Monday, March 26, 2012

Christian Wiman

A kind friend has just pointed me in the direction of this author, whose writing has left me without words. Here are some links:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Knowing Silence

The study of how we know (epistemology) has been a fashionable area of scholarship for centuries, but it is a sign not of progress but rather of how much we have lost. Understanding the fundamentals of how the mind works—not only that there is a different way of knowing than that of self-consciousness; but also how self-consciousness can deceive, that deep listening is essential—emerges organically where people are integrated into a landscape. Similar understanding in a lesser mode can emerge for those who are urbanised but nonetheless take the time and make the effort to observe their own minds.

Studies of Inuktitut language and the closely related Greenlandic dialect of the northernmost-dwelling peoples on earth show this integration; the distinctions between body and soul, matter and spirit, simply do not exist. Gretel Ehrlich notes that ‘The first word I learned in Greenland was Sila. It means simultaneously, weather, the power of nature, and consciousness. For humans and animals that have co-evolved with ice and cold, there is no perceivable boundary between a "knowing" sentient being and the strong forces of weather.’ For such a culture, the notion of studying the mind as a discrete and 'objective' entity in a laboratory, divorced from its natural context, would be considered laughable, crazy.

'Place-names,' she continues [In the Empire of Ice],' describe precisely the internal, deep links among earth, ice, water, animal, wind, snow, and spirit, and cautionary tales that come from that commingling. … Deep ecology in the Arctic means that the sound of the walruses' clicks and whistles, humming whales, and the ululating songs of bearded seals rise through the kayak paddle. One's whole body becomes a listening post, receiving messages from under the ice. . . . Animal and human minds are inextricably linked, and the ecological imagination arises from the forehead of each morning, shaped by cold and pushed into being by weather….

'Animal and human natures overlapped, [she observes in This Cold Heaven] intertwined, and were considered to be one an the same, as were animate and inanimate objects. A man could become an iceberg; a shaman could live as a bear, suckle two cubs, then return to being a shaman again. The outward forms differed, but not the essential nature. People and animals talked to each other, shared a common language, and changed skins on a whim….'

This awareness has a profound effect on the way people comport themselves for the sake of the community, for the community is only as strong as the solitudes that make it up. For the Inuit, lying and deceit are the same as murder:

'To obtain awareness was once thought by the Inuit to be an essential aspect of personhood. The confines of village life in early times meant that behavior had to be moderate. Even-temperedness, humor, and modesty were highly value; cautionary tales warned people about the harm anger and self-pity could cause...

'Seeing was the ultimate act of the angakoks (shamans). Whether it was seeing into the source of a famine or the source of an illness, they had to pierce all obstacles. In eastern Greenland and in Alaska, some shamans and their apprentices wore masks. Others hid their faces behind sealskins. In both cases, the idea was to banish the obstructions of ego, greed, contempt, or self-importance that might get in the way. The neutrality of the face-cover provided a passageway into another world.'

The contrast with the carefully fashioned plastic personalities with which today’s celebrity gurus peddle their conceits in order to dominate trusting, hurting, authentic seekers (and incidentally extract a lot of money) could not be more stark.

[From a draft of Chapter 3 of Silence: A User's Guide]

Anyone who has paddled a kayak will recognise the truth of what Ehrlich writes: when you sit in one of these seemingly frail craft—the more advanced ones are quite tippy so that you can carve a turn to ride a wave, or right yourself if you are flipped over—the lower part of your body is beneath the waterline. A kayak is like clothing or an extra skin: you wear it more than sit in it. And wearing it—paddling towards a vast horizon bordered by glacier-carved crags, or even on a forest lake—you wear the universe.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams resigned today as Archbishop of Canterbury, effective at the end of the year. He will become Master of Magdalen College, Cambridge.

I rejoice for him, for making this wise decision, and wish him every happiness in Cambridge. We should be profoundly grateful to have had ten years of his leadership. Perhaps in Cambridge his profound spirit will be able to come to the fore in a way that was blocked while he was at Lambeth, where instead he was forced to attend to the petty spitefulness and grandiose pretensions of his fellow clergy.

While he was Archbishop, he committed himself to keep the conversation going among all the factions, at considerable personal cost; few people are aware how great that cost has been. Unfortunately some clergy, including not a small number of bishops, are like petulant children and 'won't play'. Deaf to the meaning of 'ecclesia', they are interested only in their personal fiefdoms, not in making church (cf. Mt. 11:12-22).

The Church of England and the Anglican Communion did not deserve him. They have wasted a huge opportunity, one which will not come again. I shudder to think who the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be. If it's either Sentamu or Chartres, the end will come very quickly.

Perhaps it would be more merciful that way.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Who Am I?

Recently I have been pondering the many-faceted posts and responses to posts in this blog, trying to think of a way to speak about the mystery in which we are all engaged. I have also been pondering Ian’s question about essential books.

Then came an invitation to read at the Bath Literary Festival, which celebrated International Women’s day with a marathon reading of passages from 100 women authors. For me there was only one possibility, and it follows below.

This quotation is stitched together from two sections of Annie Dillard’s 'Holy the Firm', her least-known and, in my view, her best book. She uses the language of artists, but it is clear that she means that we are all artists, every one of us; our lives in all their complexity offered on the altar of the heart, the divine fire using us, to light the world, out of our sight and utterly unknown to us.

She wrote this long prose-poem while living in a one-room cabin on an island in Puget Sound off the northwest coast of Washington State, USA.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held.... All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube, jammed upright in the candle's round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moths' body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jabbed hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk...

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled...while night pooled wetly at my feet....

How can people think that artists seek a name? A name, like a face, is something you have when you're not alone. There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit, as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that's burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

His face is flame like a seraph's, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned. So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap, from here to eternity, home.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

We Urgently Need a New Translation of the Bible

We urgently need a new bible translation.

This may seem an absurd suggestion, given the number of translations, paraphrases and other modern versions that pass themselves off as 'the bible'; but they share some of the same fundamental problems.

First, all the translations except the AV were done within a Cartesian framework, using Cartesian methodology, which allows for only one epistemology, the linear one, and considers other ways of knowing to be 'irrational'. In fact the mind works with two epistemologies, as anyone who cares to observe their own mind will discover, and as neuro-psychology has confirmed, (the linear one being the the lesser of the two); and it is this two-epistemologies model which underlies many pre-Cartesian texts, and which, in fact, may pre-Cartesian texts are commenting on.

In addition, all the modern translations of the bible have been made through the filters of 'historical theology'. The divorce of theology from praxis is a live question these days, and the main reason for this is, again, that historical theology ignores the two epistemologies model, not to mention what I think of as common sense psychology. 'The death blow,' writes Barker, 'to mythology was dealt by those who made myths into history. We still have problems with Adam and Eve to this day as a result!' (The Gate of Heaven, p. 180). Her work also shows the folly of scholars' self-blinding. In but one of many examples, she suggests that because scholars have refused to allow that the Lord or an angel could have had more than one title, there has been confusion about who is what and what their function is.

The same problem evident in similarly blinkered approaches to ancient, late-antique, patristic and medieval texts. For example, Peter Brown's review essay in the March 8, 2012 issue of NYRB speaks of the 'dualism' characteristic of the late antique. While certainly there were people who were in fact dualistic (as there are in every generation), many of the late antique texts and points of view are not in fact dualistic, but are talking about the two different ways of knowing and how to get from the one to the other, their different concerns and characteristics. When speaking or writing of the refocusing of attention from the self-conscious, external and material world to the perspective that arises from re-centering in the inner world (deep mind), it is all too easy for Cartesian-minded scholars to interpret such discourse as dualistic when it is robustly incarnational.

Barker shows (in Temple Mysticism), although she doesn't put it in these terms, how the elaborate rituals of the temple were precisely about re-connecting with Wisdom, that passing through the veil leaves the material world behind (in the sense of where one focuses one's attention) and that the ritual of the holy of holies is symbolic of the transfiguration (she uses the word 'transformation' which I think is incorrect, especially as she links this ritual to the Transfiguration of Jesus) that takes place in what I have called the deep mind, and which perspective and wisdom then re-emerges from the holy of holies to bring wisdom and transfiguration to others.

If scholars don't have the two epistemologies model in mind as a possibility, as a heuristic tool, then texts that discuss the movement between the two epistemologies will look dualistic, and perhaps even seem incomprehensible. But if this interpretive model is applied not only to the bible but also to the pre-Socratics, Plato, Philo, Augustine and many other texts and authors, including those labeled 'gnostic', these texts suddenly take on new life and make a lot more sense. And if Barker is correct about the influence of temple theology on Pythagoras and the Greek tradition—finding the right flow between the two epistemologies, the two parts of the mind; that is, the receptivity to wisdom of which the action and furnishings in the temple are symbolic (one thinks immediately of Pseudo-Denys), then to look again at pre-Cartesian texts and to create a new translation of the bible becomes imperative.

There is also in this process what I have come to think of as the 'psychology of the text', not just the understanding of the psychology implicit in the process of theosis—the re-centring of the person in the deep mind by passing through the veil of liminality—but also the way the words resonate (or don't) in the deep mind, which is, it seems to me, how much of the biblical text works. One of the strengths of Barker's work is that her observations slot into place without having to make other emendations, and the texts make more sense in consequence.

In terms of the bible specifically, Barker's discoveries about changes that were made in the texts from which we make modern translations of the bible, her pointing to the older versions (e.g. the substituting of the word 'rock ' for 'invisible God'—the latter fits much better into the text) and the linkage between the first temple and Christianity are highly significant as to the way people, especially translators, understand the New Testament.

It is also interesting, at least to me, how thoroughly Barker's work supports my concern with 'behold', which word in itself implicitly sums up much of her work about the temple and theosis, as well as the two epistemologies model. For example, someone recently referred to the translation Luke 17:21 as 'controversial', but it is so only if one approaches it from a Cartesian point of view and without common-sense psychology—and above all without listening to the context of what Jesus is saying about how the word itself in fact works, keeping in mind, in addition, that he is also quite possibly referring to the first temple tradition. He's talking about the mis-use of the word 'behold' (mis-translating it as 'look', for example), telling his listeners that it is not a word that can be used in a linear or analytical way, but rather that it is appropriate only to the sort of engagement that Buber was later to call 'I-Thou', which is an interior disposition and perspective, the kingdom of heaven within, with which one engages ordinary life. It would never occur to a lot of scholars that Jesus might have this sort of linguistic or psychological sophistication. In addition, those who want to translate the third phrase in Luke 17:21 using 'among' ignore the fact that while the kingdom of heaven may be in potential, it is not faerie dust: it can only be among if it is first within. A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up. The kingdom is among us only as it is present within each of us.

Furthermore, there is a whole psychology/epistemology/syntactic strategy in the world 'behold' that aims to stop the listeners' minds' habitual schematising to enable them to receive something startling and different. There is nothing wrong with using the word 'behold' today: people continue to use and understand it intuitively and correctly. On March 2, 2012, CNN had an article somewhat paradoxically entitled 'Beholding Beauty: How It's Been Studied'. A month or two ago a television reporter remarked, 'All that was left for her was to behold the body.'

Furthermore, each of the modern translations of the bible seem to have some kind of bias, whether it's evangelical, or Roman Catholic, or exhibiting the fetishes of a particular scholar (the sort of thing that required the REB to be done after the NEB). And all the translations seem just to get flatter and flatter, more linear and less resonant, which means they cannot possibly carry out the task that the original texts aim to do. This flattening of language has been due in part to the desire to make the texts 'accessible' but this has been the wrong kind of accessibility, a Cartesian accessibility. The translations are aimed at accessibility to the linear mind, when in fact many of the texts are aimed at helping the reader to bypass the linear mind and access the deep mind.

The Cartesian methodology and purposes of the modern translations are at complete cross-purposes with many of the biblical texts. You cannot fail to misunderstand a text that is based on two epistemologies if you are using a methodology that allows for only one. Or by confining yourself to an interpretive methodology that is linear when dealing with a text that is trying to push the reader into the part of the mind that is multivalent, holistic, if not Day One.

It is interesting that the history of the temples follows more or less the same pattern and trajectory as that of Western Christianity: a shift from an outward (in the sense of self-forgetful), invisible God-focused process of theosis, with a high anthropology, to one that emphasises sin, a low anthropology, breast-beating etc. This pattern is a commonplace in the history of religions, but the parallels between the history that Barker has winkled out and that of the church in the West seems particularly striking.

Of course all the problems that beset modern bible translations also affect liturgical translations and actions—and I think it is in large measure for these reasons (aside from the institutional problems) that people are no longer interested in going to church. And there are the additional issues of the conflicting theologies within the liturgy, those that point to sin and abasement that characterise the post-Paschasian atonement theology, for example, for which there is no excuse whatsoever. Barker's discussion of atonement theology is illustrative.

The good news in all of this is that a new translation of the bible combined with looking again at ancient, late antique, patristic and medieval texts, both Christian and non-Christian, could employ a great many scholars for a very long time. It is work that badly needs to be done.

As Barker notes, '...the mythology and symbolism of the ancient temple are the key to understanding much of Christian origins. Modern translations of the New Testament which obscure this imagery are counter-productive. We must recover an understanding of this symbolism, not modernize it to a point where it says nothing, for when the meaning of these symbols is lost, the meaning of Christianity will also be lost.' (The Gate of Heaven, p. 181.)

Thursday, March 01, 2012

World Book Day

It seems fitting on World Book Day to say a little more about why e-readers can never take the place of the printed book.

But first, here is a quotation from the compelling and hallucinogenic From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón, translated by the wonderfully named Victoria Cribb (London: Telegram 2011), which I came across a day or two after last week’s post ‘The Living Book’.

p. 58 ‘… I felt the heat of the animosity [p. 59] they bear toward me, the vindictive nature that drives a man to destroy his neighbour in a fire as if he were a banned book … For what is the difference? Every book is imbued with the human spirit …

'My eyes are smarting … In the conflagration I hear the breath of the man who composed the text, and the breath of the man who formed the words, one after the other, and the breath of the man who reads it … I hear this trinity breathing as one and the same being, steadily in and out, until the fire consumes the breath from their lungs, disbanding the fellowship of those whom the book nurtured, like the soil that brings forth different plants … And many were the intertwined souls that burnt at Helgafell when the old monastery library was cast on the [p. 60] bonfire, along with the few holy relics and statues that had not already been destroyed … Alas, I was there! … What could my puny strength achieve when set against the giant pyre that raged like three volcanic craters, so great was the heat from that diabolical act? …

'And who should have been the Royal Incendiary of the first pyre, the Master Incendiary of the second pyre, the Grim Incendiary of the third? He whose duty it was to take the lead in the spiritual education of the flock in that parish, Reverend Sigurdur Pétursson, a young man who had recently taken up the living there… That day the Reverend Sigurdur awoke before anyone else, already raving. He ran in his nightshirt to the library, locked himself in and began hurling the books higgledy-piggledy on the floor … The servants watched aghast through the windows as he tore off his shift, flung himself on his back and rolled around on the books like a flea-bitten stray in the farmyard … Howling, he seized the writings at random ….

[…and after committing acts too lewd for this family blog] '… he ordered his sexton to clear out the library, pile the heretical collection in a heap in the field ,and build three bonfires with the books, which he then set alight himself…… Providence guided me to Helgafell that day … I [p. 62] was meant to witness the tragedy… I covered the whole distance on foot, arriving to find the fire at its height and, falling on my knees before it, I wept …’

On a more positive note, here are some other aspects of printed books that e-readers can never match.

First, I have yet to see a book I wanted to read available in e-reader format.

Second, the e-reader is tied to electricity, which is problematic on several fronts. The folly of having based all of our modern ‘culture’ on something as fragile and fuel-dependent as electricity is summed up by the e-reader. While we certainly need to digitize as many books and manuscripts as possible, we cannot count on preserving our cultural heritage through electronic media alone.

Third, e-readers are extremely hard on the eyes.

Fourth, when the footnotes are at the end of the book, the process of reading, of repeatedly having to scroll the length of the book, becomes extremely frustrating.

Beyond these technical points, bound books provide invaluable services for scholars which electronic books can never supply.

Human beings have a strange and as yet unexplained relationship with the physical book. Perhaps it is similar to the phenomenon (what Rupert Sheldrake used to call ‘morphic resonance’) of knowing that you are being watched, or thinking about someone just before they ring or text or send an email; of having a premonition of what is in the email even before you open it, although you have no rational reason for apprehension.

Sitting in a room lined with books is sitting in a room full of friends with whom you can converse, argue, commune. Their mere presence keeps memory and thought alive.

Bound books also allow you to browse along open shelves in a library, to be exposed to books you would never have thought existed, much less thought to read. Such an encounter makes you begin to realise how small your world is — while e-readers do the opposite: they tend to lock you into a solipsistic world, repeating the same themes over and over, in the same way that Amazon suggests you buy books similar to what you have bought in the past, but never offering something tangentially related in a totally different field. Digital technology is foreign to lateral thinking and tends to lock us in on our selves.

I would never have found The Paradox of Intention which was absolutely key to the development of my work if someone hadn't left a copy on a deck chair on the smallest Alaska ferry going to the end of the world; if it had been on an e-reader, I never would have discovered it.

Bound books engage all the senses, both literally and metaphorically: touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste: each book or manuscript has its own feel, its unique physical appearance, its smell—sometimes when you smell an old manuscript you are transported. And smell is tied to taste: ‘O taste and see …’ says the Psalmist. Ezekiel, Jeremiah and John all knew the bitter and sweet taste of the Word.

As may we.

Long live the printed book!