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Archive for July, 2012

I’d been meaning to watch Of Gods and Men for a while, and tonight I just finished it, along with some of the short, special features. It’s a based on a true story of Cistercian monks living in a monastery in Algeria, at peace with their Muslim neighbourhood. Some fundamentalists start causing a stir and a lot of the film is dedicated simply to how the monks decide whether they will stay in Algeria or go back to France. It’s beautiful. Below is the (famous?) testament of Christian de Chergé, recorded not long before he died. He was a reader of the Qu’ran and dedicated a lot of his life to understanding and living in peace with Muslims:

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

Christian, who wrote this testament

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.

This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!

And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!

Stolen from here.

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It’s a hard knock life for us. And I’m not just talking about lame movies. However much Solomon Kane bordered on the lame when I watched it not too long ago, I was half-overjoyed by the profundity of insight it offered on the human condition: Solomon Kane is a bit of a treasure hunter in the early 17th Century, violently and mercilessly making his mark on the world and receiving some decent bounty. One misadventure in Africa takes him into a fortress; notably, his enemies that were guarding it refuse to follow him in. As he ascends, his men slowly disappear, until he eventually reaches the throne room, entering in alone with the doors closing behind him. A short introduction and Solomon Kane is before the Devil’s Reaper, who has appeared to claim his soul after his life of violence. Solomon quickly displays some sophistic sword action, managing to elude the supernatural and later return home to England. I apologise for the necessity of recalling the opening of the film in it’s almost entirety, but let me continue. Clearly affected by this experience, Solomon commits to being a man of peace by spending the rest of his life in isolation at a monastery. Later on in the film he meets a small party of pacifist Puritans. One of them, Mr Crowthorn, reveals his military past:

“I fought in the Queen’s Army once, before I found my faith. Taking another man’s life, that’s not an easy thing to do, don’t you agree?”

Solomon replies:

“I must confess Mr Crowthorn, I was never more at home than I was in battle. Killing came easily to me”.

Solomon Kane in the film

That’s it right there. Mr Crowthorn and Solomon Kane approach Christian lifestyle completely differently. For Mr Crowthorn, his conversion and subsequent faith provide the necessary out and over, the new standpoint of meaning from which he can now view his old life of violence as completely without meaning. His faith is not a means to an end but an end in itself. If we take Mr Crowthorn for a type and read the entirety of his faith in this sense then even any hope beyond the grave is completely subordinated to the present, a live lived in the footsteps of Jesus. For Solomon, however, he does not know violence as empty and meaningless, but it remains to be the highest point of meaning he has yet experienced in his life, as the words at home indicate. His faith does not come naturally as a result of his conversion, but his faith and non-violence are the burdens he bears to withhold his damnation. He would much rather be exercising his bloodlust than living out the peaceful remainder of his life waiting for death, yet he knows he will be vindicated by maintaining this peace. Solomon’s lifestyle, if typified, is a more primitive, milk-and-honey faith, one that is only the means to an end and sacrifices the present for the future.

* * *

How does one make the move from the Solomon Kane faith of unwillful self-denial to the Mr Crowthorn faith of willful obedience? To realise and seek to overcome this disconnect is a part of the Christian tradition. One example is of Francis Xavier, a 16th Century Jesuit missionary, who challenges his own motivations:

Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Shall I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward–
But as thyself hast loved me,
O everlasting Lord!

To love for love’s sake is a higher expression and truer definition of love than one that gives thought to the self. I cannot discount this beautiful prayer. But what must be asked of all of these movements is, where ethically are they situated? With what motivations does Francis seek to change his motivations? Once Francis discerns the selfish nature of his faith, what dark-between must he enter into to complete it? In other words, why exactly does Francis desire to love for love’s sake (or for God’s sake)? If he desires to do so without thought of heaven and hell, and this includes in an implicit sense where he gives thought to any kind of reward, for example, more of God’s presence, then he need not desire to have a complete love because his desire is already an expression of selfless desire. If, however, he unwittingly seeks to be justified by moving from selfish love to complete love then he must necessarily arrive at this through incomplete love, his selfish love. In either case his primary desire annuls the destination desire. To put the words of Paul in another context, “Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!” (Romans 3:8 NIV).

* * *

If we ourselves cannot legitimately make the move from selfish to selfless faith (and I cannot talk of these in absolute terms, of course; each progressive move is from a less so to a more so, rather than a no to a yes), then the obvious prophetic answer must be that the cause must lay outside of ourselves. In one of the best games of all time, Ocarina of time, Link the protagonist must symbolically face himself half way through the game. Up until now he has slain various forces of evil that have been reclaiming his homeland, Hyrule. Half way through the water temple, Link finds himself in a seemingly endless, desolate, mirror-like room, with a tree and a pond in center. After looking around, a figure appears beside the tree. On approaching, the figure appears as Dark Link, a shadowy version of himself. Before Link proceeds any further, before he can confront Ganondorf, the source of evil who has been oppressing Hyrule, he must confront and overcome an entirely different opposition, himself. Naturally, this is impossible. We are ourselves; how then can we overcome ourselves? Link nonetheless proceeds… only to find that each strike is countered with equal force, and each raising of shield is mockingly mirrored. Could it be that Link cannot land a hit on his other self because he is in actuality aiming at nothing at all? Is suicide his only out?

This picture should give an indication of Link’s predicament. Note the player’s excellently good choice of having the war hammer equipped on c-down, which will make sense as you read on.

Yet self-overcoming depends on this: that our two selves are not identical. A chess master who plays the most honest game with himself can only finish in a stalemate, a technical non-event. Yet if the player had access on one side of the game to an extra couple of queens, this would throw out of balance the identicality of his selves and allow for greater variance in the outcomes of the game (as also does the turns-based element of chess, but for a master this would make little difference). Thus in Ocarina of Time, Link is matched with sword and shield but not fire or a war hammer. When Link wields the war hammer, Dark Link cannot counter with the same, engendering immediately non-identicality, and consolidating the partition of the self.

In Christian theology, grace is God’s way of giving us a war hammer. As before shown, it is impossible to legitimately love selflessly, as it must be arrived at through selfish love, or it is already arrived at. If the latter is the case it is because the Holy Spirit has reoriented my desire.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws”

(Ezekiel 36:25-26 NIV; cf Jeremiah 31:33-34).

Back to the example of Solomon Kane, he cannot legitimately make the move from salvation-oriented self-denial to contentment and meaning in peace, as his desire for the latter is an expression of the former. His completed faith must arise independently of his struggle for it, as he will only eternally lock swords with his selfish desires. The Holy Spirit must take his own initiative and act as a war hammer upon Solomon’s desires, thus redefining and redeeming them. From a Calvinist perspective, even Solomon’s asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is mediated by the Holy Spirit, so that God can complete Solomon’s salvation without flawed human involvement.

* * *

Yet what if Solomon is not blessed enough to receive this providence? What if he remains, to use the proper Calvinist terminology, truly reprobate? Must we depend entirely on divine caprice for the redeeming of our desires? Is there a way, in Jesus’ words, to enter the sheep pen without going through the gate (John 10:1,9)? Speaking of Jesus, what are all these conveniently passed over mentions, just a few examples from Matthew’s gospel alone, of reward (Matthew 5:12, 46; 6:1-18; 10:42; 16:27; 25:14-30)  and punishment (Matthew 8:12; 14:32; 22:13)? Is Solomon justified in missing half the point of the Gospel message just so he can secure his own salvation? Opportunistic hecklers of the Gospel miss the wisdom in Jesus’ admonishments based on reward and punishment: It is impossible to freely break from this orientation without the intervention of an external cause. If we remain selfish, let us continue in it and strive against it to eventually become selfless.

While causality blesses some, it is not yet impossible to attain the selfless orientation on your own means; it only requires a kind of coup d’état with selfish means. Further, this is only completely seen as selfish with a strictly prospective view of desire. Actions judged by their motivations through self-reflection may often be discounted, “I have been giving a lot of my time to that volunteer group, but originally only because I knew I needed to look beyond myself and that girl was pretty sexy too”. This requires some slaughtering of the literal meaning of motivation, but consider if motivations can not just be prospective (anticipating) but retrospective (reflecting). The previous example is one of prospective motivation. The volunteer group could have at the outset appeared unappealing, so the subject appeals to his responsibility and relationship opportunities to engage in something that requires self-sacrifice. These are the rewards. Retrospective motivation in this case is where reflection on completing the activity supersedes the original motivations, “I honestly had no interest in making soup for homeless people but after doing so I feel it’s more important than justifying my middle-class indifference and engaging casual flirting”.

The initiation of the Holy Spirit is not exclusive to Calvinist thinking but may be implicit in other evangelical/Protestant theologies. These theologies may allow for the movement Solomon makes with his selfishness into selflessness, but the assumption is also that Solomon makes the movement from asking help of the Holy Spirit to being moved by/moving with the Holy Spirit. This is to view conversion, as with Mr Crowthorn, as something drastically life-changing, a redefinition of all desires of the heart and patterns of the mind, in accordance with New Testament theology (eg. John 3:5-6; Romans 8:5, 12:2; 2Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24; Hebrews 8:10-11). The full conversion of Solomon would retroactively annul his original selfish desires with which he enters into it.

What is missing in this account of the Gospel is the progressive nature of faith. A few weeks ago somebody asked me to grow my hair. To grow my hair means I must decide every day to maintain my commitment, but to cut my hair I can decide on a whim. Not for everyone is faith like cutting your hair, which is once-off and can account for large changes; faith may also be like growing your hair. Therefore sometimes a life lived always asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is more of a reality than a life lived with the help of the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit, the constancy of always having to ask for his help and the commitment required to live out faith in his absence make faith more reminiscent of works-based salvation than Paul probably intended. But what out is there? Contrariwise to the film, if Solomon had maintained his unwillful life of self-denial, possibly he would have come to a point where his legalism would have been usurped by his greatest yet experience of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The eventual meaning arising from the call to peace would act as a retrospective motivation upon the call, replacing his prospective motivation of self-preservation. Or maybe he would have continued to suppress his desire for violence until he died, without the real inner change testified to in the Gospel, and hoped that the Lord would look gracefully upon his self-righteousness.

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At an experiential level, free will will always be easy to argue for. Then people start reflecting, they see the world as cause and effect and realise that determinism is easier to argue for. Then they realise also that the way they experience life can not so easily be discounted. Free will still exists, but not as true freedom; it is subordinated into a happy illusion that hides our dark chains to causality.

I here present no argument for existence as truly free. In another post I have even discussed some impossibility around imagining this. But work with this assumption here for a moment. If freedom is just a shadow of some deeper truth in a determined world (where we don’t actually exist, but are just an expression of the existing whole), what if this deeper truth of everything being already determined is just a shadow of something even more eternal, something yet more foundational, an existence that is truly free? I’m not qualified to qualify my speculation with any spectacular argument. I can only examine the operative value of each view.

If free will is an illusion then it’s not one that we’re not happy to live with. How many people choose, after becoming aware of their determined existence, to live accordingly? You cannot live accordingly. You live as you have always lived, and revel in it, because your false freedom is the consolation of your true unfreedom. Free will as an experiential illusion is a friendly gesture from existence to deal with your true bondage.

If, however, we accept the inevitability of our every action and begin to live a life more conscious of this bondage then our days quickly become shorter and our nights longer. The illusion of causality greedily hides from us our true freedom. Check out this quote I recently came across:

If an outstanding event takes place, a catastrophe, for example, it could not not have taken place; nonetheless, insofar as it did not take place, it is inevitable. It is thus the event’s actualization — the fact that it takes place — which retroactively creates its necessity.

(Jean-Pierre Dupuy, cited by Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ, p.77).

To paraphrase, as we approach events that are ahead of us in time, there are infinite possibilities concerning how the event could pan out. But if we reflect on events already past then all possibility disappears. There is no “I could have saved some extra money for the bus ride home”. No, you couldn’t have. You couldn’t have because you didn’t. And now you have to walk home. As soon as you do something, the doing of that thing, its actualisation, means there is no fantasy ‘otherwise’. The only reason you couldn’t have not spent your money is because there is now no possibility for you to go back in time and choose differently; the passing of time fully consolidates your actions and makes any other possibility impossible. The only possibility now is ahead of now, in future.

Not going to happen.

Yet causality does not stop there. It creeps also into present and future. Once you make the same mistake more than once, you face the possibility that your lack of freedom exists not only behind you but also ahead of you. This is a passing thought. Then one day you come face to face with your unfreedom in the present. Now is the time when you will need those coins for the bus ride home. You know this. You will not make the same mistake again. Yet you choose to make this mistake again. You squander your last silver on whatever it is that forfeits your ride home. The logic of past necessity has crept into your present, and it has not long to take your future also. If I have done this in the past, if I choose to do it also now, though I could choose otherwise but do not choose because I also cannot, then it is likely that I will choose to do so likewise in the future.

I’m pretty sure I started this post with some conclusion in mind, but I’ll finish on that depressing note until something returns…

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Through some USB travels, I’ve further re-found two poems written in 2010. Thistles for you, mind the cheese, written after about a five hour trip (if you know Christchurch) across the hills from Sumner to Halswell Quarry, raising the question of why thistles aren’t considered beautiful. Pieces of heart, after an Ocarina of Time renaissance, in which not just me but my whole being experienced again the best game of all time, exploring the possibility that Link and Saria were really into each other but kind of put that aside to take part in something larger.

* * *

Thistles for you

The generations have disdained
you and counted you
among weeds. Do you stab at us
in anger? But
your bite

is not
without beauty. Perhaps
you protect it fiercely. And still
the beholder pierces your heart,
your every intent.

Is that light-hearted
purple the sound of
your laughter? Have I
all this time missed
the bright celebrations on a hillside

of gorse? No midsummer
lavender or joyous yellow ran down
when the spear entered
your side, but a bleeding scarlet
and colourless

water, both more full, more empty; more
deep, more faint. My soul
descried a
“This is for you.” And this all,
your misery, your slaying,

is the highest image of beauty:
The best of us are lost
and the worst of us are
perfect, as a withering thistle
testifies.

* * *

Pieces of Heart

Saria, the woodland peace is here
only by virtue of us;
each fresh shrub, each aged
oak bears our friendship.

And the mist is the breath of
your prayers, and your tears
for the ashen pine humbly drop like
dewdrops. Hope,

Saria, for though the bloodied
kindle under furious flambeaux, hear,
even now in the distance, our rain
song surges

the skies before dawn. On the tip
of this blade I balance all
that is pure, and pommel
time’s shortcomings for us

and freedom, Saria. The heart
is soft and vulnerable, yet it beats
hardest; I am only the air of
a warm exhale, only

a herald for renewal.
When the wind ensuing
my deathstroke reveals to
the world

salvation, I will have glory
but not your love. Your love
for a moment is more
difficult than the gamut

of pallid swords and chilled skin-bags
that afflict our
reality. Yet, I will strive
against fate, though it shatters
our hearts, though we fight

hell.

Link and Saria

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Here’s another marketing ploy for readers to continue reading while I fervently try to box a little bit more of reality with language. Enjoy five sonnets written over 2008 and 2009. I haven’t read them for ages. Twenty-One, written on becoming twenty-one, also had Milton in mind when writing it, mainly lamenting the amount of life that’s gone to waste so far. Making sure, written out of my own cynicism in my inability to live up to my own ideals. Maranatha, disillusionment with my lack of compassion for people the world over, and that any desire I had to help others was actually more of a desire to find my own purpose in life. Poker for communists, on celibacy. A better tomorrow, a nice one to close on, as you can see from this miserable line up of other poems, expressing one of those rare moments in life when you grasp the reality of real hope.

Twenty-One

These formative years:
They are passing
with rapidity,
like a rabbit you would
see running from a gunshot. I shot

again, and the cuddle-wrought
fugitive contracted into a ball

of fluff. If an instant were a lifetime,
then in that instant of this life

one last elastic bound
cast my prize to his safety. And
I walked on dejectedly
into possibility; and I walked on
an empty stomach.

* * *

Making Sure

We’re not falling away
due to adversity,
but we are falling as we rise
in our prosperity. Hear this
new something we have

to complain about: life–
it’s too easy. Our excess is emptiness;

there’s really nothing there.
So we buy books

to make sure we’re saved.
Our Christian friends tell us
Christian things
to make us better Christians
so that one day we’ll be really good Christians.

* * *

Maranatha

When leaden souls burden
my shoulders, or if the blood
of the condemned swells
in my heart, then consecrate
this entire individual to the God who is

love. But between desert mosque and isolated
rainforest, though I could search for a niche to love

people, in searching I search for myself.
This skin envelops the multipartite and immeasurable

being: Bones, ghost,
psyche, etc. Give me some time away from
myself! Jesus will save the nations,
albeit my motivations are
a precedent for my procrastination!

* * *

Poker for communists

The pursuit of
happiness is all pursuit; the yellow
brick road concedes
infinity. Arise, dying body! Life within
continue! You may envy the resting

stillborn, who faced neither despair
nor desire, but we exchange fists

with eternity. Tell me how
Buddha, apostate of world and wife,

grew plump on nirvana. Tell me how
Jesus’ disciples could discount
godly union for fear of divorce. Tell me
how a couple could love to the utmost of human possibility
then forfeit it all to death.

* * *

A better tomorrow

The majestic king of beasts, through bringing
death, lives on flesh, and glorifies
his Creator. The humble plankton
perishes in a whale’s belly, yet sings
praises to his God. Eternity is now, forever

is today, and this breath finds its meaning
when breathed for you. Each moment

is just a reason to know you, and you
make each momentous. Although now the world

is lard in our blood and heavy
in our lungs, each choke
anticipates the coming perfection; and
though now we but know you
in spirit and faith, we will see your face.

Look Jackson, you’re too old for piggy back rides now; someone’s going to lose an eye.

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