Monday, June 23, 2014

Body and Soul

The 20th century's pre-eminent philosopher made the following profoundly Christian statement:

The human body is the best picture of the human soul.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.

This is a re-jigging of Jesus's statement that his disciples will be known by their fruit. As I read Jonathan Edwards I am encouraged to find amidst his talk of affections and ideas and minds and hearts that same commitment to the indispensability of bodily praxis:

…if a professor of Christianity manifests in his behaviour a pitiful tender spirit towards others in calamity, if he is ready to bear their burdens with them, willing to spend his substance for them, and to suffer many inconveniences in his worldly interest to promote the good of others’ souls and bodies; is not this a more credible manifestation of a spirit of love to men, than only a man’s telling what love he felt to others at certain times, how he pitied their souls, how his soul was in travail for them, and how he felt hearty love and pity to his enemies; when in his behaviour he seems to be of a very selfish spirit, close and niggardly, all for himself, and none for this neighbours, and perhaps envious and contentious?” 
- Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Maximus the Confessor finds in the heron a supreme example of chastity. How so?

They say that a "heron" is a bird, and it lives with such chastity that whenever it is about to come together for sexual intercourse it mourns for forty days, and after these, again, another forty days.

Cue the "that sounds just like my wife" jokes.

Battle of the Anthems

The World Cup is, among other things, a war of national anthems, which themselves usually have some kind of war behind them. These patriotic tunes which open every game of the tournament are somewhat at odds with the make-up of "national" teams these days. Many players cannot sing them, either because they don't know the words or because the words don't reflect their convictions or sense of identity (or, as is the case with Ireland, they don't know the language!). What it means to be German or French or Irish may no longer be reflected (or may never have been reflected) in the ideological lyrics that accompany the often beautiful melodies.

To my ears, no melody is more beautiful (and, perhaps, no lyrics are more troubling) than the German national anthem, Deutschlandlied. The part about Germany being above everything in the world is left out, however, so the usual cliches about fraternity and justice are all that is sung by some, though by no means all, of the German players. Podolski, Ozil, Khedira and Boateng remain silent in the video below as their team mates belt out the lyrics with gusto. One wonders what this obvious divide does to team spirit? Certainly this cosmopolitan German team, for all its talent, has not been exemplary in its cohesion in the way that previous German teams were. Time to ditch Deutschlandlied?

Leaving all this to one side, however, the tune is elegant and graceful, and remains my favourite World Cup anthem. Here is what Chris De Burgh of, er, Guardian Sport, has to say about it:

I have a great connection with this piece of music, which was written by Haydn in 1797. I went to Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and they had a beautiful chapel where we had matins most days. I remember singing the hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, to this tune, which with 800 voices was a thrilling sound. I was brought up Church of Ireland, and one of my earliest memories would have been in church with mum and dad, listening to this melody. There’s an interesting thing with music like this, how the beat falls with the melody; they often say music is mathematical in construction and this is a very good example. The melodic pattern repeats itself several times throughout, then you have a mid eight, and for me the most thrilling part is the reprise, those rising notes, and then it hits the top. It’s a hell of a piece of music.

Here, also, is the hymn version of the song, mentioned above by De Burgh:

I look forward to my local Church of Ireland (which, on the topic of nationalism, has a British flag hanging up inside!) belting out this song some time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Uniqueness not a Virtue?

Q & A sessions at the end of a lecture/talk are brilliant, even if the questions tend to be in the form of either a) "Here is an interesting thought I have. Can you confirm for everybody here that it is interesting?" or b) a completely irrelevant or bizarre line of inquiry that gets the conversation nowhere. At a Terry Eagleton lecture last week there were quite a few questions veering towards the second form, yet it was precisely in his answers to these questions that Eagleton's true genius, and his patience, was revealed. I didn't ask him a question, partly because I get nervous in these situations and partly because I'm afraid of asking a question that takes one of the two forms mentioned above. Of course as soon as I left the building I had formulated in my head a question which perhaps would have been worth asking, namely: How does Terry Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus relate to the metaphysically-tinged creeds of the Church? 

Eagleton made two intentionally provocative statements in his lecture. The first was "God does not have genitals." The second was "God is an animal." I wondered about the relation between these statements, since they are essentially contradictory. It seems to me that the creeds provide a way to hold them together, but Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus basically removed metaphysics (and therefore later Christian understandings of Jesus) from the picture. I wondered if that was his intention, or if he thought his reading of the Gospels could be squared with the creeds. Perhaps that line of questioning would have been too confessional for Queen's, which Eagleton memorably described as a "constitutionally godless institution."

Anyway, I bring up Q & A's not only to name drop, but because I listened online to a Q & A after a Miroslav Volf lecture on faith and violence, and something he said has got me thinking, or at least has got me thinking that I need to get thinking. Here is what he said:

There is so much talk about Christian uniqueness, as if uniqueness were a value. But it isn't. It's a fake value. Truth is a value, but not uniqueness. The fact that Christian faith is unique, I'm troubled by this. I want a state of affairs in which Christian faith isn't unique....In heaven it won't be unique. It just will be. Truth. So if we emphasize uniqueness we are interested in difference. And there is a kind of a pride associated with a stress on uniqueness which wants others to be different than we are, wants others to be outside so that we can reel them in....I think that's a mistake.

The reason Volf's words have got me thinking is because they are quite at odds with much of what I have read in the last 5 years, which has been about the distinctiveness or uniqueness of Christianity and its ethics.