Theodicy

480px-Flight_Into_Egypt_1923_Henry_Ossawa_Tanner
The Flight into Egypt, Henry Ossawa Tanner.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

Christmas is grievous when in doubt, and I,

More wretched than I knew, did doubt.

Glittering tinsel and fairy lights,

Deathless ever-green and baubles bright,

Seemed but the pressing of a greater dark:

A gruesome mask to gild the face of death.

 

Weary, I threw myself across a chair,

The magnolia armchair of my childhood home,

Where once, beneath the Christmas tree’s green arms,

I curled, reading children’s stories of the works of God.

I would not now fit, either to the space,

Nor to the easy credence I had then.

What power has birth o’er death, or God

To alter all the bitter doom of man,

Half victim and half guilty of this web of grief?

 

I looked up, up at the bright enamelled crib,

Little resin figures cast by my Great-Aunt,

Painted by children’s fingers, painted rough but bright.

All sweetness and serene serenity.

 

And beneath, a newspaper carelessly cast down.

“Troubles in Palestine”, “A family flees”, a photograph;

The mother stood aside, hands pressed to face,

Their infant son held in his father’s arms,

Staring stunned from that security insecure.

Behind them their home burned.

 

I lifted up my eyes, to where the little Kings

Their perilous migration, day by day,

Along the mantelpiece were making,

With prophecy of glory and with instant doom

Of Herod’s eye and hand against the child divine.

 

How soon the stable’s shelter, fragile warmth, enough,

Becomes the horror of a panicked flight,

How soon that flight a death – but death transformed,

Overthrown and destroyed by the Creator’s love.

 

Let the light come.

Of mortality itself our hope is made,

Out of the dark a remedy has been fashioned.

To the cross is the Creator nailed,

Hope appears from the tomb.

The power that reigns in heaven

Flees murder, swaddled in his mother’s arms.

Helpless in the manger,

Life lies adorned with a fragile mask of death.

 

What love is this, that no easy answer takes

To transform our sorrow by thy grief divine

Impassible to suffer and immortal die?

Hadst thou more in measure given, dear my Lord,

I would have sooner thee believed.

 

450px-Strängnäs_Dom_-_Hochaltar_-_Ungläubiger_Thomas
Strängnäs cathedral, Sweden. 16th century High altar – St. Thomas meets the Risen Christ.       Photo Credit: Wolfgang Sauber.  (See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Str%C3%A4ngn%C3%A4s_Dom_-_Hochaltar_-_Ungl%C3%A4ubiger_Thomas.jpg)

 

With best wishes to all readers for Christmas 2018 – may you enjoy a happy and edifying festive season… 😀

Cherry Foster

Posting the Panda

I never cease to be amazed by the range of extraordinary and extreme things which animals have evolved to do to survive.

Flying fish, beetles that squirt boiling liquid, mammals with elongated legs and necks which require all sorts of complex structures to make circulation possible.  Eggs and placentas – I rarely cook an egg without marvelling at the structure – insects that give birth to already pregnant daughters, birds that fly across oceans and deserts to nest, fish that come out of water to lay their eggs, and wasps that build mud pots to protect their young.  Creatures that throw bits of their breathing apparatus at an attacking predator, or which have developed venom which kills prey in seconds.

But I don’t think anything can rival this creature in the sheer weirdness of its current evolutionary survival strategy, which it can at least be reasonably argued

Lightmatter_panda Aaron Logan photo
Photo credit: Aaron Logan. Photo Source, Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lightmatter_panda.jpg

is to look CUTE!

 

Cherry Foster

Down to Detail?

Some comments on devotions to the Saints

One of my Advent books this year is “Surprised by Hope” by N. T. Wright*. It is about the nature of the Christian hope after death (involving Resurrection rather than eternal disembodied bliss**) and how this affects how we live in the present. There’s a lot of food for thought in it: I found it well worth reading.

One thing, however, particularly drew my attention: his views on devotions to the Saints on pages 184-186. He comments that we should be very careful of the idea that the Saints function as friends at court: i.e. he says that every Christian has direct access to the Father through Christ and the Spirit, and therefore that asking someone else to ask for you is liable to negate that.  He also opposes the practice, though fairly gently, on the grounds that it is not Scriptural.

Despite being the sort of Anglo-Catholic who quite happily sings the Angelus and says the Rosary, and finds these practices of considerable value, I feel that the distortion Wright mentions – that of talking to the Saints rather than to God – can be a real problem in my personal prayer – something that I need to be cautious to guard against and address. As an Anglo-Catholic, I am sometimes concerned that the extent of the (often rather illogical) opposition to much of what we do puts us off watching these particular practices for distortions. Part of good Christian practice is keeping an eye on whether or not our devotions or lifestyle choices are actually of a nature that would be justified by the theology of those devotions or lifestyle choices, not because of deliberate hypocrisy, but because of the risk of drifting away from our moorings. Christian life requires a sensible level of vigilance against taking the normal for granted rather than being careful to check that it is in fact right when considered in the light of the sources of the faith.

More widely, it does seem to me that East and West have a very different attitude to praying to the Saints. Western Church devotions, particularly to Mary, still retain a bit of an overtone of “God is really angry and he’s out to get you, but these people he likes might be able to persuade him to do otherwise”, which I think it probably would be fair to say is completely inconsistent with real Christian teaching. Eastern Church devotions (or so I’ve felt when I’ve encountered them) suppose God and the Saints are on the same side. The work and prayers of the Saints in heaven are part of that amazing element of God’s redeeming love in which he invites us (his people) as fully as possible into what he is doing – into working with him at his work of redemption.

I think, therefore, it is a question of seeing the “friend at court” situation rather differently: I think that if we are hanging around in the outer lobby asking someone else to go in and ask for us, we are getting it wrong (this is Wright’s version). But the baby prince or princess may go into the court to their Father quite freely, but still struggle to articulate a request or to know what and how to ask, because they are still a baby, and because being so, they are still learning. Of course God knows. Of course the Holy Spirit prays in and for us without our being entirely conscious of what’s going on. But we are a family, and it makes sense in such cases, that an older brother or sister should also come to our aid, and that we should ask them to. Parents are often pleased when one sibling asks a favour for another, because it indicates that the children love each other. To use a completely different image, I think it can also be a question of placing an overwhelming issue in a box marked “needs to be dealt with by a senior colleague”, one, moreover, who can be assumed to have plenty of time!

I would not (I wish I could say, “of course”!) set my devotional preferences and ideas over and above what it says in Scripture – in that, if devotion to the Saints is incompatible with Scripture (as Wright, I think, suggests), I would hold that it is wrong, and if I became convinced of that I would desist. The details of Scriptural interpretation are not my subject, so the belief that the devotion to Saints is consistent with scripture*** is something that I have chiefly received from those who taught me the faith. However, while I would struggle to give a complete justification, particularly as some very complex questions arise, I am reasonably satisfied that it is correct in as far as I have been able to go into it.

However, it does seem worth being careful to acknowledge and observe the doctrinal parameters (e.g. God alone is to be worshipped; Christ is the only Redeemer; the Saints mustn’t be put between us and God as if we had no access to him) in the context of both devotion to the Saints and other ceremonial practices.

Wüger_Kreuzigung
Kreuzigung by Gabriel Wüger
Photo Credit:
http://www.engen.de/toparchiv
/ausstellung/beuron.htm

*Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007.  For a more detailed exposition of the same author on the nature of the Resurrection of Christ, see: N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003.

**Which is reasonably supposed to be a stage on the way, but not the final destination.

***I suggest e.g. https://www.catholic.com/tract/praying-to-the-saints for an explanation of the scriptural foundation of the practice.

 

Retaining the Spoon

The stutterry working memory of dyslexia, dyspraxia, and allied conditions

800px-A_small_cup_of_coffee Julius Schorzman
Photo from Wikimedia Commons; Julius Schorzman

It usually takes me at least two separate teaspoons to make a hot drink, and four or five to make a smoothie.

This is not because there is any real issue with using the same spoon for more than one task, though most smoothies do require two clean spoons, as it is a bit of a problem to put the same spoon in both yogurt and cocoa, or similar wet/dry ingredient pairs. But there isn’t any culinary need to use another two spoons to scrape the blender and blending jug, or to use different spoons to spoon coffee into a cup and to stir it in.

The excessive spoon numbers happen because I have a memory that cannot retain continuously the information that the spoon needs to be kept for reuse*. This results in almost all spoons, once they have been used once, being tidied instantly into the washing up, where they are either unidentifiable, or end up covered in tomato soup or dirty washing water, and can’t be used without being scrubbed. Very occasionally, by chance or with an effort of extreme concentration, I remember to keep one, but it is the exception, not the rule.

A stutterry memory affects doing the process, but often does not affect understanding it. I am able to describe what efficient spoon use requires: take one spoon and use it for the yogurt, and another for dry ingredients (if any), starting with things like seeds that will not adhere to the spoon as powders will. Put one spoon in the washing up and retain the other for scraping the utensils. Blend ingredients. Scrape off blender with spoon and rinse. Pour smoothie into cup and scrape out jug with same spoon.

However, I cannot, while actually doing it, retain this continuously in my memory. The habit of dropping used utensils (bar the butter knife) straight into their washing tub, is too strong.

I usually, though not always, remember to put all the ingredients in before blending the mixture, but that is not something one has to retain in one’s mind continuously: it is enough to come back to it a couple of fairly random times as one goes. The problem with spoons is that if I don’t remember all the time not to put them in the washing up, I generally do put them there, and the process of having put them there is normally irreversible – unlike the process of having failed to put a banana in at the usual point in the recipe.

Making a smoothie is about as complex a food preparation task as I normally attempt in everyday life**, for though it is moderately difficult in terms of having to gather a lot of ingredients together, it is fairly indifferent to the order in which you mix them (“necessary but not deducible order” being one of my worst Achilles’ heels) and it is usually easy to see what I have put in and what I haven’t. Also, as I do it every day, I can do most of the process without thinking.

Most people are absent minded occasionally. Having a life-impacting problem is not the result of doing this sort of thing, but of trying to live with the fact that one does it ninety-five percent of the time, rather than five percent of the time. At that level, retaining adequate functionality becomes difficult.

Apart from the straightforward practical difficulties it causes in doing a lot of normal and necessary tasks, this sort of memory difficulty can cause a lot of social friction, for example, when someone else is doing the washing up and has asked you to reuse the spoon to make less work (or in dozens of similar housework, classroom, or work tasks), as it is often hard for people to understand why there is such a problem with doing in practice what someone often has no problem recalling in theory. While I would contend that it is always appropriate to look for ways around (like everyone washing up the teaspoons they’ve used themselves) when it is causing someone else real difficulties, it is necessary to start looking for a solution from a position that accepts the fact that “just trying a bit harder” isn’t going to alter the erratic working or not working of the brain!

I am coming to accept that things like efficiency with the reuse of spoons in the kitchen are beyond me. Fortunately, I have plenty of spare teaspoons, I do my own washing up when I haven’t guests, and the environmental effects of washing up a few extra teaspoons are hopefully not extreme.

While the theoretical effects of dyslexia and related conditions on short term memory are well known, the practical results in everyday tasks are harder to comprehend or anticipate. This type of rather intangible absent-mindedness is, I think, one of the main effects.

 

 

*I suppose this is what is normally referred to as processing, but I am not an expert on the technical ins and outs of what the brain is doing and not doing. There is an odd paradox in our culture in that people tend to assume that the experience resulting from a disability is only real if it has a known technical explanation, which would require the explanation to exist prior to the existence of the thing it is trying to explain! The experience is fundamental; the explanation is an explanation of what is causing the experience.

**The limitation results from of stamina management needs in the context of particular lifestyle choices and external practical constrains, not from the literal impossibility of doing more complex tasks.

 

Cherry Foster