Summer rambles (in mind, heart and body!)

I haven’t done one of these for a while, but here it is, in no particular order.

Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a strong doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have no particular quarrel with this, although my evangelical tradition has a slightly different way of understanding it (see my internet friend Peter Carrell’s post here, if you’re interested, although you will need to get through a bit of theological jargon). But over the past few years I’ve come to a strongly experiential appreciation for the doctrine of the Real Presence of God in his creation. I DSCN1805have to honestly say, I often am more aware of God’s presence in the cathedral of nature than I am in the cathedral of wood or stone. I have reflected on this a lot as I have been out walking lately, in Whitemud Ravine and in Elk Island National Park. There have been times when the presence of God seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch him.

Heresy hunters, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not a pantheist, and I understand that God is different from God’s creation. What I experience was well described by the great evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

‘The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything’ (quoted in Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World‘, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018; chapter 4).

Speaking of Bruce Hindmarsh, I’ve really been enjoying his new book on early evangelicalism. My spiritual tradition gets a bad rap in the world today and I love going 512CP34YQtLback to investigate its early roots. A few years ago I read a superb book by Hindmarsh about the life and work of John Newton. His new book goes further; it examines the evangelical awakening of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in connection with the history of science, law, art, and literature of the time. This is new ground for me; nowadays (especially in North America) evangelicalism is not, shall we say, usually associated with an appreciation for science and the arts, so it may come as a surprise to read about John Wesley’s attempts to educate his followers in the discoveries of contemporary science, or the astronomical explorations of Isaac Milner and John Russell. I’m about two thirds of the way through the book now and I’m sure it will become one of my favourites.

Speaking of books, Marci and I have started reading Dante’s Inferno together, in the Mark Musa translation. I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy twice before, but this is the first time through for Marci. We’re both really enjoying it.

I’m used to the word ‘love’ being used in the New Testament as a translation for the Greek word ‘agapé’ – meaning unconditional, action-oriented love, not feelings or affections – so it took me a while on my first trip through Dante to realize that he almost always uses it  in the sense of ‘eros’ – not what we now call ‘erotic’ love but love that is a response to some beauty or worth in the beloved, love that desires to possess the beloved for itself. Dante shares with his theological contemporaries the idea that sin is fundamentally disordered love – we want the wrong things, and we want them in the wrong way. It took me a while to get my head around the way he uses this language, but now that I understand it, it makes a huge amount of sense to me. It reminds me of Tony Campolo’s sermon ‘Who Moved the Price Tags?’, with his illustration of the world as a department store window in which someone has changed all the price tags so that the cheap stuff is expensive and the expensive stuff is cheap. That’s what’s happened in the world, Campolo says: a lot of the things God values are not valued at all by humans, and many of the things we humans value aren’t important at all in God’s eyes. Disordered loves, you see.

And now for something completely different. Black terns are not very common – not as common, say, as the common tern. On Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park common terns are very common indeed; if you walk the shoreline or go out in a canoe you’ll see them swooping and diving, and you’ll hear the splash as they hit the water in search of their prey. They move fast and they’re notoriously difficult to photograph because of that (hence the lack of photographs here!).

Marci and I were canoeing on Astotin Lake on Monday morning and we suddenly DSCN2326noticed that the terns that were diving and swooping around us were not white – they were dark-coloured. They were black terns! That was an exciting moment; I have never seen a black tern in my life before, so this was a lifetime first. We also got to see a whole flotilla of pelicans (see photograph!), which apparently were not stressed at all about the presence of a canoe in close proximity to them. And we also got close to the island in the lake where the cormorants roost and got to watch them flying and diving from the tall trees where we normally see them (from the shore, through binoculars). Truly, the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Which leads me to the poem I’ll close with: ‘God’s Grandeur’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Amen!

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The Portable Dante

9780142437544My first time reading Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ (earlier this year) was in Mark Musa’s three-volume edition (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise), with exhaustive notes and introductory material. I enjoyed that very much and I learned a lot from the notes, but I felt that my reading had often been interrupted by them, and I had not enjoyed the poetry as much as I might.

So I was glad to get ‘The Portable Dante’ – the same translation, but in a stripped-down one-volume edition, with the complete ‘Divine Comedy’ but the bare minimum of notes. And, as a bonus, the ‘Vita Nuova’ at the end, Dante’s prose-and-verse story of his love for Beatrice. I have now read the whole book and thoroughly enjoyed this re-read. If I go back to Dante again, this will be the edition I use.

As for the Divine Comedy itself, I won’t even begin to attempt to describe it; it’s far above my feeble praise. If you want to find out more, I highly recommend the reflections of the late Joe Walker, who first got me interested in Dante. But even more, I recommend reading the book for yourself.

The Joy of Teaching Primary Sources

Excellent piece by Ben Myers:

For me, the most rewarding part of teaching is introducing my students to primary sources. Each of my classes involves a lecture period plus an hour of small-group tutorials in which the class works its way through a book that I have chosen. In the books that have come down to us from the past, we have access to Christian minds far more energetic and more accommodating than our own. It is a joy to find yourself in the presence of a mind that you cannot fully comprehend. This has always been one of the chief reasons for studying the humanities at all: to learn that the human spirit is larger and more interesting than one’s own poor spirit, or (this is the political benefit of studying the humanities) than the spirit of the age.

To read books from the past is also to encounter minds with their own prejudices, parochialisms, and blind spots. But students soon discover that they are able to discern these limitations and to address them. Such scholarly discernment is much more difficult (i.e. usually impossible) if one is reading contemporary authors, since in this case the blind spots of the reader and those of the author tend to be identical. (For more on this, see C. S. Lewis’ brilliantly perceptive introduction to Athanasius.) If students are given a book by Moltmann, they will simply absorb it; if they are given Augustine’s Confessions, they will be forced to argue with it. I have seen students walk away from my first-year theology class either infatuated with Augustine or infuriated with him; in both cases I am delighted to see that real learning had occurred. But when students read only contemporary authors – even if they are very good authors – something quite dangerous and enfeebling happens. The students come away feeling neither infatuated nor infuriated but only affirmed. Their own prejudices and parochialisms have been reinforced. Their blind spots have become even blinder.

Read the rest here.

A few years ago I read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time, and experienced exactly what Ben Myers talks about here. Previously I knew Augustine only second-hand, from other people’s summaries of his thought, and my Anabaptist reading had coloured my thinking about him. I saw Augustine as the first apologist for Christendom (fail!), one of the earliest defenders of a Christian just war position (fail!), the one who taught the rather strange view that babies are guilty of the sin of their forebears (and hence need to be baptized to wash away the stain of the original sin) (fail!). But I had not realized what a brilliant thinker Augustine actually was, or the depth of his spiritual insights into the human condition.

Reading the Confessions forced me to grapple with Augustine himself, not other people’s ideas about him, and I am grateful. I’ve had this experience with other old authors too – and not just Christians. Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, St. John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Povertyand the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Reading Myer’s piece has reminded me of the importance of this sort of reading. I have a few other books on my shelves that I want to read or re-read: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Son of God, Thomas Cranmer’s A Defence of the True and Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On the Love of God, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (the shorter 1541 version, not the voluminous 1559 version, which I’ve tried and failed to finish!), St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life, William Wilberforce’s Practical View, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith.

Which old authors have you read that have challenged and enriched your thinking?

700 years old

According to this website, this year (2011) is the 700th anniversary of the publication of the first part of Dante’s masterwork the Divine Comedy: his Inferno.

Of all the books published in any given year, only a few will still be selling even a hundred years later, and only a tiny fraction will last as long as seven hundred years. And few books can have had the effect, not just on a single language and culture but on an entire spiritual tradition, that Dante’s work has had on Italian language and culture and also on the long tradition of Christian spirituality.

I read the Inferno for the first time myself this year and am certain I will read it again to try to absorb more of its powerful imagery. Meanwhile I’m currently climbing Mount Purgatorio with Dante and Virgil, on my way up to the Paradiso. But I’m glad to pause and pay tribute to Dante on this important anniversary! And if you’re like I was a few months ago – aware of the existence of the Divine Comedy but never having cracked it open – why not treat yourself to a literary feast!

On having passed the hairy shanks of Lucifer…

And if you don’t understand the allusion in that title, then I would invite you to begin as soon as possible to sample the rich feast that is Dante’s Inferno.

Reading Dante is another one of those literary surprises I’ve had this year: like Boethius and the Authorized Version of the Bible, I had always assumed that Dante would be difficult, but in fact I have found him very clear and easy to read – at least, in the Inferno, which is all I’ve read so far. I’ve been reading Mark Musa’s translation, which comes recommended by one of the wisest guides I know, and found Musa’s excellent explanatory notes especially helpful.

I’m sure I’ll need to read the Inferno again and again to get the most out of it, but the one lesson that is underlined over and over again is this: the punishment of a sin is simply the experience of its natural consequence. Just as in Romans 1 God in his wrath ‘gave them up’ to more and more impurity and degradation, with the result that they ‘received in their own persons the due penalty for their error’ (1:27), so in the Inferno, over and over again, sinners experience a punishment which is simply the natural consequence of their particular sin. Which leads me to the conclusion: just as virtue, in the long run, is its own reward, so sin, ultimately, may well be its own punishment.

Thank you, Dante. Now – on to Mount Purgatory!