Monday, March 11, 2019

Evangelicals & Zen Masters

John Cage said, "I was almost forty years old before I discovered what I needed - in Oriental thought... I was starved - I was thirsty. These things had all been in the Protestant Church, but they had been there in a form in which I couldn't use them," (297). Here's an essay of mine on how I made the same discovery, but learned to use them.

Update: Of course, for more on Merton, and the risks, see Alan Jacobs' wonderful article in The New Yorker (and this blog post). William Johnston and the others I mention in the above essay may therefore be better guides in navigating inter-religious terrain, offering essential supplements to Merton. Arise, My Love is Johnston's splendid summa. How I wish I had known of it sooner. And then there's this from The-Ox Herder and the Good Shepherd by Addison Hodges Hart (David Hart's brother):
The classical Christian view (or at least one significant version of it) has been to recognize the divine logos as shaping this common [religious] grammar in a hidden way, and revealing itself definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Even if those of non-Christian faiths don’t perceive that to be the case, we Christians nevertheless can. If we think about it sufficiently long and hard enough (and assuming we have really encountered the pertinent texts and traditions firsthand and on their own terms, without prejudice or hubris), Why shouldn’t a Christian discern Christ and God say, in the concept of the Tao, or in the words of Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, or in the notion of the Buddha nature? This may even be one more way of understanding how Christ is before all things and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:17)
We therefore should be prepared to wonder whether such moments will be counted among the 10,000 places in which Christ played. But to want more than wonder is greedy, and it's Lent.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

NPW 250

We had fun discussing all manner of things on the 250th episode of New Persuasive Words.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Why Art History?

A bit about how we do art history here at Wheaton.

And I suppose this is as good a place as any to keep a running list (to be updated over time) of recent "why art history?" articles (and why liberal arts in general as well).

1. Looking at Art Could Help Medical Students Become Better Doctors
2. How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy
3. One Man's Quest to Change the Way We Die
Miller had wanted to work in foreign relations, in China; now he started studying art history. He found it to be a good lens through which to keep making sense of his injuries.
First, there was the discipline’s implicit conviction that every work is shaped by the viewer’s perspective. He remembers looking at slides of ancient sculptures in a dark lecture hall, all of them missing arms or noses or ears, and suddenly recognizing them for what they were: fellow amputees. “We were, as a class, all calling these works monumental, beautiful and important, but we’d never seen them whole,” he says. Time’s effect on these marble bodies — their suffering, really — was understood as part of the art. Medicine didn’t think about bodies this way, Miller realized.
4. Why Med Schools are Requiring Art Classes
5. Mark Cuban: Liberal Arts is the Future
6. Liberal Arts in the Data Age 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Monday, January 07, 2019

all brows need not be furrowed

May I point out a few quick things about this wonderful, piercing dialogue at Cambridge between Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson? 

They’re right! Art is indeed that which sorts empirical phenomenon so it can address us, and much of the academy muffles the speech. (Many of my fellow academics who sneeringly dismiss Peterson or Scruton would not last ten minutes in a debate with either of them.) But the academy is – to a certain extent – already on the side of the angels. There is a post-critical theory movement that has arisen due to the sheer failure of the kind of critique that Scruton and Peterson take on. To put that melodramatically, God has his 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Foucault.

Folks like Rita Felski exemplify this, as do the folks present at the conference Jonathan Anderson organized on post-secular (Jeff Kosky, Lori Branch), as of course does Jonathan’s work. It's been a theme here for a while. Did I mention just down the way from Cambridge the Tate Modern launched a Bible commentary? That feminism has been hacked by the Virgin Mary?

While some of the negativity is still subsidized, a lot of it has collapsed or is collapsing on its own. Peterson is in a pitch battle with those who militantly cling to the old order. The battle is real. But the attack mode has serious drawbacks, and lends outsiders (those who only listen to Peterson) the impression that the entire academy is crazed and the only sane ones left are Peterson and Scruton. I am not saying Peterson should not be fighting – the fight came to him. I have listened to and read a good bit of Peterson, and I’d consider myself a selective admirer (and critic). His more severe critics should ask themselves why he can consistently fill a Toronto lecture hall for serious lectures on the Bible and they can't. Still, Peterson's is not the only, and for many of us, not the best strategy.

That said, Scruton and Peterson are right about transcendence. I can’t emphasize that enough – I’m only mentioning Peterson's tone (which is why so many academics are allergic to Peterson – a tone which, considering Peterson’s enemies, he arguably has to take on to survive). If, as Scruton so wonderfully puts it, “culture is the residue of what we have loved,” we have a shot at fortifying that residue, at "bunking" instead of debunking. Peterson and Scruton are not hidebound conservatives - they insist we need to be “building the future instead of criticizing the past.” As they put it, "there is no formula"; and because of that, some of us may choose to take a different approach. If we are to focus on particular places as Peterson recommends, strategies will differ based on locale.

So, here's to little Kings College Cambridges popping up in many unexpected places, while believers in cruciform beauty quietly find as many allies as we can.

Happy Epiphany!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Art, Barth & Eckhart

Being some things discussed over at the Crackers and Grape juice podcast. The episode is Mother of the Debilitated God. They run a good show over there.

Monday, December 10, 2018


On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton (who saved my faith in more ways than one), and prompted by twitter CEO's thoughtless (his description not mine) meditation exploits in Myanmar, here is Merton on true and false emptiness in his last book, Contemplative Prayer (1969):
A person [cannot] become a contemplative merely by "blacking out" sensible realities and remaining alone with himself in darkness. First of all, one who does this of set purpose, as a conclusion to practical reasoning on the subject and without an interior vocation simply enters into an artificial darkness of his own making.  He is not alone with God, but alone with himself. He is not in the presence of the Transcendent One, but of an idol: his own complacent identity. He becomes immersed and lost in himself, in a state of inert, primitive and infantile narcissism. His life is "nothing," not in the dynamic, mysterious sense in which the "nothing," nada, of the mystic is paradoxically also the all, todo, of God. It is purely the nothingness of a finite being left to himself and absorbed in his own triviality....
An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself. It is so full that the light of God cannot get into it anywhere; there is not a crack or a corner left where anything else can wedge itself into this hard core of self-aspiration which is our option to live centered in our own self. Such "emptiness" is in fact the emptiness of hell. And consequently anyone who aspires to become a contemplative should think twice before he sets out on the road. Perhaps the best to become a contemplative would be to desire with all one's heart to be anything but a contemplative; who knows?
Actually, there is no such entity as pure emptiness, and the merely negative emptiness of the false contemplative is a "thing," not a "nothing." The "thing" that it is is simply the darkness of self, from which all other beings are deliberately and of set purpose excluded....
But true emptiness is that which transcends all things and yet is immanent in all. For what seems to be emptiness in this case is pure being. Or at least a philosopher might so describe it. But to the contemplative is is other than that. It is not this, not that. Whatever you say of it, it is other than what you say. The character of emptiness, at least for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom.... It is love for love's sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite charity of God... This purity, freedom and indeterminateness of love is the very essence of Christianity. It is to this above all that all monastic prayer aspires.
Of course Merton reserves his most severe words for Christians. But if the above passage is too Christian for you, take it up with Merton's friend Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote the book's glowing introduction (and who might know a thing or two about Buddhism).

May the Lord have mercy on us all. 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Fun with Nietzsche

Image result for pious nietzsche
I miss Bruce Benson. He has moved on from Wheaton, but the best of his influence endures here, as does the influence of other former Wheaton professors like Dennis Ockholm, Alan Jacobs, or Ashley Woodiwiss. If someone were to write about the recent history of this particular center of Christian learning, none of these figures, Bruce especially, could be left out. Here he is in his relentlessly fair book, Pious Nietzsche:
Nietzsche's [geneology] works well if one considers certain elements of Christian history and not others.  Speaking of Nietzsche, the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky joked: "Tell me what you need, and I'll supply you with the right Nietzsche quotation." Similar things are often said about the Bible - and everything becomes far more complicated once we talk about the entity "Christianity" and its history. For there have been "Christians" who could fit just about any description. Paraphrasing only slightly, one could say: "Tell me how you want to portray Christianity, and I'll provide you with the right examples." Have there been "Christians" obsessed with sin, unconcerned about the body, cruel to themselves and others because of ressentiment, gloomy, against pride, freedom, and courage, and even the joy of the senses? Of course....

But one can just as easily come up with other examples of Christians who do not hate themselves or their bodies or those who are not Christians, or courage or the sense or joy. Nietzsche has deliberately painted a rather radical picture of hatred and self-denial. While painting such a vivid portrait works well in communicating the failings of a religion, its great disadvantage is that it is a portrait that is so easy to pillory. That Nietzsche is able to find some examples that fit the description lends at best partial credence to it. Otherwise, he provides remarkably little support. If his is to be a convincing revisionist history, he needs considerably more examples - and better ones than those he has (152-153).
As Coppleston pointed out so long ago, Nietzsche's claim that Christianity is world-denying is better aimed at Manicheanism. But Bruce has fun taking that point further:
The resurrection is all about the eternal "Yes." It is God's "Yes" to the world. Thus, Norman Wirzba is right when he says, "Nietzsche is united with Christianity in his quest to affirm life," though Nietzsche is clearly unable to see that connection. That Jesus is resurrected bodily is an especially strong affirmation of the body. Further, what Nietzsche misses is that the Christian notion of redemption is not merely about the world to come, it is as much about this world. As the theologian N.T. Wright puts it, "The resurrection, in the fully Jewish and Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter." Nietzsche is certainly welcome to his "otherworldly" interpretation of the resurrection - and there have been plenty of theologians and believers throughout the past two millennia who have tended in that direction - but his interpretation clearly goes against orthodox Christianity. To say that the cross is the condemnation of life on earth is simply a gross misunderstanding. Whether it is likewise for Nietzsche a willful misunderstanding is a question that cannot be answered, even though it must be posed (136).
Image result for alistair kee NietzscheThese brief quotes to not do justice to the tenor and scope of the book. For a more straightforward, analytic approach, Alistair Kee's Nietzsche Against the Crucified is equally good, successfully arguing that "Nietzsche has exercised a more profound and positive influence on Christians as a critic of religion than he ever could have as a local pastor" (11). It might seem odd to toggle from Nietzsche's anti-Christian statements to his more favorable observations, but as Nietzsche himself put it, "This thinker needs no one to refute him: he does that for himself." Ecce Homo famously concludes: "Have I been understood? Dionysos against the Crucified." And Kee's interpretation - sustained and well documented - is memorable:
"Have I been understood?" A meaningless, unnecessary question - if Neitzsche was indeed the enemy of Christ crucified... Why then was this redundant question asked [three times by the greatest master of the German language to date!] if not that at the end Nietzsche took fright at the thought that some gullible, misguided, immature young mind might read the motto - and believe it!" (3, 174).
Both Benson and Kee are deeply serious, and neither succumb to Christian cheap shots leveled toward a great thinker who - being dead - can't fight back. In particular, Benson's concluding insight is hard-earned, and especially instructive: "To be able to affirm even Christianity - against which [Nietzsche] has railed so vehemently - is finally to become truly Dionysian - and to have left all ressentiment behind" (215).

Monday, November 26, 2018

a not-so-new regime of interpretation

I imagine that most college professors in the humanities in their thirties, forties or fifties were trained under critical theory. It was drilled into us whether we liked it or not, and we are therefore probably not at risk of forgetting it. The mode of furrow-browed critique towards works of art and literature will, I expect, always come naturally, even if we prefer (as I do) to fuel our prophetic stirrings more with Amos than Agamben. But it is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the dark night of suspicion is giving way to some kind of dawn. In The Limits of Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Rita Felski explains:
My conviction - one that is shared by a growing number of scholars - is that questioning critique is not a shrug of defeat or a hapless capitulation to conservative forces. Rather, it is motivated by a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value. Such a vision is sorely needed if we are to make a more compelling case for why the arts and humanities are needed. Reassessing critique, in this light, is not an abandonment of social or ethical commitments but a realization, as Ien Ang puts it, that these commitments require us to communicate with intellectual strangers who do not share our assumptions. And here, a persuasive defense of the humanities is hindered rather than helped by an ethos of critique that encourages scholars to pride themselves on their vanguard role and to equate serious thought with a reflex negativity. Citing the waves of demystification in the history of recent thought (linguistic, historicist, etc.) Yves Citton notes that they share a common conviction: the naïvety of any belief that works of art might inspire new forms of life. We are seeing, he suggests, the emergence of another regime of interpretation: one that is willing to recognize the potential of literature and art to create new imaginaries rather than just to denounce mystifying illusions. The language of attachment, passion, and inspiration is lo longer taboo (187).
Felski cites Michael Billig, Luc Boltanski, Jane Bennet and James Elkins as further allies in this shift. Especially helpful is Michel Chaouli's questioning the measures we take to keep the power of works of art at bay.  "How curious it is," he remarks, "that we dig wide moats - of history, ideology, formal analysis - and erect thick conceptual walls lest we be touched by what, in truth, lures us [in works of art]."  Lest we think this means we should look with dewy-eyed infatuation at any manner of artistic expression, Felski elaborates,
That critique has made certain things possible is not in doubt. What is also increasingly evident, however, is that it has sidelined other intellectual, aesthetic, and political possibilities - ones that are just as vital to the flourishing of new fields of knowledge as older ones... (190).
The antidote to suspicion is thus not a repudiation of theory - asking why literature [and art] matters will always embroil us in sustained reflection - but an ampler and more diverse range of theoretical vocabularies. And here, the term "postcritical" acknowledges its reliance on a prior tradition of thought, while conveying that there is more to intellectual life than the endless deflationary work of "digging down" or "standing back." Rather than engaging in a critique of critique, it is more interested in testing out alternative ways of reading and thinking. What it values in works of art is not just their power to estrange and disorient but also their ability to recontextualize what we know and to reorient and refresh perception. It seeks, in short, to strengthen rather than diminish its object - less in a spirit of reverence than in one of generosity and unabashed curiosity (181-182).
But a shift as major as this one is going to need some heavy theoretical cover, and Actor-Network-Theory serves this role for Felski. If you need it to get to where she finds herself, have at it. Treating works of art as non-human actors may be a helpful experiment, but not necessarily a new one. (After all, it has long been common for Wheaton students to refer to their Bibles as the living Word.) That said, perhaps this alliance will only buy us ten years or so, until Actor-Network-Theory (already under considerable fire) itself succumbs to a new regime. That is why theology strikes me (unsurprisingly) as the more field-tested warranting discourse for the post-critical moment, something that art historian Tom Crow (see his No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art) most certainly understands. 

Does a turn to theology mean that works of art will be any less pulsingly vibrant? Not in the least. Decades before Bynum showed how "Christian materiality" is far different (and more fundamentally paradoxical) than recent Object Oriented Ontology trends, John Meyendorff used the same terms to describe the kind of faith that Gregory of Palamas (1296-c.1359) defended:
We find here the elements of Christian materialism, which, instead of wishing to suppress matter which has revolted against the spirit through the effect of sin, gives it the place the Creator assigned to it, and discovers the way which Christ opened for it [matter!] by transfiguring it and by deifying it in his own body.
That Christian materiality is the ultimate warrant for interpreting works of art is old news at this old blog (15 years and counting), but as literary theory comes around to something resembling it, the warrant bears repeating. In these post-critical times, venerable figures like Wheaton English professor Clyde Kilby (see his posthumousy published The Arts & the Christian Imagination), don't look so countrified after all. Fortunately, for a school that has taken faith seriously as a backdrop for studying the humanities, Felski's wonderful book is not the dawning of a new regime as much as permission (even vindication) for what we've been doing all along.

And so, Professor Felski: Thanks!

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Biblia Pauperum of Our Time

I hope it's fair to say that amidst all the buzzing at AAR (American Academy of Religion) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) this year, between the sessions on aliens and the necessary hand-wringing over the American political scene, something actually historic was introduced in regard to the Bible. Namely, an online commentary that very selectively deploys the internet's visual capabilities to illuminate the Biblical text. Let's face it: New commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors makes the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually... wait for it... free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.

The idea and support for the VCS come from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson (who were also behind the Ancient Christian Commentary), and the execution came from the prodigious and nearly (it seems to me) superhuman team of Chloë Reddaway, Ben Quash, Michelle Fletcher and Jennifer Sliwka. It could only have come from London. When Rowan Williams and one of the U.K.s chief art critics and sculptors can pack a hall beyond capacity at the at the Royal Academy, it is fairly evident that the UK is miles ahead of the U.S. regarding the intersection of art and religion. London, after all, is - as one of the more exciting publications emerging from this crucible puts it - holy ground. When video artist Bill Viola is exhibited in St. Paul's Cathedral and a Bible Commentary is launched in the Tate Modern, the bridge connecting the two feels very substantial indeed. Will North America one day get there too? I have my fingers crossed.

You should now stop reading this and go enjoy the available commentaries of the Elder and Younger Testaments (or scroll the delicious visual menu here). Did I mention they're free? But if you need further prodding, I got to pick what Leon Morris referred to as "possibly the most important paragraph ever written" (109), Romans chapter 3. How is this most important paragraph visualized in the history of art? Selection is everything here, and - to make the case (with Tom Oden) that the Reformation's fierce emphasis on grace is not an exclusively Protestant possession - I chose to split mine between medieval (the Deësis), Renaissance (Cranach of course), and contemporary art (Martin Creed), with Cranach in the interpretive driver's seat. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing," says Creed in the forward to his major catalog. "Art is shit. Art galleries are toilets. Curators are toilet attendants. Artists are bullshitters." But fortunately the artist doesn't get the last word.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture - with dozens of entries already published and many hundreds more to come - might take some getting used to. Here's an introductory video. Each passage gets three individual commentaries using selected artwork, limited to a merciless 300 words (this, should be noted, is very hard to do). Then the author/curator is also permitted a longer combined commentary bringing the three together, which is easy to miss, but gives the curator a chance to drive his or her points home. For Paul, Julian of Norwich, and even Martin Creed (despite himself) in the very museum that hosted the VCS launch, that point is - notwithstanding the madness - that...

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Limiting Luther, Interrupting Ignatius

From Bengt Hoffman's Luther and the Mystics (1976):
Martin Luther's faith consciousness was significantly molded by mystical experience and western dependence on rationalism has obscured or eclipsed this mystical light. This is to say that the rational attributes of trustworthiness and loving care ascribed to God and the corresponding realities of faith and trustfulness found in man, are shot through with non-rational intimations, experiences of fascinating, awe-inspiring and bliss-giving presence. Luther's language about God residing in the heart of the believer was not only figurative. It was based on actual experience. The rational terms for God-man union were underpinned by a mystical knowledge. As indicated, there are barriers built into western intellectual thought structures which render it difficult to grasp the intimate connection between the conceptual-doctrinal and the experiential in Luther's legacy" (18-19).
From Thomas Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart (1986):
The genius and contemplative experience of Ignatius of Loyola led him to channel the contemplative tradition, which was in danger of being lost... [but the] unfortunate tendency to reduce the Spiritual Exercises to a method of discursive meditations seems to stem from the Jesuits themselves. In 1547 Everard Mercurian, the Father General of the Jesuits... forbade the practice of affective prayer and the application of the five senses. The spiritual life of a significant portion of the Society of Jesus was thus limited to a single method of prayer, namely, discursive meditation. The predominantly intellectual character of this meditation continued to grow in importance throughout the Society during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries... [Accordingly, early modern Catholicism] received the limitation imposed not by Ignatius, but by his less enlightened successors (23).
Philip Endean's article, Luther in Ignatian Light, goes further along these lines. Meanwhile, three cheers for the primary sources themselves!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture

I gave this lecture at Princeton Seminary in April. The images were the best part, but well, there are still some things you can't get on the internet. (Though it will be published here eventually.) Here's a podcast I did on the visit as well.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Why I never read your Jordan Peterson post

And if you know about Christopher Byrant, John Sanford, and Jung's pleas to Christians in Psychology and Alchemy, you should not read this one either. If not though, carry on.

My simple point is that someone's brief Christian response to Peterson's endearing pop Jungianism is unlikely to approximate the depth encapsulated in the careers of Bryant and Sanford who, from both sides of the Atlantic, painstakingly and effectively assimilated the best of Jung into the Christian tradition.

It's hard, for example, to do better than Bryant's opening directives in Jung and the Christian Way, which originated as lectures given in 1980 at All Saints Margaret Street: 
I think Jung's understanding of dogma to be partial and inadequate. He regarded dogma as a protection against a psychic experience which might otherwise have proved overwhelming, as an attempt to tame and domesticate dangerous psychic forces. No doubt this has been one of its functions. But perhaps because of his undervaluing of belief he failed fully to grasp the positive value of dogma. For Christian doctrine and dogma grew out of an attempt to define and map an intense spiritual experience; and dogma is one of the tools for the exploration of a reality which transcends human grasp. The creeds are not intended to be the final expression of ultimate truth but signposts pointing the way to unfathomable mystery. Christians who believe them to be accurate signposts need to take care not to identify the signposts with the realities to which they point. As under Jung's guidance we learn to get in touch with our own depths and discover our own truth, the powerful realities the dogmas signify will become new and exciting (x).
Or take Sanford's The Kingdom Within, which helpfully identifies the largest deficit in the Jungian, and possibly Petersonian systems:
Sensing the necessity of evil for the advancement of spiritual consciousness, some psychologists have ventured into the outskirts of the fields of philosophy and theology and have asserted that evil also belongs to the ultimate wholeness of things. C.G. Jung in particular repeatedly intimated that totality must include evil as well as good. This is a dangerous and misleading thought for, in spite of the necessity for evil, evil has a negative power of its own which is directly opposed to the life-giving power of totality. We must distinguish between chaotic or undifferentiated parts of our personality, which may seem to us to be devilish but which must be included if we are to be whole, and absolute or ultimate evil - a very different thing which cannot be integrated into wholeness since it is antiwholeness (137).  
But none of this is to suggest that one shouldn't just go directly to Jung himself. For critical as he might be of the moribund European Christianity that kept sending him new patients, Jung himself tells Christians, if they are able, to stay put and learn from their own tradition. As Jung puts it in Psychology and Alchemy:
Psychology is concerned with the act of seeing and not with the construction of new religious truths, when even the existing teachings have not yet been perceived and understood.... Accordingly, when I say as a psychologist that God is an archetype, I mean by that the "type" in the psyche. The word "type," as we know, is derived from typos, "blow" or "imprint"; thus an archtetype presupposes an imprinter. Psychology as the science of the soul has to confine itself to its subject and guard against overstepping its proper boundaries by metaphysical assertions and other professions of faith. Should it set up a God, even as a hypothetical cause, it would have implicitly claimed the possibility of proving God, thus ending its competence in an absolutely illegitimate way (263).
One wishes, of course, that Jung would have exemplified this reticence career long. In point of fact, he often overstepped it. Hence Bryant is on the mark when he writes, "Jung appears to find it hard to distinguish the experience of the self and that of God. [But] to say that God can be experienced within the working of the human psyche does not, of course, imply that he is not present and perceptible outside of it" (40-41).

Even so, Jung - at times - went so far as to complain that people would
not stay in church. He blamed the church's failures less on the inadequacy of Christianity than on the "psychic situation of Western man, and [his] inability to assimilate the whole range of the Christian symbol" (277). Jung continues:
I would only be too delighted to leave this anything but easy [healing] task to the theologian, were it not that it is just from the theologian that many of my patients come. They ought to have hung on to the community of the Church, but they were shed like dry leaves from the great tree and now find themselves "hanging on" to the treatment (277)...  I wish everybody could be freed from the burden of their sins by the Church. But he to whom she cannot render this service must bend very low in the imitation of Christ in order to take the burden of his cross upon him" (281).
No doubt Peterson's success today is due to more dry leaves shed from shallow churches. But again, it is Jung himself who suggests it would be better for Christians to access the content of their own tradition, perhaps using the ladles forged by depth psychology to help reach it.

The Cowley Father Christopher Bryant (popularized in Susan Howatch's Starbridge series), and American Episcopal priest John Sanford succeeded at doing that. One of the best things the Peterson phenomenon might accomplish is to help people find their books again.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Calling London's Secular Bluff

There are (at least!) two temptations that beset a group of Midwestern Christian college students who spend a month in London. The first might be to fear the secular city, tip-toeing around it but mostly keeping to ourselves. The opposite (and more common) temptation comes from allowing ourselves to be bedazzled by diverse, stimulating, enrapturing London, and then looking back with predictable disdain on the narrowly Christian American suburbs we left happily behind.

But as our intensive Arts in London course over four weeks in London and Wales began, we attended "Choral Pilgrimage 2018: Sacred and Profane," by legendary choral group The Sixteen at the Royal Naval College. There we read this in our program from Robert Hawkins, which effectively neutralized those twin temptations: 
Today we might hear the terms 'sacred' and 'secular' as opposing poles, as if there were a clear separation between religious matters and worldly affairs. To think in this way is rather 'secular' in itself, and very particular to modernity...  The word 'secular' comes from the Latin saeculum (generation, age): It is used in Christian Latin to mean 'the world'. This isn't to say 'secular' had nothing to do with 'the Church'; it merely distinguished between monks, who were called to 'renounce the world', and priests, who interpreted their vocation as a need to get stuck into the affairs of the world, and to do God's work there.... For a modern viewer, particularly one without religious conviction, the all-encompassing nature of this sacral worldview can be hard to imagine. Part of the significance of beginning to see with believing eyes is the realisation that the extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary, the sacred in the profane (11).
We took this article as the Magna Carta of our trip, and set out - like those secular priests - to pursue the sacred, in a robustly Christian way, in the ostensibly "secular" space of London. (It certainly helps that all museums are free.) Like the snake the St. Paul handled in the massive fresco in the Royal Naval Chapel, we trusted that presumably secular culture would not poison us.
Taking the motto of our parish church in Highbury Islington, "roots down, branches out," we refused to be scandalized or seduced by the city. We weren't afraid of London; but nor did we despise the Midwestern evangelical tradition that has reared us, and which taught (and teaches!) us how to inhabit a cosmopolis without losing our Christological nerve. The result was we found God everywhere. And not a generic God either, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After all, as Columbanus put it in the sixth century, "Ineffable, Incomprehensible, he fills all things and transcends all things;" or as R.S. Thomas put the same insight in the twentieth, "you [God] terrify me as much by your proximity as by your being light years away."

God was so present in fact, that over a reflective dinner in Wales, our class came up with a list (embellished and/or warped a good bit by me) of the ways the sacred/secular boundary was breached during our pilgrimage. The list is far from exhaustive, and here it is:

The Sacred in "Secular" London (& Oxford & Wales):
  1. First comes the flag of London itself, with the sword that beheaded saint Paul displayed as prominently as St. Paul's dome is on the city's skyline. The message of grace that he preached is therefore only missed if we choose to ignore it (which we all do!). To help us not to, the city's official motto, Domine, dirige nos (Lord, direct us), became our prayer.

  2. In our first visit to the National Gallery, we enjoyed Joachim Beucklaer's Four Elements, where worldly goods for their own sake are ostentatiously displayed in a festival of materialism. Or so most think. Biblical scenes are in fact concealed in the distance of each painting, if one knows where to look. As we learned from T.J. Gorringe's brilliant book-length commentary on these works, “The turn to the secular may not be a sign of Christianity losing its grip, but, on the contrary, of realizing its true implications.”
  3. Eric Gill's motto of sorts, beautifully displayed in his Gill Sans font at the Tate Britain, expressed the truth we kept encountering on our trip. The Latin phrase from Aquinas' commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius translates, "The beauty of God is the cause of the being of all that is." Or as one student put it more directly, "The artists we're encountering are for Jesus even if they don't know it."
  4. As we headed to the Hay-on-Wye HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy festival, we expected something akin to a neo-pagan British Burning Man. Instead, one of our own found a gloriously tiny prayer-book dedicated to her own name in this sea of books, and Rowan Williams (a speaker this year) was ubiquitous, happily jockeying with whatever else is on offer for twenty-first century hearts and minds. 
  5. In a lecture we enjoyed on Celtic Spirituality, St. Patrick's phrase, "Christ in every eye that sees me" seemed to apply to all eyes that met ours in London, Oxford and Wales, or even from the past in the National Portrait Gallery. Student after student pointed out how they felt Christ refracted in the wildly diverse population that surrounded us, from the residents erecting a memorial in our neighborhood after a tragedy, to the Catholic nuns who lived right next door.
  6. Ours was a Wesley-haunted trip. We encountered memorials to him everywhere, and not just in churches. There he was in the massive Aldersgate flame ("my sins, even mine") at the entrance to the Museum of London, filled with material evidence of London's Christian history. Wesley - whose message sprung from the churches he was kicked out of into the very streets - kept reminding us of the message of justification by faith which he preached, and which remains freshly offensive and invigorating in every age.
  7. It was not only Stanley Spencer's The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27) that overwhelmed us at the Tate Britain, with the entire population rising from the dead, but also his depiction of "Swan Upping at Cookham" (1915-19). Spencer description of his inspiration sounded this sacred-in-the-secular theme yet again: "The village seemed as much a part of the atmosphere prevalent in the church as the most holy part of the church."
  8. We were led through galleries in Burmondsey (London's chief gallery district) by artist Alastair Gordon. An active artist and a no-nonsense believer, Ally went so far as to ask us to pray that God would keep a Christian art subculture from developing in London so that Christians would keep working in the wider world of art. 
  9. One student pointed out how the architecture of St. Bride's has imprinted itself on every wedding cake (notice the famous resemblance), Christian or not. Even the German bomb that destroyed the nave only served to reveal the layers of history that were sealed up inside, now to be enjoyed.
  10. Andrew Cusack explained that the architectural nucleus of Pugin's Gothic Houses of Parliament remains the royal chapel of St. Stephen. And even the structures of opposing parties today goes back to the recitation of the antiphonal Psalter from two sides of the choir.
  11. Seeing Darwin enthroned at the Museum of Natural History ruffled our faith about as much as does the law of gravitation (to quote former Princeton President James McCosh). Instead, the massive leviathan suspended above Darwin seemed to have the last word, reminding us of Job 41, "Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride." As a result, on entering Darwin's hometown of Shrewsbury, we gave the statues to him a polite nod, and went on to admire the churches. For the cosmic Christ is cruciform, and is our caterpillar, after all.
  12. In the shows we watched for our Musical Theater class, gospel themes covertly prevailed. These included the, "He lives in you, He lives in me," hymn in The Lion King, the notes of redemption in the conclusion of Matilda and Odette's please for the prince's attention in Swan Lake. Above all, the stolen candlesticks testifying to forgiven sin became a virtual altar in a superb production of Les Mis. As group member Martin Johnson put it, "Known about this show since 1983: finally saw it. Says it all. Unmerited, unconditional one-way love: Better than any sermon I have ever preached: or heard."
  13. Speaking of sermons, nestled near the heart of our trip was the royal wedding sermon, which was broadcast in every pub, restaurant, shop and so-called "secular" space in London. Ubi Caritas, the hymn quoted by Bishop Curry, "Where charity and love are, God is there," encapsulated our venture, and propelled it onward.
  14. In Wales, our Eucharistic celebrant had DNA helixes on her vestments, testifying to the goodness of God in all creation. Like the ancient fossils deliberately built into the baptistry and altar of All Saints Margaret Street, they were a reminder - for our bio majors especially - that there is no division between serious science and genuine faith.
  15. The martyrdom of the Carthusians under Henry VIII was a tragedy. Full stop. That said, there was a marked contrast between the cloistered Carthusians, who were - and remain where their order endures - completely silent, and the wonderfully eloquent Christian witness of our cheerful tour guide at the Charterhouse who is one of the contemporary brothers of a more recent order. The same dynamic is at work in the continuation of the Knights Hospitaller (revived by Queen Victoria and surviving in the Saint John Ambulance), or in Anglican celebrations of once-suppressed Our Lady of Walsingham today.
  16. As beautiful as the large memorial to the Oxford martyrs remains, we were instead taken aback by the actual place of the martyrdom of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, which stands in the midst of a busy Oxford road, where we almost got ran over to take this photo.
  17. That said, an equally moving experience was our visit to the recently dedicated tomb of Thomas More at St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London (no photos allowed). These martyrdoms together testified that there are no easy answers to the divisions on the sixteenth-century. But that More's tomb was recently dedicated in the Queen's royal chapel seemed to qualify it for our sacred-in-the-secular list.
  18. On the literary end, though Romanticism is often seen as a gateway to the secular, we learned in Wales that the first Romantic poet may very well have been the hymn writer William Williams
  19. And Williams' mantel was passed on to Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, who penned agonizing, doubt-infused tirades against his maker, but whose faith was too rooted to fail. "The Cross is always avant-garde," he realized. And his poem, The Moor, illustrated our theme: "It was like a church to me. / I entered it on soft foot, / Breath held like a cap in the hand...  / There were no prayers said, / But stillness of the heart's passions - that was praise / Enough..."

  20. One student pointed out that just as the sheep left marks of wool wherever they had been on our hikes, so all of London seemed flecked with traces of sheep-wool, showing signs of God's emissaries in all quarters of cultural production.
  21. Our time of silence in the Elam Valley enabled the quiet of the landscape to speak. It confirmed for us what we read and learned about Celtic spirituality, which boasts "an interpenetration of religion and landscape in a way that surpasses anything we might find in the late classical world (6-7)." The same truth was well-expressed in the Latin root of chasuble, that emblem of high church fashion. Originally though, it was the just Latin word (chasula) for the simple poncho the rain invited us all to wear.
  22. One would think that during a visit to the Courtauld, the "sacred" conversations would cease after the first floor of medieval art, and certainly wouldn't continue into the nineteenth century galleries. But Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was as powerful as the ground floor of Courtauld in revealing the dignity of all who are overlooked. This painting just did not let our group go.
  23. To the surprise of many of us, St Mary le Strand was packed with students from Kings College London, offering a vibrant, orthodox sermon on a standard weekday at noon. Just like John Stott's famously evangelical All Souls Langham Place, St Mary Le Strand remains architecturally in the thick of it all, and has not yet given up the [Holy] ghost.
  24. As the rain poured down during our trek to the dueling Cathedrals of St. Paul's and the Tate Modern, one of us cited Matthew 5:45, "he sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust," with the caveat that sometimes the just are in the world and the unjust in the church. As Augustine once put it, "there are many sheep within, and many wolves without."
  25. "I believe God is in the bowels of the Tate," remarked our guide Jonathan Anderson with a smile as he began his tour. He gave confident readings of multiple works in this secular church, extending the argument he made so persuasively in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture. There is quite a difference, we learned, between the nihilistic and the apophatic; between nothingness and no-thing-ness; between "God is not there," and "God is not there." Antony Gormley's Untitled (for Francis) from 1985 even seemed an illustration of Charles Taylor's view of the modern, "buffered self," the artist's body cast is solid lead. And yet, this body was pierced with the stigmata, open again to Christ, who surely hovered nearby. But concealed, as Bellini understood, by seraphim.

  26. Perhaps the reason we found these connections so easy to make because we were not seeking "Britishness," but a wider empire, the Kingdom of God. Our indefatigable guide, Geoff Weaver, cited John Ellerton's famous hymn - daringly written at the high tide of the British Empire - to prove this point: "The voice of prayer is never silent / Nor dies the strain of praise away.... So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never / Like earth's proud empires, pass away." Lily, a student in our class who spent much of her youth in China, found it fitting that this was the hymn sung when Britain turned over control of Hong Kong.
  27. We might even go so far as to say that the presumed line between the sacred and secular seemed as softened as the Offa's Dyke path that we walked. That original division between England and Wales was once a bloody border, but is now just a pleasant place to walk.
  28. None of this is to rule out the specificity of Christian proclamation, or to say that churches are unnecessary in the name of some kind of religionless Christianity. Not in the least. This was made clear by the fulcrum of our visit, Pentecost worship at All Saints Margaret Street. The love of God in Christ of course beams down on everyone in London - but only with the smoke of incense in Christian worship are these beams revealed.
  29. And in true Anglo-Catholic fashion, the worship of All Saints Margaret Street is not divorced from service. The homeless are welcomed into this glorious church to sleep in its pews every night (guidelines are clearly posted), with silver candlesticks staying right where they are, as if to prompt a remake of Les Mis.
  30.  Indeed, our whole trip was summarized by the fact that the revelatory smoke of incense offered by this church does not dutifully stay put. On Corpus Christi, just as we left, the All Saints thuribles took Oxford Circus by storm, declaring revealing God's beams of love for anyone who had eyes to see (photo, which I wish I had taken, courtesy of All Saints' site).
So then, what hath London to do with Jerusalem? The Passover red of the Rothko room gave us an answer: Everything. And if there is any mission for a Christian liberal arts college in the twenty-first century (and there is), it is to help students (and professors) realize that the same answer applies to Istanbul, New York, Berlin, Marrakesh, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Singapore or Jakarta.
Though we might well admit that sometimes it seems London includes all these cities at once.