Posts tagged ‘life’

May 13, 2018

we find it hitched to everything else in the universe

From John Muir: Nature Writings (an anthology):

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains — beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.

…I have never yet happened upon a trace of evidence that seemed to show that any one animal was ever made for another as much as it was made for itself. Not that Nature manifests any such thing as selfish isolation. In the making of every animal the presence of every other animal has been recognized. Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, then more and more remotely for all the world and worlds.

…The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

I’m reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” where he writes:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

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May 12, 2018

On Life and Motherhood

Life (that is the quality of being alive) is so easily seen in all aspects of creation, and this kind of seeing may be far more reliable than we know. Rocks and landscapes live lives of great loveliness, depth, and mystery. After all, the Spirit, the Giver of Life, broods over all that “is not” and encourages all that “comes to be.”

We say in the creed: “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” And this is expanded when we pray in the Trisagion: “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”

All of life both contains and is contained by bewildering contrasts: wildness and welcome, threat and nurture, symmetry and divergence, predictability and volatility. In all of this layered life, there is a dependable beauty. There is also a direction or purpose that can be sensed or glimpsed but not grasped or seen.

These contrasting and developing qualities of all living things make them impossible to posses, consume, or use. Life’s independent development as well as its irreducible complexity make it impossible to fully describe or to employ. We can respond to life, commune with it, enjoy it, but we cannot have it for our own or make it work for us. In fact, our own life depends on our communion with the life around us, and any effort to have or use the life around us is a destruction of this communion and a step toward our own death. Life cannot be demanded or taken but only received in gratitude and humility.

The difference between communion and consumption is life and death. Sadly, we teach consumption in every aspect of modern life. We teach only efficient production and consumption. Find ways to learn to commune. Find an altar before which to stand in quiet anticipation. Find a eucharist to receive. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word comes ultimately from the Greek word for “grace” (a gift offered freely with no expectation of return).

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and in motherhood we have this same generous communion—this giving and receiving of life. It is no mistake that the first and most living image of the Spirit is that of a mother bird who spreads herself over those within her nest. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 that is often translated “hover” actually means “brood,” as when a mother bird broods over her eggs to bring forth life.

Jesus takes up a long tradition of this image across Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:10-11, Ruth 2:12, and Psa. 17:8, 57:1, 91:4 for examples) when he says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)

Rather than seeking to seize, to use, and to hold onto life, may we all learn to receive the life so abundantly offered and to give up our own as an offering poured out. May we learn from our mothers how to live.

April 22, 2018

to believe in a spiritually living creation that is full of spiritual life

Here is my own transcription from a part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast by Jason Micheli “Episode 147 – David Bentley Hart: The Gloves Come Off” posted on April 13, 2018.

[22:55]

Hart: [N.T. Wright is] so hostile to the fact of the first century being Jewish and Greek at once (and Persian). I think, for me, the real proof of this is everywhere where he tries to deal with the issues of spirit and soul. And I think this is sad because that is actually a part of the New Testament that is too often obscured, and it really does grant us access to the way people thought at the time.

Micheli: Say more about that.

[25:00]

Hart: …In the first century, for a Hellenistic Jew, it would be normal to think that every kind of being, every kind of creature, has a body of some kind. All right, angels and demons. But what they possess is not what we have. What we have is a compound of flesh and blood which is animated by a life principle called psyche (soul). Therefore we have what Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, calls the “sōma psychikon.” The angels, however, spirits, have a different kind of body, one that does not consist in flesh and blood, and that is not animated. I mean, one way that you can translate psychikon (because psyche is the same as the Greek anima, it’s a substitute) is to say animated or animal body. Well, what it means is a perishable body because it’s flesh and blood which has to be animated by a life principle, spirit. So it’s necessarily a composite. Whereas a spiritual body, according to Paul, is one that is not flesh and blood (he’s quite clear about this, people don’t like to hear it: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”), and it is spiritual rather than psychical.

Now, most translations hide the whole psyche / pneuma distinction, not only there but throughout the New Testament. It’s an absolutely crucial distinction for most of the New Testament writers. So Paul probably believed that in resurrection, the body of death to which we’re bond is a psychical body of flesh and blood, in the transformation of the cosmos will become like an angelic body, a spiritual body. Flesh and blood will pass away. Soul will pass away. But we’ll become all spirit, like the angels. And I think that, you know, certain church fathers, that’s how they would have read Jesus saying in the world to come we will become as the angels. And you find this in Acts as well. In Acts 23:8 it says that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection: “mēte angelos mēte pneuma.” That probably means “neither as angel nor as spirit.” Spirit was often used of those creatures, spirit in the language of the time (Hellenistic usage) often just meant beings that don’t have animal bodies. So angels are pneumata [πνεύματα]; we are psychés [ψυχές].

Micheli: You’re grating against a very popular N.T. Wright induced trend in asserting the embodiedness of Paul’s vision of resurrection.

Hart: Yeah, but what does he mean by body? That’s the problem, is he gets it dead wrong. It’s this wildly anachronistic reading that is not Paul’s language. In Acts, for instance, what does Acts say. It’s says, “They don’t believe in resurrection, neither as angel or as spirit.” N.T. Wright in his translation, cavalierly, and to my mind criminally, inserts, you know, writes it this way: “They didn’t believe in resurrection. Neither did they believe in an intermediate state in the form of angel or spirit.” So he has inserted into the text the notion that that reference to angel or spirit is about some transient intermediate state between the body (and this life) and then when it’s raised again and then animated (and that’s how he talks about us). Well, to me, you don’t stick an interpretive phrase of that, well, let’s just say one that distorts the meaning of the text that much, but if nothing else, inflects the meaning without at least a footnote. I think to do that, that’s not even paraphrase. That’s just dishonest.

And the same thing is true in the way he translates 1 Corinthians 15. We have the difference the psychical body (the ensouled body, the animated body) and the spiritual body becomes: “the body animated in a natural way” (which is meaningless) and “the body animated in a spiritual way” (which is contradictory because “animated” is in fact a synonym for “psychikon” and that’s exactly what Paul’s not saying). What Paul’s pretty clearly saying—what anyone who would, say, read Origen would know (or Gregory of Nyssa or anyone else who is more proximate conceptually, culturally, historically, or read Philo), you know, is that he’s talking exactly about the transition from a psychical to a spiritual body.

I think this also explains, if your interested, 1 Peter 3:18-20 where I think the proper way to read that is that Jesus died in the flesh, was killed in the flesh and raised as spirit. That doesn’t mean that—I mean, we tend to think of spirit as disembodied, and that’s not what they mean. For them, spirits had bodies, angels had bodies. In the first century, it was unthinkable that anyone other than God would be bodiless because everything else has to be local. It’s a radically different kind of body. Some might say that it’s composed of the fifth element, that is ether. Others had different theories. But it was like the same matter—whatever that body was, it was like the bodies of the stars which were thought to spiritual intelligences. And many Christians thought that too. That’s way God is called the “Father of the luminaries” in James [1:17].

[31:35]

…Well what does that say, 1 Peter 3:18-20? “Christ died in the flesh, was signed in the flesh, raised as spirit, and thereby was able to visit the spirits in prison”—meaning the angels, and the fallen angels, and the nephilim probably from first Enoch. Now it doesn’t say he visited them in the interval. It says he was able to visit them because he had been raised in a way made him physically, so to speak, transcendent of the conditions that a mere mortal, animal body suffers, that is it can’t move between realms. Now, all of this sounds odd to us now.

Micheli: But it also sounds a lot more clear.

Hart: Yeah, and it’s also correct. So, again, N.T. Wright has produced a translation that, without footnotes, distorts every single one of those verses but also just gets it wrong. I mean, it’s just wrong: demonstrably, objectively wrong.

[49:36]

Micheli: …You’ve already reclaimed a more spiritual understanding of resurrection, away from N.T. Wright.

Hart: I mean. I just think that’s clearly the case, in the text. N.T. Wright is closer to what I think the received picture of the person in the pews might be, you know. But it’s funny. It’s not like Paul is obscure on these points. When he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Micheli: [Chuckling.] It’s pretty clear.

Hart: It’s not like he’s being coy: “by flesh I mean sinful human nature, and by blood I mean violent propensities.”

Micheli: And to “put on imperishability” is just resuming the body.

Hart: Resuming the body you have but now animated by the, you know, I mean all of that, the whole. Yeah right. The N.T. Wright thing–a “naturally animated body” or a “spiritually animated body”–is his own weird invention. It’s obviously wrong. It doesn’t fit the text.

[50:54]

…The thing to do though, the thing you have to emphasize is that spirit in the first century is not an ethereal privation of body. It is a stronger, more living, more powerful, more indestructible body, a body capable of passing through walls, a body capable of moving between the realm of the terrestrial realm and the realm of spirits. It is fuller a kind of life. It more eminently, more virtually, to use a scholastic language, contains the kind of life we have in this world, but it’s fuller and indestructible. It’s not composite. It’s not made up of an adventitious or extrinsic composite of flesh, blood and soul.

Micheli: Does the New Testament require a more enchanted view of the world than Evangelicals are able to hold? Isn’t that the problem?

Hart: Well, I think a more enchanted view of the world than modern people, I mean, not just evangelicals. All of us who are modern, we recoil from the cosmology of the New Testament because we see only its morphology. That is, well we know that the heavens are not crystalline planetary spheres revolving around the earth, and God’s imperium is literally above it so that obviously, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus literally comes from above. That’s not just metaphorical language. He enters the whole and redeems the whole and conquers the whole cosmos, meaning the sphere of fixed stars (which are full of spiritual intelligences, probably), the planetary spheres, the powers on high, which are spirit, pneumata [πνεύματα], and angels, archons [ἄρχων]. He uses the words “the archon of this world.”

And yet, I think that you don’t need the morphology to believe in a spiritually living creation that is full of spiritual life. You know, I’m something of a panpsychist myself. Not in the modern way, in which, you know, you’re supposed to believe that every atom has a kind of quality called mind. But rather, that everything is founded upon spirit, is full of logos, is full of spiritual realities.

And I think that until, I think that because we can’t think like first century persons, we end up with, well, this whole issue of resurrection, say. How is N.T. Wright or any other evangelical of that sort thinking about resurrection? It’s weirdly dualistic, isn’t it? There’s this body thing that’s animated one way or another. You know, there’s matter; there’s spirit. Spirit would be more ethereal than matter. Matter is somehow more concrete and more living than disembodied or fleshless spirit. It’s just the opposite of the ancient view, which is that the mortal corruptible world is feeble, perishing, thin, ghostly by comparison to the fullness of spiritual reality that sufuses all things, that underlies all things, that transcends all things, into which we are ushered. Resurrection is to be lifted up out of the ghostly condition of being flesh and blood and soul into this vibrant, vivid, indestructible condition of being living spirits in the presence of God who is spirit. And because we don’t think in that way. Because we are condemned to a kind mechanical, bland, boring, dead-matter view of creation, you know, you end up with a need to create a theology that obviously isn’t there in the text. And of course it helps if you know the time, the issues. I wish that more Christians were immersed in the intertestamental literature, immersed in the larger Hellenistic world, realizing that Paul is a Greek too, I mean, in some sense. He’s a Jew, but he’s a Hellenistic Jew, in part of the pagan world that for three centuries had not only lived under pagan rule but had freely and happily, at times not so happily, but at times in the intellectual world, happily borrowed and used and integrated what it had found useful, just as it had done with Persian thought.

Micheli: That’s a good word, especially around Easter.

March 6, 2018

all these things are alive in their essence

Supreme and fiery force who has kindled all sparks of life and breathed forth none of death, …fiery life of the divine substance, you blaze above the beauty of the fields, shine in the waters, and burn in the sun, moon, and stars.

You, the fiery force, lie hidden in these things, and they flame forth from you, as breath continually moves a person, and as the moving flame is in the fire. And all these things are alive in their essence. They are not found in death, since I am life.

From the Book of Divine Works by Hildegard of Bingen.

September 27, 2016

let it all turn into talk

The hills on our side of the river were green, and on the other side they were blue. They got bluer farther away.

Uncle Burley said hills always looked blue when you were far away from them. That was a pretty color for hills; the little houses and barns and fields looked so neat and quiet tucked against them. It made you want to be close to them. But he said that when you got close they were like the hills you’d left, and when you looked back your own hills were blue and you wanted to go back again. He said he reckoned a man could wear himself out going back and forth.
[And a quote from later in the book:]

…Boy, we’ve let it all turn into talk.

From Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry.

July 18, 2015

Light within light

The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.

It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love.

From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (119).

February 8, 2015

the world was created for my sake

“Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.” (From the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5.) The entire surrounding passage is noteworthy:

How are witnesses inspired with awe in capital cases? They are brought in and admonished as follows: In case you may want to offer testimony that is only conjecture or hearsay or secondhand evidence, even from a person you consider trustworthy; or in the event you do not know that we shall test you by cross-examination and inquiry, then know that capital cases are not like monetary cases. In monetary cases, a man can make monetary restitution and be forgiven, but in capital cases both the blood of the man put to death and the blood of his [potential] descendants are on the witness’s head until the end of time. For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: ‘The bloods of your brother cry unto Me’ (Genesis 4:10) — that is, his blood and the blood of his potential descendants…. Therefore was the first man, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one man, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among men, so that no one should say to his fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours…. Also, man [was created singly] to show the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, for if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, made each man in the image of Adam, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for my sake.’

And a second translation for comparison:

How were the witnesses awestruck in criminal cases? They were brought in and warned: Perhaps your testimony is based only on a supposition, or on hearsay, or on that of another witness, or you have had it from a trustworthy man; or perhaps you are not aware that finally we will investigate the matter by examination and cross-examination. You may also be aware of the fact that there is no similarity between civil and criminal cases. In civil cases one may repay the money damage and he is atoned; but in criminal cases the blood of the person executed, and of his descendants to the end of all generations, clings to the originator of his execution. So do we find in the case of Cain, who slew his brother. It reads [Gen. iv. 10]: “The voice of the ‘bloods’ of thy brother are crying unto me from the ground.” It does not read “blood,” but “bloods,” which means his blood and the blood of his descendants. Therefore the man was created singly, to teach that he who destroys one soul of a human being, the Scripture considers him as if he should destroy a whole world, and him who saves one soul of Israel, the Scripture considers him as if he should save a whole world. And also because of peace among creatures, so that one should not say: My grandfather was greater than yours; and also that the heretic shall not say: There are many creators in heaven; and also to proclaim the glory of the Holy One, blessed be He. For a human being stamps many coins with one stamp, and all of them are alike; but the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, has stamped every man with the stamp of Adam the First, and nevertheless not one of them is like the other. Therefore every man may say: The world was created for my sake.

November 24, 2014

each stitch was such a ponderous ritual that he couldn’t bear to watch

Various passages from The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel by Michel Faber:

Overall, though, he had to admit that the scenery here was less beautiful than he’d seen in, well, quite a few other places. He had expected mind-boggling landscapes, canyons shrouded in swirling mists, tropical swamps teeming with exotic new wildlife. It suddenly occurred to him that this world might be quite a dowdy one compared to his own. And the poignancy of that thought made him feel a rush of love for the people who lived here and knew no better.

…This was a world where aesthetic niceties weren’t wanted and utilitarianism ruled. It shouldn’t bother him, but it did. All along, he’d assumed that the church he would build here should be simple and unpretentious, to give the message that its outward form didn’t matter, only the souls inside; but now he was inclined to make it a thing of beauty.

…How strange it was to be inside a machine again! All his life he’d been inside machines, whether he realized it or not. Modern houses were machines. Shopping centers were machines. Schools. Cars. Trains. Cities. They were all sophisticated technological constructs, wired up with lights and motors. You switched them on, and didn’t spare them a thought while they pampered you with unnatural services.

…In order to imitate the sounds they produced, he’d probably need to rip his own head off and gargle through the stump. Whereas the Oasans, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Tartaglione and Kurtzberg, and to the zeal of their own faith, had made extraordinary progress in English—a language they were as unsuited to learn as a lamb was unsuited to climb a ladder. Yet they climbed, and Peter felt keenly the pathos of their strivings. He could tell, from the Bible verses they’d managed to memorize, that Kurtzberg had made no concessions to their physical handicaps: whatever was printed in Scripture was what they must voice.

…Oasans handled sewing-needles with the same care and respect that humans might handle chainsaws or blowtorches. Each stitch was such a ponderous ritual that he couldn’t bear to watch.

…”What did he die of? What happened?” Lover Five stroked herself perfunctorily over her arms, chest and midriff, to indicate the entire body. “InSide him, many thingS gone the wrong way. Clean thingS became foul. SProng thingS became weak. Full thingS became empPy. CloSed thingS became open. Open thingS became cloSed. Dry thingS became filled with waPer. Many other thingS alSo. I have no wordS for all the thingS.”

…Halfway into his stay, Peter went through a strange phase which, looking back on it afterward, he could only call the Crying Jag. It happened during one of the long, long nights and he woke up somewhere in the middle of it with tears in his eyes, not knowing what he had dreamt to make him weep. Then, for hours and hours, he continued to cry. Upsurges of sorrow just kept pumping through his bloodstream, as if administered at medically supervised intervals by a gadget inside his body. He cried about the weirdest things, things he had long forgotten, things he would not have imagined could rank very high in his roll-call of griefs. He cried for the tadpoles he’d kept in a jar when he was a kid, the ones that might have grown into frogs if he’d left them safe in their pond instead of watching them turn to gray sludge.

…For years, that poisonous repetition of “If genuine …” festered in his mind, proof of everything that was creepy and cold about his father. By the time Peter was ready to understand that the quarrel was bluster and that his dad had simply been hurt, the old man was in his grave. About all these things and more, Peter wept. Then he felt better, as if purged.

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September 2, 2014

we know so little about life

The question is, does the system I’ve just devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet?

…But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth…. The truth is, we know so little about life, we really don’t know what the good news is and what the bad news is.
And if I die–God forbid–I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, “Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?”

From A Man Without a Country (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut.

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September 2, 2014

a way to make your soul grow

The arts are not a way of making a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

From A Man Without a Country (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut.

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