Monday, November 26, 2012

Thomas Hobbes, St. Augustine, and Political Theory

Adam Kirsch, in the Oct. 29/Nov. 5 New Yorker, provided a review of The Polity:A New History of Political Thought, by a Princeton scholar named Alan Ryan. According to Kirsch, Ryan makes an interesting distinction between “Persian” and “Greek” models of governance, but the part that interested me the most has to do with the influence of Christianity on political thought, and the critical importance of Thomas Hobbes for consequent developments. 
  Ryan’s interpretation of St. Augustine, Kirsch writes, is that “we are on earth only as pilgrims, traveling back to the God who placed us here for inscrutable reasons. It follows that nothing we do on earth, especially politics, is of ultimate value.” This commonplace observation about Christianity has never struck me as 100% true. In my own experience, Christianity has been a major incentive for political activism, with the kind of Augustinian resignation cited by Ryan-via-Kirsch serving as a fallback position when all else fails. Yet, I have to admit, that political events of my lifetime have led me to have low expectations of any politician, even the ones I like.
More interesting in importance Ryan places on Thomas Hobbes, the 17th Century English writer, whose opinion of human nature was so negative that, in Kirsch’s words, he thought “it…in everyone’s interest to establish a single, superior authority, which will stop us from killing each other…[and] we live politically not, as Aristotle thought, because we are sociable creatures but precisely because we are not.” The review goes on to explain how Ryan sees Locke, Hegel, Marx, and contemporary political philosophy as, in varying degrees, efforts to “come up with some more hopeful understanding [than Hobbes’] of what people are like, and how they naturally interact with one another.”
Hobbes was writing in the aftermath of the English Civil War, and probably thought, with good reason, of religion as a primary cause of social misery and conflict. In any case, there are plenty of contemporary voices expressing this point of view. To no one’s surprise, I still believe that there is a legitimate part to play for Christians who understand themselves to be accountable to a Christ who values compassion, reconciliation, justice, and nonviolence. It is our role to advocate for the oppressed, critique the injustices of whatever social system we inhabit, and share in the vulnerability of the least powerful. No doubt our efforts will fall short of the kingdom of God, but that is where our status as “pilgrims, traveling back to God” comes in handy. As the old song says,
“This world is not my home,
I’m only passing through;
Fixed it up with Jesus
In 1952.
Angels beckon me,
From earth’s shifting shore,
And I can’t feel at home
In this world anymore.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

Quotes from Wendell Berry, Poet Laureate of Kentucky

“…most people are living on the far side of a broken connection, and…this is potentially catastrophic…most people are now fed, clothed, and sheltered from sources toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no responsibility…what can turn us from this deserted future, back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and the unborn? I think it is love…”

." Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would be just fine if only it would stop poisoning the air and water, or if only it would stop soil erosion, or if only it would stop degrading watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or if only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it would give women and favoured minorities an equitable share of the loot? Realism, I think, is a very limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should not look for bird eggs in a cuckoo clock."

Wendell Berry

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Alarming Emptiness

At the daily office, even as we plod methodically through the psalms, sometimes the words begin to throb with a strange intensity, and to dance in the air like overcharged particles of light. Around us the  air seems to ring with the anticipation of bells and birds. What can we do in response to this unexpected surge of incipient light? In fact, all do is proceed  with our psalmody, for we are a battered and weary church, wearing our ancient vocation like a salvation army coat, wearing it in full knowledge that in so doing we have made ourselves a target for God’s alarming emptiness, and that aliens and strangers will teach our own truths to us as if we had never heard of them. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The English word humble comes from the Latin humili, low, which itself is related to another Latin word, humus …to understand the link, it helps to think of earth and earthling.” Ravi Shapiro, Recovery, the Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice.

When shame and guilt become humility, they become redemptive.  “[Humility] …is a gift that is given us through the depths of our suffering. is only when we can no longer hide from the insanity of our lives that we fall at last into the arms of humility. If not for suffering, there would be no recovery...only when we are too broken to swim do we collapse into the sea itself and discover the current carrying us where we need to go.” 

Ravi Shapiro, Recovery, the Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


In the Bible, the earth is in partnership with God. It doesn’t just lie there while people trample on it in search of salvation; nor is it is a commodity for people to exploit for their own ends.
In the Bible, the earth is sometimes a choir, praising God along with angels and human beings. At other times, the earth is an awe-struck witness to the mighty acts of God, as when the Psalmist asks
“What ailed you, O sea, that you fled? * O Jordan, that you were driven back? You mountains, that you skipped like rams? * you little hills like young sheep?”

In Ecclesiastes 12:7, our identity is some sort of compound of earth and spirit, for “dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath to God who gave it.” The earth and its creatures can also be a teacher, as in Job 12:7…

“Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they  will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and  they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18, WILL BE OBSERVED AS EARTH SUNDAY AT CCC. The altar will be decorated with symbols of the earth’s goodness and generosity. Music, prayers, and preaching will seek to join “with all the trees of the wood [as they] shout for joy before the Lord.” (Psalm 96:11)

Monday, November 5, 2012

EVERY SO OFTEN someone slips nine photocopies of a “Prayer of St. Jude” under the massive doors of Christ Church Cranbrook. At the bottom of the page it says “Make 81 copies of these and leave nine copies over nine consecutive days. You will receive your intention before the nine days are over. No matter how impossible it may seem.”
For me, this is NOT what Christianity is about. In my understanding of the Gospel, Jesus has abolished this kind of “religion by the numbers.” For me, it is clear that Christian discipleship does away with any concept of “minimum standards.”
This complicates things, of course, especially when it comes to running a church. The Episcopal Church has embraced the “Biblical Tithe,” but not because of the Gospel. The only mention Jesus makes of tithing is to criticize the Pharisees for thinking that their observance of it made them better than other people. Tithing is an Old Testament concept that is helpful to the church of today because we need some kind of guidance when it comes to our stewardship. But giving 1/10 of one’s income to the church does not exhaust our obligation to God. No convenient percentage can absolve us from the inconvenient responsibility of using all our money (and other possessions) for the glory of God. It all comes from God, and will all return to God eventually. The question is, will we be found to have hindered that process, or to have helped it along?
Of course there are many ways to glorify God than by giving money to the church. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus acknowledges that “your heavenly Father knows that you have needs.” The point he makes a few sentences later is that we should “seek FIRST the kingdom of God.” To me that means, “give FIRST, then pay the bills.” It’s not primarily the amount, it’s the priority.
Perhaps we should take a lesson from the dedicated person who goes around slipping 81 copies of the Prayer of St. Jude under people’s doors. If we did this for nine days, maybe everyone’s giving to the church would suddenly become 10% of their income!  That includes you and me, I suppose.
Hmmm…Maybe 4% would be better to start off with.