard Beck), Pete writes of the necessity of community in facing up to the death of God (the Crucifixion experience, entailing the embrace of doubt, meaninglessness, death and guilt): “My point is that we need Christian community both in order to help us undergo this event [the death of God] and to help us bear the weight of it”. Community, like grace is not something that can be achieved on the individual’s part. In an Arminian sense, community is something both which I seek and that seeks me. If there is no community for me to be a part of then I must give this whole ‘love’ thing a go for myself.

So, in conclusion, to love with God at the center requires grace, which can act both as a structure to avoid my apathy and is not something that I can choose for myself.

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“A relative and I became fond of smoking. Not that we saw any good in smoking, or were enamoured of the smell of a cigarette. We simply imagined a sort of pleasure in emitting clouds of smoke from our mouths.”

“They were not an assembly of devout souls; they appeared rather to be worldly-minded people, going to church for recreation and in conformity to custom.”

Gandhi, An autobiography or the story of my experiments with truth

* * *

“The most serious Christians have always been well disposed towards me.”

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity.”

Nietzsche, Ecce homo

Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd, “Ecce homo!” Latin for ‘behold the man!’. Nietzsche ironincally employs this title for his formative biography.

* * *

“God was introduced into the world on our terms in order to resolve a problem rather than expressing a lived reality.” Summarising Bonhoeffer’s deus ex machina, God out of the machine.

“The endless courses on apologetics triumphalist music, confident prayers and sermons of certainty don’t necessarily reflect the beliefs of the people offering them or receiving them. But everyone participates regardless, because they protect us from facing up to the anxieties of our existence.”

Peter Rollins, Insurrection

* * *

“So wel they lovede, as olde bookes sayn, /That when that oon was deed, soothy to telle, /His felawe wente and soughte hym doun in helle — ” sayn: say, oon: one, soothly: truely, felawe: fellow

“Man is bounden to his observaunce, /For Goddes sake, to letten of his wille, /Ther as a beest may al his lust fulfille. /And whan a beest is deed he hath no peyne; /But man after his deeth moot wepe and pleyne.” Or “For God’s sake it is man’s duty to refrain from his desire, whereas a beast may do whatever he pleases and when he dies he has no pain, but a man must weep and lament after death.”

Chaucer, The Canterbury tales

* * *

“If the Spirit does not move me, I move the Spirit”

Smith’s Wigglesworth, [I have neglected to record the title]

* * *

“The sixth commandment is ‘You shall not kill’. It is one of the shortest commandments and offers no commentary, explanations or variations. It does not say, as many Jews claim, ‘except in self-defense’, nor does it say ‘except when absolutely necessary’. It is one of the most plain declarative sentences in the Bible.”

“If the outbreak of war is inevitable, as seventeenth-century thinkers believed, history teaches the lesson that its inevitability does not rest, as they believed, on natural law, but on individuals incapable of conceiving another path.”

Mark Kurlansky, Non-violence, the history of a dangerous idea

Make love, not glaciers

* * *

“‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’ ‘No, what do you say, Harrison Starr?’ ‘I say, Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

“To teach wives of junior executives what to buy and how to act in a French restaurant.” On the function of a novel.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five

* * *

“God is the cause of all good things, some directly, others indirectly. He is the direct cause of Old and New Testaments. He is the indirect cause of Greek Philosophy. Perhaps we say that God gave Philosophy to the Greeks, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For as the Law educated the Hebrews […] so Philosophy educated the Greeks, to bring them to Christ. Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation.” Clement of Alexandria presents a view that contrasts somewhat sharply with Paul’s.

Quoted by John Foster, The first advance, church history AD29-500

* * *

“When Akbar was issuing his legal order that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion’, and ‘anyone is allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him’, and was busy arranging dialogues between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and even atheists, Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy, in the public square of Campo dei Fiors.”

“To hold the belief that nuclear weapons are useful but must never be used lacks cogency and can indeed be part of the odd phenomenon that Arundhati Roy […] has called ‘the end of imagination'”

Amartya Sen, The argumentative Indian

* * *

“The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing is fundamentally a lie — the truth lies outside in what we do.”

“The misfortune of Israel is that it was established as a nation-state a century or two too late, in conditions when such founding crimes are no longer acceptable.”

Slavoj Zizek, Violence

* * *

“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.”

“It is everywhere the same in this world, toil and labour, joys and rewards; what of it? I am only contented in your presence, and I shall suffer or enjoy here before you.”

Goethe, The sorrows of young Werther

* * *

“I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

One of my favourite Looney Tunes episodes. Tweety appears as Mr Hyde.

* * *

“Sleeping is no mean art. You need to stay awake all day to do it.”

“The true man wants two things: danger and play. For this reason he wants woman as the most dangerous plaything.”

“To redeem the past and transform every ‘It was’ into and ‘I wanted it thus!’ that alone do I call redemption.”

Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra

* * *

Since that fateful day in September last year when I left home, these books managed to find their way to me. If you have questions as to context then just ask, but things are never as interesting when they’re in their original context.

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Depending on how seriously you take the story of Adam and Eve, singleness can legitimately be understood as a form of malnourishment. I appreciate the way we can use the Genesis story as a symbol for the human condition (it’s almost like there’s an invisible gradient in the bible that as you go further towards the end you can take it more literally, with a sudden dip at Revelation), but how far should this symbolism go? Are we to say that it’s just a wee parable for something like human depravity, free will (or quite the opposite), or our need for redemption? Or should we embrace the depth of its meaning so the words, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) be taken seriously?

One idea I haven’t yet managed to take seriously is that some people look at the tasting of the forbidden fruit as a euphemism for sex, which can be disregarded in light of the fact that the first commandment that appears in the Hebrew bible seems a little impossible without so doing, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 NIV). This positive affirmation of reproduction has often been overlooked.

Papaya, I learnt when in India, means sin (pap-) came (-aya) in some Indian language (Hindi? Marathi?) so it’s a wee joke that Eve tasted papaya.

If, however, we do take God’s observation of the lonely Adam seriously then the context in which he says it should have even greater bearing on our understanding of singleness. In the early chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve participate in their act of disobedience against God, resulting in the Fall, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Mainline Christian theology supposes that before the Fall mankind had everything; Eden is a metaphor for heaven, for perfection. When sin entered the world through disobedience then with that came suffering, death, etc. Since this time God has been restoring his creation through Israel, the coming of Jesus, and the Church, etc. I’m not at this point going to explore some of the problems with this theology, but I do want to examine what it says about singleness when we hold to it. It was in the Garden of Eden, the perfect world, before sin, suffering and death came that God observed something in his creation he could improve on. Adam’s loneliness was a need that had not yet been met, and for Eden to be perfect, there needed to be an Eve.

This is where singleness becomes a form of malnourishment. If health entails good eating habits, then, according to this reading of the Genesis story, it also entails relationship. It was before the Fall, before everything went wrong with the world that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Celibacy is a fast. Celibacy is a forgoing of something essential to healthy existence.

* * *

A danger with the idea of celibacy is a confusion as to its function. Some adherents¹ of monastic orders wear wedding rings to symbolise the exclusivity of their being as wholly Jesus’. They enter into a marital relationship with their Saviour. I really don’t want to mock the sincerity with which they do this, even the positive function that it may have, but I just don’t think the practice is consistent with the idea of biblical celibacy.

The Carmelite monastery around the corner from where I used to live in Christchurch

The apostle Paul’s vision of celibacy is simple, but it gets confused amid his need to address a specific situation. He writes to the Corinthian church at a time when a few of them have problems controlling themselves sexually: “If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Corinthians 7:9 NIV)². The Corinthians had written to Paul in praise of celibacy (v.1), but Paul basically writes to them saying that singleness is not all bunnies and rainbows. Some of you really need to get married before you cause any more trouble.

Paul’s vision for celibacy is purely practical. He himself knows marriage is a good thing but he makes no use of it so that he can better serve the Lord³. He wishes that all those he is writing to could be celibate like him (v.7), and as he begins to conclude he gives some reasoning behind it: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided” (vv.32-34; cf. Jesus’ similar, but more ambiguous, words in Matthew 19:12). In a practical sense, God can use the single person more widely as they are less hindered by external commitments.

When God takes the place of significant other then, it distorts the practical function of celibacy. The celibate are those who can more fully express their relationship with God — they can love God — because they don’t have to give so much of themselves to another person. But really, Adam was alone when he had God in the Garden of Eden. We need each other. The part of yourself that loves God is not the same part of yourself that loves another. This is the sense in which celibacy is a fast: When you fast you go without something you cannot physically live without, which is food. We use our fasting as a way to say that God is all we need, although physically we would die if we went without it. Celibacy can be a way to say that God is all you need, but are you also going without something essential? The call to love God above all is not just for single Christians. The call to love God is a form of universal celibacy, celibacy for everyone, whereas those who are called to singleness are called there for practical reasons.

* * *

“Come be the fire inside of me,
Come be the flame upon my heart.
Come be the fire inside of me
Until You and I are one.”

— Misty Edwards, Jesus Culture, You won’t relent

* * *

The temptation in loneliness is to seek in God what we actually find in people. Note that this is a complete reversal of the warning of seeking in people what we should be seeking in God. I’m not sure if either have the power to fulfil the function we expect of them, unless we move beyond our present condition of humanity. Jesus Culture songs have had a profound effect on me. I have desired to have the same passion for God as I do for ‘worldly’ things such as reading, eating and good company. But my desire for God has been of an altogether different sort. Jesus Culture is made up of people who seem to actually love God (like I’m not mocking them; they probably really do) and they write songs that create the emotional environment for me to  experience feelings of loving God. Jesus Culture is attractive to me because it allows me to bring God into that place where he hasn’t occurred for me naturally.

To confront the state of your heart is, in reality, heartbreaking. I have desire for eternal life as some barely graspable, distant abstract possibility, but the idea that I could live in the Italian countryside, grow my own olives, and make red wine and become old is a lot more appealing. I have desire to know God as a wise life choice and existential experiment, but to woo, spend time with and bear my soul to some idealised form of human perfection is the fantasy that makes my heart beat. You can speak with God but you can hug a human. That these desires come more naturally and intensely to me than spiritual desires creates disillusionment: I signed up for Jesus and I still love the world. Jesus Culture allows me to experience desire for God.

Sigh…

* * *

Contraception and the 20th Century have largely taken the place of celibacy in the West. The monasteries are slowly emptying (not that the monastery is the only place for the monastic). When I lived in Christchurch, the Carmelite monastery round the corner (pictured above, not directly though; that’s Italy) said they were being reduced to about one new sign-up every ten years. If you’re not procreating, then this isn’t a very sustainable alternative. But with reforms (?) in family planning and gender roles, the celibate are all married. You have the benefits of celibacy (practicality because you don’t have babies just yet and both you and your wife are equals), enhanced by the fact that you can have a partner to work together with, as well as the benefits of marriage (companionship, sex, etc — I really don’t know). Marriage is the new celibacy.

And if you think that celibacy is harder than marriage then you missed Jesus’ response to his diciples’ own marital insecurities:

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given”.

(Matthew 19:8-11 NIV).

It’s as if Jesus’ disciples are saying that all that stuff around adultery and divorce is just so much that I’d rather not risk it. And Jesus affirms them! In celibacy you’re accountable to God, who easily forgives and our experience of him is open to a lot of subjectivity. In marriage you’re accountable to the physical reality of another person in your life, someone weak and irritable like yourself, someone whom you can’t just say, “I bought us a new motorbike with our shared income because I know we’ll both get a lot of use out of it and God was leading me; it was on sale”. If you’re only accountable to God and not another person then you can easily say, “Whoops, that Xbox was a mistake, please forgive me; I’ll sort it out”. Marriage requires more of you. Marriage is the new celibacy.

* * *

Before I conclude, maybe there’s something I’ve missed. Notice that throughout the bible the people of God are referred to as in marital relationship with God? One of my favourites is where God asks the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute as a symbol of his love for an unfaithful people. James echoes this sentiment when he refers to his readers as adulterers (James 4:4). Isaiah makes use of the marriage metaphor to speak hope to the post-exilic Jewish community (62:2-5), as does Paul to illustrate Christ’s love for the Church (eg. Ephesians 5:25-33), as Jesus also does when speaking on eschatological events (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13).

Maybe this is just a loosely balanced observation, but in these examples the marriage is between God and a people, rather than an individual. It is only as part of a community that we experience the marital love of God. God’s love for us in this sense is not love for you, but you all, us. If Jesus is my boyfriend then I don’t experience him as I would experience a boyfriend (girlfriend), because someone does not experience their boyfriend as part of a community. Human relationship holds a private sphere for human desire. If this aspect of human desire enters into the spiritual, it is not between God and I but God and us. The dating-the-deity is unnatural in the same way it is natural between humans because it is always in a communal sense that the marital metaphor is used with God. The words, “It is not good for man to be alone” take on a whole new level of meaning when community is necessity.

I now leave you with Jesus’ words to protect us from getting to attached to the idea of fulfilment in relationship: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

* * *

¹A friend told about this and I have no proof of its veracity. Even so, the anecdote makes a good point I think!

²Interestingly enough, Paul maybe should have gotten married too, according to his rule (see 2Corinthians 11:29).

³”Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1Corinthians 9:5). In this passage Paul lists his rights as an apostle as an example of what he forgoes so that he can better serve the Lord.

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“I now go away alone, my disciples! You too now go away and be alone! So I will have it.
Truly, I advisee you: go away from me and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he has deceived you.
The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels?
You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble? Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!
You say you believe in Zarathustra? But of what importance is Zarathustra? You are my believers: but of what importance are all believers?
You had not yet sought yourselves when you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all belief is of so little account.
Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.”

Zarathustra to his disciples in Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra (‘Of the bestowing virtue’, part one).

* * *

Favourite picture of Nietzsche. Who needs philosophy when you’ve got a mo’ like that?

A couple of years ago, Nietzsche’s name for me was a symbol of intellectual insecurity. He was the kind of guy for the spiritual giants who fasted twice a week, prayed four hours a day and always ended up with the right amount of money (down to the cent!) from God at the last minute for whatever obscure purpose¹. They would love God too much to be swindled by some philosophical naysayer. Or Nietzsche was for those thinkers who had spent forty years doing so (ie. thinking), that when it came to the time to think about Nietzsche’s thoughts the words passed by devoid of all their original passion and challenge. But the attraction to Nietzsche came when I expanded my still-intellectually-secure reading list and began reading Christians who took Nietzsche’s criticism on board and agreed with him, mostly in the sense of saying that Christian theology (maybe not practice, but definitely a lot of theology) historically focusses on the beyond, the eternal, the unseen, the ideal, etc, to the detriment of the here and now, the temporal, the seen and the real². On reading these friendly faces, Nietzsche has become for me no longer a symbol of fear but one of creativity, and hope for a new voice in any stiff and outdated theologies, rather than a challenge that needs to be countered.
But, to be honest, I was quite disappointed. After potentially finding some ideas to contribute to more thoughtful theological practice, I just didn’t gel with the guy. The opening excerpt is one exception (there are a few more). As this post mentions the relative undangerousness of Nietzsche, I might also do a post in the future about why he’s not as cool as I thought he’d be.
* * *

What’s Zarathustra actually saying? First of all, here’s the background. Zarathustra/Zoroaster was a Persian prophet/philosopher and the founder of Zoroastrianism, an ancient and today dying religion from the same primordial ooze as Judaism, Christianity, Islaam, etc — the Near East. Nietzsche wrested him from his historical context and characterised him in said book. Thus spoke Zarathustra was viewed by Nietzsche as his most important work and a lot of his vital organs are contained in it. The text throughout mocks the bible, portraying Zarathustra at once as the new Messiah and Anti-Christ. One of my favourites was, “If we do not alter and become as cows, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (‘The voluntary beggar’, part four). The existentialist heart of the opening excerpt is important to the other key ideas in the work, albeit not Nietzsche’s most important idea, in comparison to the emphasis with which he puts on others.

And after all that, here’s in short what the puppetted prophet Zarathustra is actually  saying: “My philosophy does not ask you to believe in me and follow my ways, but to abandon me and find your own way. Those who abandon me and follow their own reality faithfully are most loyal to me and the ones I thus return to”. Zarathustra, in contrast to Jesus, asks not that we follow him and conform to his image, but that we abandon him and become like ourselves³. At this point you may want to re-read the quote at the start and realise its genius.

* * *

A good (dead) friend of mine

But to what extent is Nietzsche’s critique of Jesus based on a caricature of him? Does Jesus actually want us to all be like sheep4? Or is Jesus more like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra than we think? Perhaps Nietzsche was not so much attacking Jesus as he really is but what the church had constructed of him. I’ll use an example from another name you may find difficult to pronounce. Kierkegaard, probably the best ever philosopher (who was not really a philosopher but more of a man of faith in my elevated, saint-canonising conception of him), also criticised Jesus for the same reason Nietzsche did, but with a different focus5: Kierkegaard recognised that it was the church and contemporary philosophy (rather than the saviour himself) that advocated conformity to a universal code of ethics, something that Kierkegaard criticised throughout his life as deeply non-Christian.

A biblical example of Zarathustra’s ‘abandon me and find yourself’ existentialism was used by Kierkegaard as the title to his landmark work on the subject, Fear and trembling:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV).

Paul, one of the most defining figures in early Christianity with lasting significance, is writing to the Philippian church while in jail. “Hey guys, I’m not always going to be there to hold your hand and look both ways for you before you cross the road. You’re big kids now and it’s not me you should be looking to for direction. And it’s not conformity with the ethical law that makes you a good person. Now that you’ve received the Spirit, God will work in each of you according to his purposes”. Kierkegaard takes the sentiment and writes a lifetime’s supply of philosophy on it: We discover that the will of God is different for every person.

But before I move on, I’ve got to call Nietzsche back over here for some input. While Kierkegaard would say that good determined by society or the Church should not deter the individual from doing the good to which God has called them, Nietzsche would say he has not gone far enough: good determined by society, the Church and God should not deter the individual from being faithful to their individual reality. Nietzsche would say that Kierkegaard’s theological weaknesses are trapping him from fully facing and embracing his reality. But I’m just the guy that drives the van.

* * *

This is seriously the coolest picture of Moltres I’ve ever seen and a Moltres tattoo might be the place to start. Check out the rest of this guy’s work here: http://cockrocket.deviantart.com/ You can buy his prints.

Working in hospitality with a lot of travellers and passing-through-ers, and knowing a lot of people my own age, has generally brought me into contact with a lot of tattoos. And every now and then a stray thought (stray in the sense of a stray dog) tells me how cool it would be to get a tattoo. And then I’m totally pouring different glasses of wine for customers, and that beautiful aroma! But I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t see anything wrong with getting tattoos or having a drink; I just don’t do it. Herein lies the tension between the universal and the particular6.

The particular is what I’ve hitherto spent this whole essay explaining to you, whether Kierkegaardian, the call to follow the Holy Spirit7, or Nietzshean, the challenge to live faithful to your individual reality. But the particular can only be understood against the background of the universal. Universalism in this sense asserts things such as universal truth, and therefore universal ethics, the idea that the most virtuous person in society is he or she who conforms most closely to this code of ethics. For me, this idea stinks of mathematical simplicity and is in keeping with reducing people to numbers, statistics, and stick figures. But, necessarily, a dual embrace of the universal and the particular is required for living as a Christian. Most clearly, I think, and this example would be a common one, if in the universal I know that God is love and that the ideal person is loving, then in the particular I cannot say that God is asking me to kill someone. Note also, that in the same chapter to the Philippians, Paul first describes aspects of a unified community, the universal which he encourages his readers to conform to before he reminds them that God will work in them according to his purposes:

“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:2-4 NIV).

Further, a mature understanding of the universal and particular requires the rejection of the two as a dichotomy. The rejection is based on who has claims to the universal. In some states in the USA, capital punishment is an accepted punishment for certain crimes. In other states, it’s no longer an option. Understand that there are particular claims to the universal. According to some, it is universally acceptable that those who commit certain crimes should be punishable by death; according to others it’s universally unacceptable. The individual therefore has the duty of constructing their own universal but living according to their particular. In my understanding of the universal, it is alright to drink and get tattoos, but it’s not alright to get drunk. In my particular, I have not been called to either drink or get tattoos at this point in my life. Not that I’m so righteous because I’m doing what the Lord asked me to do. I could tell you that he’s asked me to do a lot of things that by my actions I’ve laughed at. Tattoos and drinking are just two things I’ve yet been almost successful in.

* * *

I leave you with this poem from the very existential and forever readable Emily Dickinson:

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity.

* * *

¹It’s amazing how manifold these stories of divine providence are and they never cease to shock me and capture my imagination. I had a quick lazy look for some but I couldn’t find any so if you’d like to know what I mean then just ask.

²N T Wright, for example would be one of the writers that helps me identify with Nietzsche’s critique; however it’d be my guess that Wright’s not in direct dialogue with the man himself but rather listening to what the world around him and onto-it theologians are saying about the Christian heads-in-clouds-syndrome, which no doubt this critique has been inherited by secular academia and onto-it theologians from reading Nietzsche. Peter Rollins, another guy whose writings influenced me, on the other hand, seems to be in more direct dialogue with him.

³Paradoxically, Zarathustra’s disciples can either heed his words and abandon him (thus following him by taking his counsel) or, in weakness, continue to follow him (thus abandoning him by not understanding or being strong enough to take his counsel).

4A pun.

5It’s possible that Nietzsche, coming onto the scene a few years later, south of a couple of borders, read the holy philosopher as he seems to be denouncing him in some parts of Thus spoke Zarathustra. If so, Nietzsche took on board Kierkegaard’s existential ideas but pushed them beyond the realm of faith. However, I haven’t yet heard of any direct and verifiable evidence of Nietzsche’s speculated reading habits.

6I first came into contact with these terms through Kierkegaard, but they may be Hegelian. I really don’t know.

7A deliberately charismatic reading of Kierkegaard. Note that Kierkegaard acknowledges two possibilities in the particular, (a) the aesthetic, which means living according to your own desires and (b) faith, living according to your best understanding of God. Pentecostalism goes horribly wrong when faith is confused with the aesthetic, resulting in an heavily individualist approach to Christianity, a practice that fulfills all your spiritual and fleshly desires under the guise of faith.

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If the foolish, call them “flowers” –
Need the wiser, tell?
If the Savants “Classify” them
It is just as well!

Those who read the “Revelations”
Must not criticize
Those who read the same Edition –
With beclouded Eyes!

Could we stand with that Old “Moses” –
“Canaan” denied –
Scan like him, the stately landscape
On the other side –

Doubtless, we should deem superfluous
Many Sciences,
Not pursued by learned Angels
In scholastic skies!

Low amid that glad Belles lettres
Grant that we may stand,
Stars, amid profound Galaxies –
At that grand “Right hand”!

If the foolish call them flowers by Emily Dickinson
* * *

A mural of Emily in her hometown of Amherst

    This is one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems. When at first I read it a couple of years ago I didn’t quite see what was going on but I wanted to stick at it because something about the poem kept me coming bamck to it. At the time I could find no decent analysis wherever I looked, possibly because I didn’t look hard enough, but also because this isn’t one of Emily’s more well known poems. This quality blogger’s post on the same poem popped up not too long ago and the rest of her posts are worth a read for Dickinson fans. This particular version of the poem was all I could find across the internet, with it’s intrusive capitals and mocking quotation marks. I thought I’d leave it as is, because I don’t really have the authority to mess with it.
    I was first introduced to Emily by way of watching the Simpsons (the same medium by which I discovered Walt Whitman). Lisa follows Bart to military camp and, being the only girl, finds herself in her only lonely quarters: “Solitude never hurt anyone. Emily Dickinson lived alone, and she wrote some of the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known… then went crazy as a loon.”
    I’m not sure how accurate Lisa’s conclusion is, but Emily certainly did spend a lot more time alone as she grew older. Wikipedia informs me (although I already knew (because I read the read the article ages ago (so Wikipedia is informing me on something it has previously informed me))) that “fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime”.
    Emily asked that her poems be burnt after she died. A bit of wishful thinking there. But this is what makes her poetry so perfect. Emily Dickinson, for me, is the exemplary existentialist. Her poetry is a look from the inside into her life. She wrote most of them with no intention of being published. She wrote a few in some written exchanges with friends. But the better part of her poetry was an assertion of herself against existence, a questioning of God and science, life and death, sexuality, rationality, beauty and everything in between. Because there is no intended audience we have access to the unadulterated leanings of Emily’s introspective heart and mind. Regarding literary movements, she managed to get in before getting tied up in the lameness of realism.
* * *

Emily grew lily of the valley in her garden

    The overall message of the poem is exceedingly simple. And beautiful. If you think you’ve got it sorted upstairs, don’t be overbearing towards other people. Life is so much more than knowing this and that.
    Emily opens the poem with two types of people, the foolish know flowers by their general name, as ‘flowers’, and the wise, or savantswho can tell you the scientific name of each flower, ‘classify them’. Note that she doesn’t say, ‘If the foolish call them begonias and forget-me-nots’, and then compare this to more scientific terms, but that the foolish really only can, like me, say that this is a flower and that is a tree. Interestingly enough, I’d say Emily fell into the latter category, herself an enthusiastic gardener (a constant gardener maybe) who also pressed and collected flowers for a hobby. The poem, although essentially an apology for the underdog, doesn’t seem to have her shying away from defending academics from their naysayers too: ‘just as well’ should not be read in the idiomatic modern sense, ‘Just as well I brought my wallet with me!’ but in a more literal, word-by-word, sense, ‘If the Savants “Classify” them /It is [valid] as well!’ However, we cannot ignore that there may be a sense of self-deprecation throughout the poem, or a criticism of Emily’s own failure to live up to her humble ideals of the simple life and calling flowers flowers.
    Although there is no ‘but’ or ‘yet’ to introduce the next verse, which seems to be a more decisive dig at smug intelligentsia, the contrast is evident and sets up the next point that the poem makes: The learned who can detail the theological idiosyncrasies of Revelations (the last, controversial book of the bible, dealing with the end times, a hot topic considering Emily’s time and geography) need not belittle those who find it a bit more perplexing.
    ‘Could we stand with that Old “Moses”‘… is quite grammatically enigmatic. This verse threw me for a while until I’d read quite a bit more of Emily’s work to understand her style better. If you notice the dashes, you’ll see the sentence doesn’t finish until the end of the next verse. It almost makes sense when you realise this and read the two together, but just a little more imagination is required. It basically reads, ‘[If we could] stand with that Old “Moses”… /Doubtless we should deem superfluous…’ The Old Testament story which Emily is referring to is God allowing Moses to look upon Canaan, the Promised Land (a metaphor for heaven in Christianity and Judaism), but without entering it: ‘”Canaan” denied’. If we, like Moses, could stand before Canaan and look upon it, our vision and purposes in life would be drastically altered; our attention would turn to the sciences which angels engage in, rather than our more earthly pursuits. But remember that Emily’s denouncement encompasses the theological too: ‘Those who read the “Revelations” /Must not criticise…’ Her criticism is not aimed at just one quarter of academia.

I still don't understand Revelations...

    If Emily is calling to attention the relative purposelessness of higher learning then what is she advocating instead? Her conclusion looks forward to the Resurrection (a common theme in Emily’s poems), where the righteous and unrighteous rise to be judged at the end of times. ‘Belles lettres‘, literally, ‘fine letters’ is a French term to refer to literature as an art form. Considering ‘Revelations’ is the only piece of literature Emily mentions in the piece, along with the colourful nature of the book, she’s probably making reference to it. Being ‘Low amid’ the Revelations basically compares the standing of the foolish next to a piece of literature better approached by the scholarly. Emily asks that this be put aside and everyone, regardless of their level of erudition, may stand at the right hand of God.

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As Easter approaches, I’d like to share this passage I’ve been working on from the bible. Commonly called The suffering servant, Christians often apply its content to the person of Jesus. If so, the passage is especially relevant concerning the season. I’ve taken the NIV’s Isaiah 53:2-6 as my source, but reworked the original Hebrew so that the translation is more in keeping with my personal understanding of who Jesus is:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our Easter eggs,
he was crushed for our chocolate bunnies;
the punishment that brought us cocoa was upon him,
and by his wounds we are fed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
some confectionary for us all.

God telling Bush to invade Iraq

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