Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas 2007

[The final parts of "Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions" will be posted in the New Year.]

My dear Friends,

"When all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word leapt down out of thy royal throne. Alleluia." (Wisdom 18:15)

This antiphon on the Magnificat, used for centuries for the Second Vespers of Christmas, has an important message for a Christianity that has lost its way, and is tearing itself, and the world, apart.

The Incarnation is not a single event in history but continuous. It effects the resurrection of the mind through the body in the silence of the heart where our attention is taken up in the mystery of transfiguration even as we live our ordinary lives. As recent scientific studies have confirmed, silence is essential to the balance of our minds, to the learning and integration processes of our lives.

Stop for a moment and think of how many ways silence is emphasized in the writings, carols and atmosphere that surround Christmas, a silence that tends to get lost in our celebrations. Santa comes when everyone is asleep; Christmas cards show silent, snowy landscapes; "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given," we sing.

Yet Advent these days seems to lead not to the silence of the heart, the kingdom of God that is within us, but rather to a kingdom of noise. If Christianity is not to die, if we are to realize our full humanity, we need recover the balance of silence in our lives, particularly as we try to understand what has gone wrong with our religion.

The following sermon is a partial précis of my recent work here in Oxford. It began as research in art history; it has developed into something far wider ranging. May it bring you light at this season, and also my love and my prayer.


Reading Between the Lions: A Pedegogy of Silence

[Sermon for Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, 18 November, 2007]

To read the Book of Daniel is to enter a colourful maze of stories and visions built on the grandest of scales. Kings are raised up and fall down, gratuitously, or by their own folly. Daniel, the ultimate survivor, manages to finesse his way through four reigns, while attempting to teach the same unpalatable truth to each ruler in turn.

The book is full of allusions to earlier texts, and is itself a rich source of images and sayings that have come down to our own time: weighed and found wanting; handwriting on the wall; feet of clay. Shakespeare may have had Chapter 4 in mind when he wrote King Lear.

But there is also a sense of mischief in the Book of Daniel, an atmosphere of pawky humour. For one thing, there are all those instruments—the "horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble"—surely the religion of Babylon helped it to live up to its name as a noisy place! And today's story borders on the camp: it isn't difficult to reimagine it on BBC 2 as "Graham Norton in the Dragon's Den."

One might think, knowing what he did about Daniel, that Darius would have suspected a set-up before exercising the false mandate presented by Daniel's rivals, suggesting that Darius proclaim worship of himself. But this is a cautionary tale. Darius' hearing was selective, like most people's; and like most people in power, his vanity was easily seduced. At least he dispensed with the statue and the musical instruments.

The problem is that he also conveniently forgot that his predecessors had been silenced by similar self-inflation; that the much-esteemed Daniel also interprets dreams, and that he serves a God whose very name is silence.

Darius would not have known the prophecy in Second Isaiah—which may be a source used by the author of Daniel—that "Kings shall shut their mouths" before God's servant; that what "they have not heard they shall contemplate." (Is. 52:15) But Daniel knew it: if the monarch is too obtuse to learn from the past, then the closed mouths of the king of beasts must get the message across. Daniel has to teach Darius to read between the lions.

The subtext of many bible passages turns on similar disturbing imbalances between silence and speech, or between stillness and action. Yet contemporary interpreters often miss this aspect of biblical texts, because silence is intrinsic to them, too much of a commonplace to be mentioned. We may have a mental picture of Jacob wrestling with an angel, for example, but however else it may be interpreted, the story takes place in silence and is about silence.

In our culture we are assaulted by relentless noise and information overload. For us, awareness of silence deserves special mention, and may even induce anxiety; and in a university founded on dialectic, it all too easy to forget that many of the literary, religious and philosophical texts we study have silence as their goal as well as their primary criterion of interpretation.

Until about the end of the 13th century, not only was the world for the most part a very silent place, but silence was intentionally cultivated. "The History of Private Life" reminds us that pupils were taught to remain silent, for "silence was considered as important a part of education as the alphabet."* And as Mary Carruthers has shown, the conscious structuring of memory draws on the mysterious transfigurative powers of the silent mind, an educational strategy which became elevated to an art in the Christian West.

1274, the year that Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure died, may serve as a marker for the beginning of the end of silence in balance with its servant, dialectic. By 1274, the wildfire of dialectic had already been spreading for 200 years, and at the end of the thirteenth century it became unstoppable, scorching the earth of the soul, its clamour drowning out the pedagogy of silence, and aborting the fullness of humanity transfigured in silence. By trans-figuration I mean just what it sounds like: a semiotic mutation and reintegration that takes place in silence, that enhances what we have learned and seats it.

Modern science has only begun to understand what late antique and medieval thinkers knew about the role of silence in the way we learn. Their descriptions are necessarily paradoxical. Contemporary science approaches the problem through the study of sleep but even then the descriptive paradoxes do not go away.

For example, a recent article on sleep research in the Observer confirms that we must forget in order to remember. Conversely, contemporary psychology reminds us that we must remember in order to forget. The French verbs we have spent the afternoon memorizing will not be seated in our memory until we have slept on them; and hurtful memories cannot be let go until we take them out of the dark place where we have stuffed them and examine them thoroughly.

If we try to remember the lost word on the tip of the tongue we must forget not only what we are trying to remember but that we are trying to remember. We must trust that by forgetting there is a chance (not a guarantee) that the word will be returned to us. This cycle of remembering and forgetting, whatever form it takes, has been called the paradox of intention.

The same paradox is at work in single-pointed meditation. If we try to suppress our thoughts by effort we will only be plagued with more thoughts. But if we focus on a single point, the breath, a word, a visualization, thoughts will fall away without our realizing it. The process of trustful forgetting that leads to subtle transfiguration in the epistemological silence is what is religious people call "faith." Through our transfigured perception of the data now seated and integrated in memory, this epistemological silence will affect our thought and influence our behaviour.

It is quite possible that religion arises from our attempts to interpret this transfigurational process that is beyond our control, though not our intentionality. We have the choice of what to put into memory, and what we would like our memory to do in a general way; we have the choice to open to its transfigurational process more fully, or to flee it for fear of what it might show us about our selves, or what it might reveal of the change a new creation would require of us. To flee, to try to keep the processes of silence at bay in order to maintain our self-inflation, leads to scientific, religious and technological fundamentalism or any other -ism.

Loss of understanding of the essential role of silence in our lives and thought processes is one of the principal reasons contemporary religion is in such a mess. It is also one of the main causes of the false dichotomy between science and religion.

It is as true now as it was in the ancient world that your core silence—or lack of it—determines who you are and how you will behave. Whether you choose to educate your memory to allow silence to do its work of trans-figuring the academic and existential knowledge you acquire, or whether you avoid silence at all cost determines not only your approach to goodness, truth and beauty, but also how you will interact with the people around you.

All experience is interpretation, and if we wish to be able to open to what is new and to the other, if we wish to be free from the prison of our anxieties, then we must repeatedly access the silence where God touches us, where we are anointed, that is to say, en-Christed; where our interpretations may be re-ordered, and where the static construct of our identity, through a long and delicate process, may be re-created as a dynamic and unfolding truth. It is only through us that silence may be introduced into the world of noise to transfigure its sorrow into joy.

However else we interpret the life of Jesus and the teachings that issue from his life, we may see it as both paradigm and parable of what we might call the work of silence, both the effort involved in becoming silent, in training our memory with intention and willingness, and, perhaps, more important, the effort to open to the silence to work on us. The parable of the sower in our second reading for today is surrounded by silence, and the fertile ground is itself the receptivity that is silence. The first word of the parable is "listen", and its explication ends with "hears the word and understands it." The parable implies that what is put into the ground, the Word, our words, is just as important as the fertility of the ground on which it falls.

The lesson is reiterated in the parable of the tares that immediately follows. While we are often careless of what we put into our memories, it is nonetheless presumptuous for us to speak of a true or false self, to decide to cultivate the one and ruthlessly root out the other. One reason we should hesitate to bind our selves to such a procrustean bed is that our notions of self are illusory, constructs of interpretations, interpretations that are always prejudiced and reified.

Secondly, our unfolding truth requires all of what we are and is revealed only as we pay attention to something other than our selves. Most important, however, is the recognition that no human being holds the perspective to make such an absolute judgement; we need all of what we are as created beings. It is not for us to call evil even part of what God has called good; and it is through our wounds that we are healed. The early Christians were not looking for heaven; they were looking for a new creation.

Whether or not one is religious, the part of the mind that is not in self-conscious use can be trained to an ever-greater receptivity and openness to transfiguration. For the religious person this intention gradually resolves into a form of prayer without ceasing, a divine exchange that informs all of life and transfigures the world around it. "I sleep, but my heart wakes." (Song 5:2)

There is a price, of course: once you have embarked on this way there is no turning back, and when you reach the end you will find, like the man who buys the field that hides the treasure, that it has cost not less than everything. The new creation that ensues may be shocking, especially to the establishment: Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of saying that if governments knew how subversive contemplative prayer is that they would ban it, for the one who has been educated by silence has come to an autonomy that cannot be coerced.

In effect, banning silence is what the politicized late medieval church tried to do, and what career-oriented modern church hierarchies are still trying to do. Perhaps the prayer of that reformed 15th century church bureaucrat, Nicholas of Cusa, is apt here: "Free us from dialectics, O God...for garrulous logic (garrula logica) obstructs most sacred theology rather than leads to it."

Christian religious institutions today have so thoroughly lost the plot, because they have so thoroughly lost any understanding of silence; it is the reason that trendy liturgies are generally short-lived and unspeakably banal. Churches that use such liturgies no longer seek to transfigure the world through the gifts of silence; instead, they have themselves become the kingdom of noise.

We are at a dangerous crossroads, for once the hardwired epistemological balance between silence and dialectic has been compromised, it is difficult, very difficult, to restore; for noise by definition obliterates silence. These days we are pressured on all sides by the noise of twisted minds spinning in closed loops. The babble used to sell their crazy agendas is persuasive because most listeners have no experience of silence, and therefore have no intellectual or emotional autonomy through which to critique the insanities on offer. But this is exactly what politicians and corporations want, because if we stopped to balance our lives with a little transfigurative silence, we might become aware that we are rapidly becoming their slaves.

The various crises that we face today, the failure of political leadership, the environmental and social crises, the erosion of our ecosystems and our humanity, can all be laid on the doorstep of the imbalance between silence and speech. These crises cannot be addressed by clever talk, celebrity gurus or parliamentary committees. The balance can be restored only as the South African apartheid crisis was resolved, by the conversion of individual hearts reflecting in silence, learning to read between the lions:

"For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength...
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him [in silence]."

* Georges Duby and Philippe Braunstein, “The Emergence of the Individual” in A History of Private Life, vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1988), 619.

Monday, December 10, 2007

VI Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

It is not difficult to see where this is leading: academic theology and the feminist debate which has issued from it are stuck in the merely linear and often, in consequence, in the merely historical. Academic theology trains out of people the natural ability, evidenced in myth and story, to think in a multidimensional way using paradoxes that are descriptors of empirical experience, and language that enriches and effaces by layering meaning; trains out of people the ability to write the sort of texts we spend most of our time studying, and thus destroys their ability to interpret such texts at a deep level.

If we do not engage in the praxis of routinely disposing ourselves to experience paradox and multidimensionality, to the sort of transformation and transfiguration (they are not the same) that every great religious tradition speaks of, if we do not routinely dispose ourselves to have our self-consciousness suspended (some people would call this prayer but that is an embarrassing word in academia—and it is not something we can make happen, we can only dispose ourselves for it) is it any wonder, then, that in the feminist debate and in academic theology in general we spend our time arguing over issues that throw our attention back on ourselves and trap us once again in the diabolical 8-track-tape-loop of our merely discursive minds?

Would we allow someone who knows only arithmetic attempt to teach it? The result would be highly distorted. To teach arithmetic, you need to know algebra, calculus, and have some understanding of pure mathematics. But by doing theology without praxis, we are encouraging people to teach arithmetic who know only arithmetic, and the consequence is the dead-end of theology in which we find ourselves today, summarized by the work of Richard Swinburne.

The Word did not become a merely discursive mind. The Word did not become flesh to save the discursive mind alone, trapped in one-dimensional time and syntax. The Word became flesh to free us from the limited perception and distortions of the discursive mind, to push it beyond its limits and to humble it by its limitations so that it might have access to the infinite ineffable; so that it might be transfigured. Paradoxes are not illogical: they are much more rigorous to work with than mere linearity, and within their clusters, use of logic is critical.

I frequently hear members of faculties of this University quietly disparaging the process of larding otherwise clear and comprehensible papers with academic tat to make them more acceptable to colleagues, to make them seem more ‘objective’ or ‘scholarly’. But, trapped by a system intent on saving appearances at all costs, they continue to do so, in service to a myth of objectivity most scientists have long abandoned. Gödel's theorems put paid to any notion of knowledge that is 'purely empirical'.

The destructiveness of this post-enlightenment artifice, particularly to women scholars, particularly to women theologians, is self-evident. Yet the rejection of the myth of objectivity has nothing to do with feminist vs androcentric approaches, which confusion is a classic example of how the search for truth by women can deteriorate into gender wars, and everything to do with how the world in fact functions. It is hubris that has created a confusion between the illusion of objectivity and the empirical. Truth, somehow, seems to have been lost sight of.

The fact is that we cannot stand apart. We cannot even look at an object without changing the charge of some of its photons, thus changing its materiality. We cannot perceive any particle without forcing it out of its mutable multivalence into three dimensions. Nor can we claim, even about history, some scientists suggest, the absoluteness of ‘facts’, not if there are parallel and interactive universes; not if there is dark matter; not if there are black holes, not if there is implicate order and holomovement. Not of all experience is interpretation.

Much of theology today is an exercise in mere cleverness and ego decoration that has little to do with reality of any sort. This of course does not mean either that we should not continue to do theology or to be as objective as possible. It does mean that we should be more honest about what we are doing as theologians, and it does mean that we have to reexamine both our goals and our methodology with an eye to the laws of the mind through which God, in whatever form, is perceived. Otherwise we are simply engaging in a lot of noise. As Robert Runcie once remarked, 'The Church is like a swimming pool: all the noise is at the shallow end.' Contrast this tatement with the antiphon on the Magnificat for second Vespers of Christmas: ‘When all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, leapt down, out of your royal throne.’

It seems to me that much of the search for feminist theology/‘spirituality’ is missing a great opportunity. This quest is arising primarily from reaction, and thus, in a typical Girardian loop, it is adopting precisely the strategies it claims to abhor. This search has not been fruitless, because, as I said earlier, the issues raised by feminist theology and criticism need to be examined thoroughly by both men and women alike. And it is also true that when we are given the gift of self-forgetfulness, the suspension of self-consciousness, the imagistic and linguistic, and above all the affective content of our minds is absolutely critical. It's not like a computer: garbage in, garbage out. But if we put garbage in, particularly if we attempt to control the outcome, the transfigurative process is impeded; the struggle to penetrate the layers of persona is rendered far more difficult than it need be.

There is not time to expand here on the effects of mental transfiguration in the silence, but it has to do with the whole debate about morality, the media, and related issues, all of which influence the organising vision of the human person. If that vision is of a loving and generous, self-outpouring God, then there is a certain inevitability and inviolability about the morality that will emerge from this vision, not because a template of law has been imposed from without, but because of the empirical laws of the interaction of mind and grace that operate from within.

By contrast, if the organising vision is of the CEO of a multinational, for example, whose negligence and lack of respect for the biosphere causes environmental disasters in a pristine environment, while he laughs all the way to the bank; if these disasters destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, irrevocably degrading common human archetypes and lowering healthy inhibitions, the morality that emerges produces such figures such as Saddam Hussein and the murderers of James Bulger, all of whom were preoccupied with causing a major disaster. The degree of destruction becomes the criterion of celebrity.

[This lecture was written more than a decade ago. In December, 2007, we are all too well aware of the frequency of this phenomenon.]

Monday, December 03, 2007

V Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

The eucharistic elements are themselves apophatic images: a white disc of bread on which light and dark play without image, and dark wine in a gold chalice, light playing off the surfaces of liquid and smooth metal. But the Eucharist is apophatic in another, more profound way, for the law of apophatic images is that they efface themselves, and at the Fraction in effective liturgies, the Host is held aloft and broken, the two halves being separated widely to reveal the emptiness that lies between, the ineffable from which fullness of life is returned. This gesture mirrors the dynamic by which humans pray, the self-forgetfulness by which they become transfigured, the relinquishing of thoughts and self-concern, self-consciousness, into silence, and the emergence of new life from that Silence.

While much modern biblical scholarship is very welcome, modern translations have fallen into many of the same traps as theology by ignoring the fundamental laws of language and apophasis. They have lost their evocative quality, and evocation through poesis is one way language moves the reader out of the linear to the threshold of the apophatic. They have lost their multidimensional poetics and become merely functional. Biblical scholars are guilty of the same linearity as theologians and for many of the same reasons.

Consider the word ‘behold’, for example. It doesn’t often appear in modern translations. These days Hebrew word for behold, ‘hin-nay’ (the Greek and Latin are less equivalent) is often translated ‘see’ or ‘listen’, but that is not what it signifies. Behold, as Julian of Norwich clearly understands, is a profoundly theological word. It is apophatic reciprocity, in which, through beholding, the person and creation are held in being by God, and God, who is beyond being, is held in being and time by the beholder. The text that follows on the occurrence of the word ‘behold’ is explanationfor those who do not behold, as in, 'Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.' The last five words are in fact redundant to 'behold', in which the notion of 'handmaid' is implicit.

It is in the beholding itself that Mary conceives. And it is a psychological commonplace that it is in self-forgetful beholding that the most profound healing and fulfilment occur in the human person. These annunciations, whatever their source, however they occur, are profoundly dislocating, for in their wake, life can never again be the same.

Yet Raymond Brown dismisses Mary’s troubled heart and the angel’s ‘do not be afraid,’ as ‘part of the banal and stereotyped language of angelic appearances [which have] no psychological import’ (Birth of the Messiah p. 322). In this I think he is profoundly wrong, and his comment evidences the divorce between modern scholarship and lived experience. It does not seem to occur that the narrative patterns which interest him might reflect consistent empirical patterns throughout human experience of the life of God available to and working within the ordinary epistemological process hardwired in every human person.

As Robert Withnow remarked, commenting on the small group phenomenon,

‘At one time theologians argued that the chief purpose of humankind was to glorify God. Now it would seem that the logic has been reversed: the chief purpose of God is to glorify humankind. Spirituality no longer is true or good because it meets absolute standards of truth or goodness, but because it helps me get along. I am the judge of its worth. If it helps me find a vacant parking space, I know my spirituality is on the right track. If it leads me into the wilderness, calling me to face dangers I would rather not deal with at all, then it is a form of spirituality I am unlikely to choose.’ (Christian Century, 8 Dec. 1993, pp. 1239-40.)

Of course God does glorify humankind, deify it, in fact, but this, too can take place only in the context of the self-outpouring attendant on self-forgetfulness, which is our mind's image and likeness of God. And we could add to Withnow’s comments on human attempts to domesticate God the scientific evidence that shows that domestication of animals is coterminous with regression to infantile behaviour; in the case of God, on the side of human beings only.