Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut's 'The Unicorn Trap'

Ivy sat down at the table, and put her feet up on it. 'If a body gets stuck in the ruling classes through no fault of their own,' she said, 'they got to rule or have folks just lose all respect for government.' She scratched herself daintily. 'Folks got to be governed.'

'To their sorrow,' said Elmer.

'Folks got to be protected,' said Ivy, 'and armor and castles don't come cheap.'

Elmer rubbed his eyes. 'Ivy, would you tell me what it is we're being protected from that's so much worse than what we've got?' he said. 'I'd love to have a look at it, and then make up my own mind about what scares me most.'

Ivy wasn't listening to him. She was thrilled to the approach of hoofbeats.

- Kurt Vonnegut, 'The Unicorn Trap'

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Blog as a Commonplace Book

Now nine years old, This Side of Sunday hereby enters a new season of its existence, as a commonplace book. I'm not sure that's much different than what it's been to date, except it signals that I will be (and have more recently been) doing the bulk of my own thinking and writing elsewhere. 

Positively, it means I'm not walking away from the blog, but am embracing what it's become. As Alan Jacobs explains it, the historic goal of the commonplace book


'was to gather a collection of the wisest statements, usually of the ancients, for future meditation. And here the key thing was to write the words in your own hand ... by laboriously and carefully copying out the insights of people smarter than you, you could absorb and internalize their wisdom.' 

It may not be handwritten, but it will be similar here. No cut and paste: just mulling the words over some more as I re-scribe them, with the added bonus that they'll be shared and maybe even talked about with others. 

I have always liked jotting down poignant quotes--usually for myself; often tucked away in a notebook and forgotten. Now I do most of it here. So many of my good friends and conversation partners I only see online. As my tag-line used to say: this is where I gather thoughts for hopeful conversations.


Anyway: thought I'd let you know. Some of you have been with me for years--and our interactions have been as formative for me as they were enjoyable. Much appreciated.


HT Wesley Hill

Friday, November 28, 2014

Advice from Gilead, on prophets and pharisees

'The article is called "God and the American People," and it says 95 percent of us say we believe in God. But our religion doesn't meet the writer's standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do.'

'But people of any degree of religious sensibility are always vulnerable to the accusation that their consciousness or their understanding does not attain to the highest standards of their faith, because that is always true of everyone.... It seems that the spirit of self-righteousness this article deplores is precisely the spirit in which it is written. Of course he's right about many things, one of them being the destructive potency of religious self-righteousness.'


- John Ames
in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
pages 162 and 166

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Advice from Gilead, 'against defensiveness in principle'

'I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith.... And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.'

'Boughton takes a very dim view of him [Ludwig Feuerbach], because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issue as much with those people as with Feuerbach. It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.'

- John Ames
in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
pages 176 and 27

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Advice from Gilead: 'Don't look for proofs'

'So my advice is this -- don't look for proofs. Don't bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they're always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term....

I'm not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.'


- John Ames
in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
page 204

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

'So to be forgiven is only half the gift.'

'"It don't matter." It was as if she were renouncing the world itself just in order to make nothing of some offense to her. Such a prodigal renunciation, that empty-handed prodigality I remember from the old days.'

'And grace is the great gift. So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves.'

'He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I'm afraid theology would fail me. That may be one great part of what I fear, now that I think of it.'


- John Ames
in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
pages 169-170, 183-184, 216

Monday, November 17, 2014

'The heroism of routine'

'In one way we have been reacquainted with a local and unexciting heroism that we have ignored in our relentless pursuit of drama.... the heroism of routine.' 
- Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust:
Reflections on 11th September and its Aftermath
, 47-48


We tend not to notice them until something goes dramatically right or wrong, but every day there are thousands of public servants and socially involved individuals who carry it out in millions of small but significant acts.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Worst Form of Forgiveness

'It could be true that my interest in abstractions, which would have been forgiven first on grounds of youth and then on grounds of eccentricity, is now being forgiven on grounds of senility, which would mean people have stopped trying to see the sense in the things I say the way they once did. That would be by far the worst form of forgiveness.'
- John Ames

In other words, merely being tolerated is experienced as a far worse form of forgiveness than that which is at least a kind of forbearance.

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is a series of profound asides.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

'In the global village, fire can jump more easily from roof to roof.'

Not long ago a soldier was shot and killed while guarding the National War Memorial in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. The shooter then hijacked a car to the nearby Parliament building, ran in, and got all the way up to the door of the House of Commons before he was stopped and ultimately killed as well. It was rattling.

Earlier I wrote some questions about our responses to that incident. As I watched the reactions on old and new media, something felt 'off' to me. Something about the upsurge in images of the flag seemed like echoing evocations of a kind of burgeoning Canadian exceptionalism. It's not that we shouldn't rally around the call to give of ourselves for a safer, more tolerant country. It's just that it felt more parochial than peaceable; so nationalistic that it sounded naive.

I'm still trying to put my thumb on what I mean by that, but I picked up a little book by Rowan Williams the other day which might help to capture it. The book is called Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11th September and its Aftermath.

Now, I'm still not sure whether the incident in Ottawa is best classified as straight-up terrorism or not, but let's say it is: The question still stands whether we allow the terms of terrorism to frame the meaning we make of these events.

I'll leave this here as something more to think about. What does it mean to be part of a country today? What citizenship frames our approach to the clashes and conflicts of our day? Williams writes in Britain in 2002, but the thoughts and prayers still hold:

'It feels as though some kind of contract has been broken, some unspoken agreement guaranteeing that we in the North Atlantic world would be spared the majority human experience of insecurity and physical dread.

What Faustian contract did we think had been made on our behalf? How would we imagine that, in a shrinking world, we could for ever postpone being touched by that majority experience? In the global village, fire can jump more easily from roof to roof.

Globalisation is not just an economic matter, the removal of pointless and archaic barriers to the movement of capital; not just a cultural matter, a McDonald's in every village in Papua New Guinea. It isn't even a matter of the free flow of information, so that images of the triumphant culture are everywhere (though that is so strong an element in the resentment of the non-Western world).

All these things have one sobering consequence: suffering in one region is connected with action in another...
Global economics is impressive in theory as regards its potential for regenerating local practice; but in reality it is seen as managed for the sake of those who are already victorious... Globalisation means that we are involved in dramas we never thought of, cast in roles we never chose. As we protest at how much the West is hated, how we never meant to oppress or diminish other cultures ... we must try not to avoid the pain of grasping that we are not believed.

The horror of being vulnerable to terrorist violence might open our eyes to the vulnerability that in fact underlies the whole globalisation process... [T]he sudden and literally brutal discovery that there is not contract to protect people like us from death and danger, and the humiliation of not knowing even where the threat really comes from or when or how it may strike again -- the sheer surprise may yet have its force in persuading us to make some connections...

The trauma can offer a breathing space; and in that space there is the possibility of recognising that we have had an experience that is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents, a suffering that is more or less routine for them in their less regularly protected environments.

And in the face of extreme dread, we may become conscious, as people often do, of two very fundamental choices. We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity -- a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what's there around us -- to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged and calmed (not denied).

If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far. There is a global hospitality possible too in the presence of death.'

Monday, November 03, 2014

Re-reading 'The Imitation of Christ'

For a while I've been thinking about the merits of imitatio Christi and participatio Christi as paradigms for speaking of the Christian life. More and more I'm compelled to think the latter must make sense of the former, else we're presuming to reproduce that which we can only be transformed by.

So it is with interest that I picked up Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ last week in order to see if it's a theological friend or foe. (I wouldn't come to as brunt a conclusion as that, but you know what I mean). It has been over a decade since I read it, and as I've thought about the above it has been on my mind to go back and see what kind of nuance it gives to the life that it describes.

Thus far it has been an arresting experience for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it's one more encounter with that great cloud of witnesses where one's outlook gets checked by the democracy of the dead. For me, reading a 15th century Christian mystic is about as different as it gets, and so it brings about a confrontation wherein I can learn as much about myself as I can about the Other.

What has jumped out off the page at me early on is the context surrounding The Imitation of Christ's most famous quote. It's in book 1 chapter 3, and it has more to it than I remembered or noticed before. You've probably heard verse 4 before, which says:
'The humble knowledge of one's self is a surer way to God than a deep search after knowledge.'

There's plenty going on in this sentence---enough that I've had occasion both to ruminate over and balk at it over the years. On one hand, yes, humble self-knowledge is hugely important. Experience has only borne this out for me. On the other hand, however, the statement itself seems to lean disturbingly into anti-intellectualism and over-confidence. In my experience it is platitudes like this that provide support for all kinds of projections being thrust upon the divine (and then upon others) on the basis of private intuition. 

However, what I'm remembering as I read this text is that, like the biblical Proverbs, The Imitation of Christ reads better when the one-liners work in tension with one another, rather than as proof-texts for whatever we want to say.

In fact, as it turns out, there's plenty in the preceding verses (2 and 3) to give that (in)famous quote its proper depth and texture. Such as:
'He to whom the eternal Word speaketh, is set free from a multitude of opinions.'

'A pure, simple, and steadfast spirit is not distracted by the number of things to be done; because it performs them all to the honour of God, and endeavours to be at rest within itself from all self-seeking.'

'And these do not draw him to the desires of an inordinate inclination; but he himself bends them to the rule of right reason.'
'Who has a stronger conflict than he who strives to overcome himself?'

'All perfection in this life is attended with a certain imperfection, and all our speculation with a certain obscurity.'

That's right before we come to our famous line. By then it should be clear that there's simply no room for arrogant self-projection or anti-intellectual self-righteousness.

It is evident from the rest of book one that Thomas à Kempis was as worried about the prideful power of the learned in his time as I might be about the vain projection of the privately pious in mine.

But at the intersection of our times we are forced to look past our reactions to the heart of the text and to see if there's something more constructive going on. And as I read this book it seems to me that if I were to express my concern to him Thomas à Kempis might happily adopt my counterpoint as a complement to what he's said. Namely:
A humble search after knowledge is a surer way to God than a deep knowledge of one's self.

In other words, this is not about the exaltation either of private piety or of advanced reason as a way to God; it is about having these freed from the vanity of ingrown pursuits for the humble receptivity of reflective participation in the life of Christ with others.