A Monstrous Indifference, by Joy Overcome: Pt. 1

The reader of this essay may at first be excused for the feeling of bewilderment that is sure to set upon her on her reading of the title. Cormac McCarthy and H.P Lovecraft are hardly literary bedfellows, and to draw the central themes of their writing together by interpreting an independently developed video game may appear to many to be a futile, as well inappropriate, exercise in interpretation. Continue reading

My Favourite Tolkien Line

‘Morgoth is thrust through the Door of Night into the outer dark beyond the Walls of the World, and a guard set for ever on that Door. The lies that he sowed in the hearts of Men and Elves do not die and cannot be slain by the Gods, but live on and bring much evil even to this day. Some say also that secretly Morgoth or his black shadow and spirit in spite of the Valar creeps back over the Walls of the World in the North and East and visits the world, others that this is Thu his great chief who escaped the Last Battle and dwells still in dark places, and perverts Men to his dreadful worship. When the world is much older, and the Gods weary, Morgoth will come back through the Door, and the last battle of all will be fought. Fionwe will fight Morgoth on the plain of Valinor, and the spirit of Turin shall be beside him; it shall be Turin who with his black sword will slay Morgoth, and thus the children of Hurin shall be avenged.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Shaping of Middle-Earth’, p. 47)

Tolkien and Grief

The sense of grief that pervades Tolkien’s writing is probably its greatest quality. There are a couple different facets to this, though. One is a genuine sense of sorrow. Much of Tolkien’s writing deals with themes of exile, loss and death, and these situations evoke genuine grief. Love is lost, life is lost, and home is lost. These things stain the land – the land itself is, in a sense, grieved.

Another facet, one that Lewis wrote on frequently, is longing – for Tolkien, the longing for Eden. Even though the world is a place of sorrow and grief, love and beauty still lurk. Then land which aches with the grief of war, exile and death also longs for the restoration of Eden and even the surpassing of Eden, when, to paraphrase the prophecy of Turin, all the wrongs, all the griefs, all the hurts of mankind are redressed and avenged and set right in one great victory.

Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

I started reading Bruggemann’s massive ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, and finally made it through the first 2 sections, which form a ‘lay of the land’ of Old Testament theology and scholarship. As a work of scholarship in its own right, it’s brilliant – well-researched, heavily footnoted, calm, carefully reasoned – in other words, a great academic book. I do, however, have a few cautious and open criticisms/questions, regarding the viewpoint and methodology Bruggemann holds to. I’ll confine my comments here to a few specific instances so as not to be distracted by meta-questions of history, postmodernism and literary theory.

The discussion of the inadequate-ness of thin, positivst/pseudo-objective historical methods is very good – there is a good amount of time spent dismantling the ‘assured results of higher criticism’, and establishing the fact that presupposition-less exegesis/history is impossible.

I do, however detect a certain inconsistency with Bruggemann’s insistence that we should not import claims and categories foreign to the text to help us understand text or the ‘behind the text.’ He resists, for examples, what he terms ‘essentialism’, which seems to be the idea that there is a kind of ‘essence’ behind the text or to the ideas which the texts talk about (in this case, God). He also argues against ontologies foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking – ‘Greek’ ontologies, as he terms them, that focus on abstract concepts of ‘being’ which are incompatible with Jewish modes of thought and discourse (as an aside, I don’t find the dichotomy between Greek/Hebrew thinking terribly helpful, and think that on closer examination, such an objection loses a lot of force).

‘A student of Old Testament theology must be alert to the problem of conventional thinking about ontology, thinking that is essentially alien to the Old Testament testimony.’ (p 118)

The inconsistency arises when Bruggemann seeks to impose modern categories of literary thinking onto Scripture – ranging from conceptions of drama and narrative to Bakhtin-esque ‘many voices’ theory. For example:

‘…the characters, the plot and the subplots must be recognizable in order to sustain the plot. This means that the characters must have consistency and constancy. It also requires however, that the characters must change, grow, or develop, in order that successive scenes are not simply a reiteration of the first scene.’ (p. 69)

For someone so opposed to importing foreign categories onto Scripture, Bruggemann seems to foist very modern categories of drama and narrative onto the text – categories that draw from an understanding of drama that is more at home with the modern novel than with ancient narrative. Such an imposition, while seeking to do justice to the dynamic, rhetorical, dramatic and ambiguous aspects of the text, seems to be rather inconsistent in light of Bruggemann’s opposition to imposing metaphysical and theological categories onto the text to help us understand it.

Bruggemann also places a fair amount of weight on the ‘polyphonic’ character of Scripture – that is, the many voices within the text:

‘The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon a narrative which at times is disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. The Bible is no easy read.’ (Mark Coleridge, ‘Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies’, quoted in ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, p. 89)

It is fairly obvious that the story of Scripture is made up of many smaller stories – any story is. However, the claims of disjointed-ness aren’t quite so clear cut – the Biblical text shows a remarkable unity (in spite of, or perhaps despite the ‘many voices’) in its narrative. That a narrative is composed of smaller stories is hardly grounds for disconnected-ness – if that were the case, no narrative could be said to have any unity (this is leaving aside the support that the extrabiblical and extratextual evidence offers to the idea of a unified narrative of Scripture. Perhaps a little more attention to facts and less attention to poorly-defined existentialist literary theory would serve a bit better here).

As I said, these are more open questions and criticisms rather than decisive refutations. Bruggemann’s insistence on the reality of the dynamics of the Old Testament text, as opposed to a more static positivistic conception is one with which I very much agree – simply click on the ‘philosophy of language’ category/tag to the right to see that my own ideas aren’t too terribly far from Bruggemann’s. At any rate, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ is an outstanding book so far, and I very much look forward to being continually challenged by Bruggemann.

A Few Thoughts on Morality

Much is made by theologians, apologists and philosophers by morality, and various moral arguments – some attempting to demonstrate the reality of God, some for other reasons. The Christian claim generally goes like this:

Objective moral values exist.

If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

Therefore, God exists.

Pretty simple argument. A few definitions: objective moral values = things like  murder is wrong in an absolute, objective way – it is true whether or not anyone believes it to be. It *is* wrong – not just determined by societal values or cultural values, but objectively wrong.

There are differing views on this line of argument (there are some pretty interesting takes on the argument, but this is pretty much the core of it). Firstly, is there such a thing as objective moral values, and, if there are, can the leap to God be made so quickly? Many would claim that no such OMV exist. Morality is simply a product of society, evolving with society.

Others would argue that a kind of natural law exists – that there are natural moral laws, such as don’t kill, etc. Most of the time these are grounded in some kind of theism, and most Christians would take this line. Folks like C.S. Lewis argued quite powerfully about the reality of the natural moral law. Aquinas was a key figure in the development of natural law ethics – the gist of his thought was that we could grasp the natural law by human reason apart from faith.

Not all theists agree with natural law ethics, however. Bonhoeffer, for example, denied that there exist natural moral laws that we can know apart from faith. This puts him quite apart from the Aquinas tradition.

There have been a lot of attempts to ground morality in something other than God, some good, some not so good.

A More Platonic Take on Language

My take on language should be somewhat known to readers of my blog – but perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps a more platonic philosophy of language is correct. I’m fairly Wittgensteinian – but let’s think about an alternative.

Let’s say that somewhere out there is the form of every word – and all our words are approximations of that form. Would this make sense? For a pure form of every word to exist? What would such a form look like?

Reading and Context

It is terribly easy to take things out of context – but it seems moreso with written text. While written text seems like it should be more objective, it’s not really. The text is there, on the page – but that’s about the only objective thing about it. It must be read – which involves a host of things that shape how one interprets the text (presuppositions, linguistics, context of the reader, etc, etc). It is sometimes astounding to me that anything can be communicated at all with language, written or spoken.

On Art

What is the role of art in the Christian life?

Taking a Tolkien/C.S. Lewis angle, I would say that one large part would be that we create as part of our having been fashioned in the image of a creator God. Creating is part of what we do, part of what makes us human – specifically, creating stories and myths. For Tolkien and Lewis, our creation of stories and myths points to our innate longing for God – Lewis points this out in his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry’ when he’s discussing the many other divine stories that exist in other cultures.

If Lewis/Tolkien are right, and I believe they are, then creating stories is a profound part of our being – a part of our being that comes as a result of being fashioned in the image of a Creator.

‘We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.’

― J.R.R. Tolkien

Finite Euclidean Minds

“But what does it matter to us?” laughed Ivan. “We’ve time enough for our talk, for what brought us here. Why do you look so surprised? Answer: why have we met here? To talk of my love for Katerina Ivanovna, of the old man and Dmitri? of foreign travel? of the fatal position of Russia? of the Emperor Napoleon? Is that it?”

“No.”

“Then you know what for. It’s different for other people; but we in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first of all. That’s what we care about. Young Russia is talking about nothing but the eternal questions now. just when the old folks are all taken up with practical questions. Why have you been looking at me in expectation for the last three months? To ask me, ‘What do you believe, or don’t you believe at all?’ That’s what your eyes have been meaning for these three months, haven’t they?”

“Perhaps so,” smiled Alyosha. “You are not laughing at me, now, Ivan?

“Me laughing! I don’t want to wound my little brother who has been watching me with such expectation for three months. Alyosha, look straight at me! Of course, I am just such a little boy as you are, only not a novice. And what have Russian boys been doing up till now, some of them, I mean? In this stinking tavern, for instance, here, they meet and sit down in a corner. They’ve never met in their lives before and, when they go out of the tavern, they won’t meet again for forty years. And what do they talk about in that momentary halt in the tavern? Of the eternal questions, of the existence of God and immortality. And those who do not believe in God talk of socialism or anarchism, of the transformation of all humanity on a new pattern, so that it all comes to the same, they’re the same questions turned inside out. And masses, masses of the most original Russian boys do nothing but talk of the eternal questions! Isn’t it so?”

“Yes, for real Russians the questions of God’s existence and of immortality, or, as you say, the same questions turned inside out, come first and foremost, of course, and so they should,” said Alyosha, still watching his brother with the same gentle and inquiring smile. “Well, Alyosha, it’s sometimes very unwise to be a Russian at all, but anything stupider than the way Russian boys spend their time one can hardly imagine. But there’s one Russian boy called Alyosha I am awfully fond of.”

“How nicely you put that in!” Alyosha laughed suddenly.

“Well, tell me where to begin, give your orders. The existence of God, eh?”

“Begin where you like. You declared yesterday at father’s that there was no God.” Alyosha looked searchingly at his brother.

“I said that yesterday at dinner on purpose to tease you and I saw your eyes glow. But now I’ve no objection to discussing with you, and I say so very seriously. I want to be friends with you, Alyosha, for I have no friends and want to try it. Well, only fancy, perhaps I too accept God,” laughed Ivan; “that’s a surprise for you, isn’t it?”

“Yes of course, if you are not joking now.”

“Joking? I was told at the elder’s yesterday that I was joking. You know, dear boy, there was an old sinner in the eighteenth century who declared that, if there were no God, he would have to be invented. S’il n’existait pas Dieu, il faudrait l’inventer. And man has actually invented God. And what’s strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does to man. As for me, I’ve long resolved not to think whether man created God or God man. And I won’t go through all the axioms laid down by Russian boys on that subject, all derived from European hypotheses; for what’s a hypothesis there is an axiom with the Russian boy, and not only with the boys but with their teachers too, for our Russian professors are often just the same boys themselves. And so I omit all the hypotheses. For what are we aiming at now? I am trying to explain as quickly as possible my essential nature, that is what manner of man I am, what I believe in, and for what I hope, that’s it, isn’t it? And therefore I tell you that I accept God simply. But you must note this: if God exists and if He really did create the world, then, as we all know, He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space. Yet there have been and still are geometricians and philosophers, and even some of the most distinguished, who doubt whether the whole universe, or to speak more widely, the whole of being, was only created in Euclid’s geometry; they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I have come to the conclusion that, since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God. I acknowledge humbly that I have no faculty for settling such questions, I have a Euclidian earthly mind, and how could I solve problems that are not of this world? And I advise you never to think about it either, my dear Alyosha, especially about God, whether He exists or not. All such questions are utterly inappropriate for a mind created with an idea of only three dimensions. And so I accept God and am glad to, and what’s more, I accept His wisdom, His purpose which are utterly beyond our ken; I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life; I believe in the eternal harmony in which they say we shall one day be blended. I believe in the Word to Which the universe is striving, and Which Itself was ‘with God,’ and Which Itself is God and so on, and so on, to infinity. There are all sorts of phrases for it. I seem to be on the right path, don’t I’? Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and, although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept. Let me make it plain. I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidian mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men- but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it. Even if parallel lines do meet and I see it myself, I shall see it and say that they’ve met, but still I won’t accept it. That’s what’s at the root of me, Alyosha; that’s my creed. I am in earnest in what I say. I began our talk as stupidly as I could on purpose, but I’ve led up to my confession, for that’s all you want. You didn’t want to hear about God, but only to know what the brother you love lives by. And so I’ve told you.”

Ivan concluded his long tirade with marked and unexpected feeling.

“And why did you begin ‘as stupidly as you could’?” asked Alyosha, looking dreamily at him.

“To begin with, for the sake of being Russian. Russian conversations on such subjects are always carried on inconceivably stupidly. And secondly, the stupider one is, the closer one is to reality. The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straight forward. I’ve led the conversation to my despair, and the more stupidly I have presented it, the better for me.”

“You will explain why you don’t accept the world?” said Alyosha.

“To be sure I will, it’s not a secret, that’s what I’ve been leading up to. Dear little brother, I don’t want to corrupt you or to turn you from your stronghold, perhaps I want to be healed by you.” Ivan smiled suddenly quite like a little gentle child. Alyosha had never seen such a smile on his face before.’