Tuesday, March 31, 2009



There's a lot out there in the blog world, so much so that it is easy to become overwhelmed and grow numb. But one of the blogs to which I keep returning is Fr. Stephen Freeman's "Glory To God For All Things." Often, the entries are so deep that I have to click away from them and reel a little, perhaps for a day or two, before I finish reading them or re-read them. Anyway, I found this entry particuarly insightful--


and not only the entry itself, but one of the comments, which I'll (inadequately!) paraphrase here:

God is always singing, and the reason we don't hear it is because God has never not been singing; the sound is so deeply present in our experience that we don't recognize it--it's always been there. If it were to stop, everything would fall apart.

This is glorious.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has said that the sky is the daily bread for our eyes. I love to look at the sky in all kinds of weather, and to rejoice that it's always there--something everyone has in common that is simultaneously completely near and mostly beyond us. I think that God's singing is the daily bread for our sense of hearing, even though we can't identify it with our natural ears.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009



Boldly the Virgin replied to the Archangel Gabriel,...
"The paradox of your declaration
seems incomprehensible to my mind.
You announce a conception without seed, and cry "Alleluia."
Groping to grasp this concept, the Virgin sought light
and spoke with force to God's minister:
"How is it possible for a son to be born
from immaculate loins? Tell me that."
The archangel replied in fear, but his words were jubilant:
"...Hail, willing devotee of silence-shrouded faith.
Hail, prelude to the miraculous works of Christ....
Hail, celestial ladder on which God descends...
Hail, incessantly chanted wonder of the angels.
Hail, unceasingly lamented wound of the demons.
Hail, mysterious deliverer of the Light.
Hail, consternation of those who ask "How?"

--Romanos the Melodist

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Visible/Invisible Growth

Because of slowly-healing shoulder/neck/arm pain, I've been staying away from the computer as much as possible--I need a whole new ergonomic setup and am waiting for a mail-order keyboard to arrive (a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art keyboard that will not only fix my shoulder but also restore the global economy, reveal the mysteries of cold fusion, and, most wondrously, organnize my closets); however, I can't resist posting this passage from THESE THINGS WE BELIEVE by Fr. Deacon Ezra:

...[T]o become like God does not mean we amputate our humanity. Theosis is the journey of becoming like God as seen in Christ who was both fully God and fully Man... As we walk with God in the cool of the evening, as the journey of thesosis begins, we will discover that our humanity is changing. We will find ourselves in conversation with God. "O God, I don't know what to do (in this situation)." Or, "God, I don't know how to do (whatever). I'm not good at doing (whatever). Help me discover how to do (whatever)." And the miracle is we find ourselves facing (whatever) and, growing in the process, we do (whatever).

Whatever spiritual growth is taking place in our lives often remains invisible to us. What we are most keenly aware of is the growth in our humanity. We are not yet fully human...Growing in our humanity not only benefits us, it benefits most directly those closest to us...They are blesssed because of the human changes in us. Being so blessed they are drawn to the God who causes us to grow in our humanity...

(The bold face was for the purpose of this excerpt, and is not in the book).

Friday, March 13, 2009

Heart-lifting Words


"It is God's will that we receive three things from him as gifts as we seek.

The first is that we seek willingly and diligently without sloth, as that may be with his grace, joyfully and happily, without unreasonable depression and useless sorrow.

The second is that we wait for him steadfastly, out of love for him, without grumbling and contending against him, to the end of our lives, for that will last only for a time.

The third is that we have great trust in him, out of complete and true faith, for it is his will that we know that he will appear, suddenly and blessedly, to all his lovers.

For he works in secret, and he will be perceived, and his appearing will be very sudden.

And he wants to be trusted, for he is very accessible, familiar and courteous, blessed may he be. "

Julian of Norwich

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Systematic Theology Is an Oxymoron"


I found this interesting-- from an interview w/ Larry Wall, inventor of the programming language Perl:

...If God is creating the universe sideways like an Author, then the proper place to look for the effects of that is not at the fuzzy edges, but at the heart of the story. And I am personally convinced that Jesus stands at the heart of the story. The evidence is there if you care to look, and if you don't get distracted by the claims of various people who have various agendas to lead you in every possible direction, and if you don't fall into the trap of looking for a formula rather than looking for God as a person. All human institutions are fallible, and will create a formula for you to determine whether you belong to the tribe or not. Very often these formulas are called doctrines and traditions and such, and there is some value in them, as there is some value in any human culture. But they all kind of miss the point.

"Systematic theology" is an oxymoron. God is not a system. Christians are fond of asking: "What would Jesus do in this situation?" Unfortunately, they very rarely come up with the correct answer, which is: "Something unexpected!" If the Creator really did write himself into his own story, that's what we ought to expect to see. Creative solutions.

And this creativity is intended to be transitive. We are expected to be creative. And we're expected to help others be creative.

And that leads us back (finally) to the last part of your question, how all this relates to Perl.

Perl is obviously my attempt to help other people be creative. In my little way, I'm sneakily helping people understand a bit more about the sort of people God likes.

Going further, we have the notion that a narrative should be defined by its heart and not by its borders. That ties in with my linguistic notions that things ought to be defined by prototype rather than by formula. It ties in to my refusal to define who is or is not a "good" Perl programmer, or who exactly is or isn't a member of the "Perl community". These things are all defined by their centers, not by their peripheries.

The philosophy of TMTOWTDI ("There's more than one way to do it.") is a direct result of observing that the Author of the universe is humble, and chooses to exercise control in subtle rather than in heavy-handed ways. The universe doesn't come with enforced style guidelines. Creative people will develop style on their own. Those are the sort of people that will make heaven a nice place.

And finally, there is the underlying conviction that, if you define both science and religion from their true centers, they cannot be in confict. So despite all the "religiosity" of Perl culture, we also believe in the benefits of computer science. I didn't put lexicals and closures into Perl5 just because I thought people would start jumping up and down and shouting "Hallelujah!" (Which happens, but that's not why I did it.)

Encouragement from St. Romanos the Melodist

"As we shudder at the memory of the fig tree cursed into sterility,
let us also wither the desires of our flesh by works of mercy,
so, when we arrive breathless at the resurrection,
we can anoint ourselves with forgiveness, like perfumed oil sent from heaven..."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Distraction Traction

Today it occurred to me to look at all the things that distract us from God (pain, wandering thoughts, regrets, doubts, etc.) as traction--stuff from which to push off, like a starting block--rather than seeing them as reasons to give up. We can make them work for us instead of "agin" us. The more frequent the distractions, the more numerous the opportunities for traction.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Set Apart in Space



All things are far set apart in space;
Spring buds pushing out, more distant,
Add to the span of last year’s branches,
And we carry on, from those who lie under stones,
Who built before us. Those buds, so far apart,
Connect to sap and earth,
And to the Maker.

All is far set apart in space; atoms, not things,
But relationships and energies, infinities in miniature.
To say “God is” takes no revelation.
To say “God is Love” implies relationship within God,
Oneness, but oneness of different persons.
We are not persons, except linked over distances,
One to another, and to the Maker.

All set apart, the bodies in space,
So far apart that there is not a thing
Except the Trinity—He the only thing:
Only He goes far enough to span
The emptiness of space between all,
Making something out of nothing,
Linking all things to the Maker.

All things are so far set apart
That without a soul, all things are not.
Your soul holds all the universe,
Though the universe cannot hold one soul.
Mystically, He has put more in one soul
Than is found in all worlds. As an atom
Is not a thing but a relation, persons are persons
Only as they are linked in the Maker.

Copyright 2004 Matthew R. Brown


also see http://sloetrane.tripod.com/id1.html

Why Icons


"Though infinite in Thy divine nature, O Master,
Thou didst condescend to be incarnate in these last days,
And became finite,
For by putting on the body,
Thou didst put on also its natures.
Therefore we present the likeness of Thy image,
And venerate it in honor of its prototype,
Ascending towards Thy love where we partake of the grace of healing
Following the divine traditions of the Apostles."

Yesterday it seemed that the Scripture lessons underscored the theme of "beholding"--

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Therefore, having so vast a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, and throwing off everything that hinders us and especially the sin that so easily entangles us, let us keep running with endurance the race set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus..."


We have the icons of the clouds of witnesses around us in church as we ever and anew "come and see" the Lord there and struggle, though falteringly, to fix our eyes on Him.

And speaking of that, I was thinking yesterday about how Jesus had to grow and mature as a human--I wonder what His process was (ongoingly throughout His life, starting from childhood) in worship--how He learned steadiness of focus and attention--surely, being human, He had to learn to deal with the issue of mind-wandering, sleepiness, distraction, and all the weird thoughts that assail us when we try to pray at home or in church?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Beautiful Translation


And the Lord said: "My face shall go before thee, and I will give thee rest"

(Usually translated as:) And He said, "My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest."

Ex. 33:14

Best Discussion I've Heard Thus Far of Eden, etc.


Thank you, Roland!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Edward Hirsch

I am a piece of chalk
scrawling words on an empty blackboard.

I am a banner of smoke
that crosses the blue air, and doesn’t dissolve.

I don’t believe that only sorrow
and misery can be written.

Happiness, too, can be precise:

Doctor, doctor, I have a sudden throbbing
on the left side of my chest
and my ribs are wrenched by joy.

Wings flutter in my shoulders
and blood courses through my body
like waves cresting on a choppy sea.

Look: the eyes blur with tears
and the tears clear.

My head is like skylight.
My heart is like dawn.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Narrative Discontinuity? Lenten Integrity? (Feedback Requested!)

Speaking as freshly fallen Adam, the hymnographer laments the human condition:
"I was once clothed in the glory of immortality,
Now I must wrap myself in the skins of mortality...
Woe is me! Who will share my sorrow with me?
But, Lord and Lover of mankind,
Thou hast fashioned me from the earth and art clothed with compassion;
Call me back from the bondage of the enemy and save me!"
If this is the foundational story of the faith, either literal or symbolic (a metaphor of the human condition, the "story we find ourselves in"; or a metaphor for 1. the shift from a hunter/gatherer existence to agricultural societal structure 2. some kind of group murder/lynching of an Abel-figure, an act that by eliminating the "other" brought/bought a false peace to the community), I don't think I believe it.
What evidence is there that there was ever a time on earth without death or suffering? What evidence is there that there is ever a time in any human's life in which that person is not subject to mortality with of all its implications?
I've been researching (reading in Fr. Deacon Ezra's These Things We Believe; The Rev. Dr. John Behr's The Mystery of Christ, and Fr. John Romanides' The Ancestral Curse) and talking to people about this, and have come across some interesting and edifying stuff which I will paste in the following paragraphs, but haven't found anything that addresses the above questions. I want to sing the Lenten hymns with integrity. I welcome all feedback! (By the way, I'm not addressing here the Western/Eastern differences re. theological understandings of the Fall--but rather, that on which there seems to be agreement.)
Research results:
Apparently, "the fall" is not the foundational story of the faith. Salvation history is wonkier than it might seem to be from a simple sequential cause/effect perspective. Fr. John Behr speaks of this eloquently, and the Episcopal priest Fr. Charles Hefling elaborates on this in a review of James Alison's book The Joy of Being Wrong:
The methodological priority of the resurrection as the eschatological event explains in part the seemingly roundabout route that Alison takes towards an understanding of original sin, for it closes off the more straightforward option of following the Bible's own narrative sequence. Such has been the usual procedure, in catechesis and hymnography and not a little systematic theology. First comes creation, then the fall, then Christ, and finally the life of the world to come. Transposed into metaphysical terms, the route from Genesis to the Apocalypse begins with human "nature" as such, goes on to discuss original sin's effect on that nature, and moves from there to consider atonement, grace, and finally the beatific vision.
In contrast with this logic, Alison arranges his ideas according to what he calls an order of discovery. Knowledge of both "beginnings" and "endings," protology and eschatology, became possible only when Jesus was raised from the dead. Similarly, we know ourselves only at the point of transition from what we have been (but are ceasing to be) to what we are not yet (but have begun to be) - Thus Alison's procedure, broadly speaking, is to begin in medias res and move alternately "forwards" and "backwards," with the prospective movement at the fore in Raising Abel and the retrospective one in *The Joy of Being Wrong*.
***Important insert: Hefling includes in his review a kind of synopsis of his and some others' thinking about Original Sin. Note, by the way, the hilarious synonym (worth the whole essay, I think!) with which he begins it:
...in its traditional form it does a number of things at once, like a pocket knife with several blades for different purposes. in the present context it will be useful to distinguish five functional connections comprised in the way original sin has most often been conceived.

(1) Non-dualism. The doctrine of original sin excludes dualism in the most serious sense.
Human sinfulness cannot be traced to any power or principle that is either "within" or "alongside" the one God.

(2) Universality. To affirm original sin has been to affirm a solidarity in sin that pertains to humankind without exception. The doctrine asserts a vitium, an impotence with respect to righteousness, which belongs to humans, each and all, jointly and severally, and which affects the whole of everyone's life.
(3) Non-necessity. At the same time, original sin as it has usually been conceived is contingent, not necessary. It is in some sense a disturbance or distortion of human reality, not an intrinsic feature. The human condition could have been other than it is.
Traditional statements of original sin draw these first three assertions into an intelligible unity by giving an account of how it is that a situation which, although it is no part of the universe as God created it (point 1), is nevertheless all-pervasive (point 2), and which need not have existed (point 3) yet exists nevertheless. Such an account commonly involves two further points that I shall call a remote and a proximate explanation. The remote explanation tells how the human plight began; the proximate explanation, how it continues. The former is original sin as originating, the latter original sin as originated. For reasons that will appear presently, distinguishing between these is by no means splitting hairs.
(4) Remote explanation. Commonly though not invariably Christian tradition has asserted that the situation characterized by original sin began, and began only once. In the Augustinian tradition, its beginning and origin is the "fall," generally associated with the story in Genesis 3.
(5) Proximate explanation. What the fall originated has been extended from its originators to everyone else. To the question of how the extending or originating happens, different answers have been advanced. One proximate explanation is "seminal identity," the idea that the whole race was "in," and so fell with, the originator of the originating sin. The other and more usual explanation, and the only one that is relevant here, is that human solidarity in sin is accounted for by the fact that everyone is descended from original sin's originator.
***End of insert
As I interpret Hefling, Alison himself would not approve of my question:
But *The Joy of Being Wrong* has a long polemical passage against explaining in general and against explaining original sin in particular (Joy 261-265). It may be that Alison's aim is to forestall "explaining" in the sense of explaining away-reducing human evil to something less, and less mysterious, than original sin. However, when he goes on to say that Christians have no explanation of anything at all, that they have only a revelation, he is saying more, and what he says sounds very much like fideism. Again, it would seem that a hypothesis about origins would be a causal hypothesis. But Alison is as reluctant to speak of original sin in terms of causation as he is to speak of explaining it. Here too there may be only a problem of definition. Identifying a cause can mean identifying someone to blame or accuse-Adam, Eve, the snake-and accusation and blame are irrelevant, since the whole effort in The Joy of Being Wrong is to see original sin as a state of affairs that is being forgiven.

That is either really spectacular wisdom or a complete side-stepping of the issue of actual history.

Continuing with the passage:

As for what explication might look like positively, Alison's views are not easy to pin down. He does refer repeatedly to the example of Paul in Romans by way of suggesting what a hypothesis about origins is and does. But Paul's support for a project such as Alison's is ambivalent at best. On the one hand, Romans is undoubtedly the classical precedent for tracing human sinfulness to an origin "in the beginning." But on the other, Paul does not trace it to a founding murder, of which he gives hardly a hint, but to Adam. That, however, in Alison's judgment, does not signify (joy 130). It was from revelation in Christ that Paul came to know about the universality of sin; in Adam he found "a useful way of illustrating" what he knew (joy 155). The universality must have begun somewhere, and Adam was "a more convenient way of talking about this than any other" (joy 241). Formally, Alison's own reasoning is similar. Grant that there is a futility, an impotence, coextensive with human history and culture; grant further that this condition is not necessary but contingent; and the conclusion that the state of affairs known as original sin had an origin is unavoidable. Adam is optional, to some extent, but a functionally equivalent story about our earliest ancestors is not. Explication demands one beginning for all human sin and, to quote Humani Generis as Alison does, "it does not appear how" such a beginning is compatible with anything other than monogenism (joy 244).

But do the conditions of the problem as stated demand positing one beginning-or any beginning? The nub of the matter, I should say, is the second condition: original sin is contingent. So it is. Now, contingent realities, of whatever kind, do not account for themselves. That is true by definition. To account for them is to find out and articulate how they depend on something else. Whether we call the accounting-for "explanation," and whether we call the something else a source or a cause or an origin or a reason why, is not very important; the fact is that our minds do from time to time get hold of an intelligible relationship between a contingent thing or event, and something else, some other that answers the question, "Why is this so?"

Now, on the assumption that every contingent reality-everything, that is, except God-has a cause or origin or reason why, it does follow that human sin in the most radical sense has a cause or origin or reason why. Alison makes just this assumption, performatively, by asking for the origin that original sin "must" have had. But is there any legitimate a priori justification for thinking that every "why?" question has an answer? Is asking "why?" of original sin perhaps asking the wrong question? Is there,consequently, no answer?

In some sense Alison's answer is no more satisfactory than was the old storytale answer. Why is there original sin? Because Adam sinned? Then why did Adam sin? If it was because of the serpent, why did the serpent sin? If the serpent is supposed to have been a fallen angel, why did the angel sin? And so on. My point is that there is really not much to choose between Adam and a group of anthropoids, considered as candidates for the job of explaining the origin of human sin, except that it may be easier to believe in the anthropoids' existence than in Adam's. Either way there is no final "because." Why did the anthropoids sin?
...if this last question never gets asked explicitly in *The Joy of Being Wrong*, the reason may be that Alison hedges a bit on whether the founding murderers did sin. The scene of historical origin that he paints is a scene of change; that much is clear. Such a change requires something that is constant, and something that is different afterwards as compared with before..

Hefling points out,

How any, theologian explicates original sin depends, knowingly or otherwise, on what that theologian thinks sin is and what it would be to explicate it. A few paragraphs back I suggested that to ask "why?" of original sin might be to ask the wrong question; otherwise stated, that original sin cannot be explicated in the way that other contingent realities allow of being explicated. The suggestion is not new. Thomas Aquinas held that nothing whatever can or does depart from the plan of the divine intelligence that organizes the universe of finite beings-nothing, with one exception. The exception is sin in the radical sense: not this deed or that, but irrational failure to will the good, a failure that is the origin of human evil (Summa theologia 1.17.1). In this remarkable statement Thomas is making the first of the five points listed above: neither directly nor indirectly does God will, create, or cause sin. Why did Adam (or the anthropoids) sin? If there were a reason why, Thomas might say, it would not be sin but something else, something intelligible, something given by God. I suspect that Alison would find unsuitable the metaphysical terms in which Thomas frames his position, and certainly they cannot speak to the condition of readers such as The Joy of Being Wrong is meant for. But it does not follow that the insight so framed is wrong or that it cannot be framed differently. It amounts to saying that to ask "why?" of radical sin is to pay it a compliment, by supposing that it is something in its own right, that it can be grasped and understood, that as such it participates participates in the universal intelligibility of creation. None of this, for Thomas, is true of sin. Sin is radically unintelligible. It has no cause, explanation, source, origin, or reason why. It does exist. But it exists with the horrible mind-defeating reality of a false fact, a surd.

Coming up against that surd, I think, is what drives Alison to say at one point that at the origin of sin "desire distorted itself" (joy 151). It is hard to fathom what such a statement could mean-and that in itself is suggestive. We are dealing with an absence of meaning. Had Alison said "desire failed to desire, failed to be itself," he would have been moving towards Thomas's teaching on the human will. Nor, in the long run, would he have been moving away from his own understanding either of original sin or of God. Rightly he maintains that original sin is known in its being forgiven and that it should be defined as that which can be forgiven; rightly he says that the point of knowing it at all-the purpose of a doctrine of original sin-is to keep those who are privileged to participate in the forgiving sociality that God has established in Christ, the risen victim, from misremembering their own complicity in victimization...
...I mentioned at the outset that a decision to take the resurrection as a methodological point of departure upsets the customary narrative sequence by which Christian doctrines have been organized. It may be that to follow through on that decision would mean abandoning narrative sequence entirely, as a way to explicate doctrine. Adam and Eve make perfect sense as a way to say why there is original sin-so long as we are telling stories, and provided we do not ask too many questions. A Girardian "original scene" makes the same kind of sense-narrative sense and is subject -to the same proviso.

Well. The only thing they can come up with is the abandonment of narrative sequence?

I don't know what to make of this. It completely makes sense to see the past through the transforming and transfiguring events of Christ's life and work--His victory. It completely makes sense that narrative sequence would be shattered, subverted, and recreated. It helps me to see that the foundational story of the faith is Christ's story, not the first few chapters of Genesis.

But still...I can't help but feel that a huge question is being begged, the one with which I began this entry--was there ever a "time" or condition of sinlessness and deathlessness in collective or individual history? Was there ever some kind of actual choice-against-God that broufht sin and death into the world? Our priest said yesterday that when humanity fell, creation fell with it--was there a time when there was no mortality whatsoever? I have huge trouble with this!

Can anyone help with this?