Watch and Pray

 

Throughout history, on the eve of a new adventure or at the end of an old one, great temptations and great disasters frequently happen. Jesus, for example, having just been baptised, found himself thrust into a mad stream of temptations and—just prior to the crucifixion—begged his brothers to pray with him in the garden. It was with ‘loud cries and tears’ we are told, that he persevered and ‘learned obedience’ and was ‘made perfect through his sufferings.’* So watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation, especially when you have just won some sort of battle, been awarded a prize, fallen in love, are about to marry or take a holiday. The fact is that all those who have ever achieved anything significant in this universe have tended to say the same thing: ‘This is not just a matter of being a clever creator, this is about facing something malevolent that’s waiting patiently for you to be impetuous, impatient or impure. The Greeks put it this way, ‘Those whom the gods would destroy they first make drunk with power.’

 

* Hebrews 5:6,7

 

A Peculiar Kind Of Nothing

‘Don’t be afraid to fail. Instead be mortified by that careful abuse of yourself that comes from doing nothing: the peculiar kind of nothing that masquerades as brilliant conversation, a brilliant career and brilliant entertainment.’

(anonymous)

Deep Magic

 

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” [CS. Lewis: The Weight of Glory (excerpt from the essay]

Double Standards

‘”Frankly, I don’t confront many students who are postmodernists … For all the faddish talk I think it’s a myth. Students are not generally relativistic and pluralistic except when it comes to ethics and religion.”‘* In short their postmodernism is selective.’

‘The reality is that modernism remains firmly entrenched in the fact realm—the hard sciences, finance and industry. No one designs an airplane by postmodern principles. Postmodernism is typically held only in the values realm: theology, morality and aesthetics. Think of it this way: We are often exhorted not to impose our values on others but we never hear people say, “Don’t impose your facts on me.” Why not? Because facts are assumed to be objective and universal.’

Interestingly the word ‘objective’ means ‘something that is capable of being true or false’ and has been hijacked by those who hold to the doctrine of ’empiricism’, which is the idea that ‘all knowledge is derived from the senses: what we see, hear, hold, weigh and measure. ‘Obviously moral truths cannot be stuffed into a test ube or studied under a microscope. As a result moral statements were no longer considered truths at all, but merely expressions of emotion.’

The outcome of such thinking has lead philosophers to ludicrous conclusions as, ‘If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist.’ And if you want to see how this works out in our public life, one good example is the fact that Australian school curriculums will only assess what is regarded as ‘measureable’. So, unless you can measure the force of the punch with which the student hits the teacher, then nothing happened. Hate does not exist until it can be measured in a bomb blast or a bullet.

This great train wreck of western thinking got going in earnest via the work of the empiricist philosopher David Hume who argued that if knowledge is based ultimately on sensations, then morality too must derive from sensations—pain or pleasure. We call things good when they give us a certain kind of pleasure. We call them bad when they cause pain. As Hume put it, morality is a matter of ‘taste and sentiment.’

‘In reducing morality to personal taste, Hume took a step that altered the course of western thought. He split traditional philosophy into two opposing categories. Traditionally, truth had been conceived as a comprehensive whole, covering both the natural order and the moral order. But Hume tore those two things apart. The natural order is something we perceive through the senses, so according to empiricism that qualified as genuine knowledge. But the moral order is not perceived through the senses, so that was reduced to subjective feelings. The great moral truths that people thought were transcendent truths were not truths after all but only preferences.’**

Going back to the ‘selective postmodernism’ of university students I would suspect that few of them realise that their double-standard way of thinking has been conditioned into them by our society, which has allowed empiricism to assert that there is only One Way of knowing. But knowing—as in knowing deeply on such things as faith and worldview—has always been regarded as too serious to be left to the ‘shopkeepers and makers of things’. It makes so much more sense to cultivate a Way of Knowing that involves the whole person: mind, body and soul; community, family and neighbourhood. And—fascinatingly—this is exactly what is happening to this great secular dream right at this moment: it’s once-were-great advocates are broken-heartedly acknowledging that they have lost their way and there is a crisis of meaning. Surprise! Surprise!

* Wiliam Lane Craig (as quoted in Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcy p. 28)

** Nancy Pearcey. Saving Leonardo pp: 24-29

‘Get Up And Go’

 

Anne Rice says of her journey back to faith: ‘In seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point.’ She tells of a time when, having been an atheist for thirty eight years and written a whole lot of popular novels about vampires and witches, she was sitting in her house and having a conversation with herself.

You will have to read her book* yourself to see her original, at-length version of this conversation, which I have summarised in the following way: ‘You know what Anne. A transaction is taking place. On the one hand you have a long list of complaints about the God-world and all the problems with wars, brutality, manipulation—all these unanswered questions, all very mature, adult and supposedly humble. But on the other hand there’s this list of so-called ‘subjective and therefore invalid’ experiences and memories from works of art, music, icons and statues—all very child-like and supposedly naive, where you have felt God saying, “I love you Anne.” And you are about to permanently trade this for that bag of supposedly sensible and responsible complaints and un- answered questions.’

As she thought about all this she became uneasy about the fact that the respect of her educated and skeptical colleagues was now emerging as a major reason for her procrastination and her unwillingness to act. Then she says: ‘I knew the German church of my childhood was perhaps six blocks away from where I was sitting. And perhaps I’d remembered my mother’s words of decades ago: “He is on that altar. Get up and go.” … ‘I didn’t care about the framing of the doctrine, I cared about him. And he was calling me back through his Presence on the altar. He might have used the falling rain, he might have used Vivaldi … but no, he used the doctrine of the Real Presence.’

 

* Called Out Of Darkness

The Debt

‘owe no one anything except the debt of love’1

 

 

The wild waves are having a drowning

 

There’s a diving straight-in arms-open

 

Bare-body bare-soul into ocean.

 

 

The dark nights are having a screaming

 

There’s a shining straight-through eyes-attack

 

Naked-face naked-light into black.

 

 

The lost ones are having a trembling

 

There’s a walking straight-ahead hands-connect

 

Raw-skin raw-heart into debt.

 

 

The wild waves are having a drowning

 

You dive straight-in arms-open

 

Bare-body bare-soul into ocean.

 

 

The dark nights are having a screaming

 

You shine straight-through eyes-attack

 

Naked-face naked-light into black.

 

 

The lost ones are having a trembling

 

You walk straight-ahead hands-connect

 

Raw-skin raw-heart into debt.

 

1Romans 13:8

 

‘An Emotional Act of Civil Disobedience’

 

On the weekend at our members’ conference we considered the life and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (his life is much more compelling than his words) and reflected upon the relationship between silence, prayer, faith and acts of ‘civil disobedience’ via the imagination. We talked about the fact that our imaginations are being dominated by a socially engineered consumer culture that’s OCD about being in charge of this ’empire of the imagination’ from whence it’s dollars come. Inevitably you feel a certain sense of disgust with yourself and your country and even your own organisation when you think about these things.

But it’s dangerous to engage in self-righteous rants that—as one of our old mates Frank Doolan reminded us—do nothing more than feed our poets’ egos. Isn’t that a big slice of what the popular entertainment industry is about after all: a sop of red meat thrown to the masses to vent their rage on like dogs while the emperor laughs?

The fact is that we (the millions of mortgage-carroted, pre-coronary donkeys of Australia) backed ourselves into this corner a long time ago and have no way ahead other than an honest confession of our failure to inspire our children with a vision of faith, hope and love and of a family and a home that is an oasis of new life and grace. How can we expect to take each other seriously—and especially our leaders (religious or otherwise)—when we still talk as if the Australian economy, politics, sporting achievements and education system: our version of ‘power and knowledge’ really can ‘tame the terror and eliminate the darkness’?* And worse, when we—who have already been living in so-called ‘radical community’ in Cornerstone for example, and who should know better—have also sometimes allowed ourselves to be mesmerised by the imagination of Babylon and tried to copy it—’for the Lord’ of course.

Thinking on all this over the weekend helped me to understand why one scholar said of ancient Israel that it, ‘came within a whisker of being able to imagine its future only in the terms permitted and sanctioned by Babylon.’ It could be that 21st century Australia has gone beyond that ‘whisker’ and can now only ‘imagine its future … in the terms permitted and sanctioned’ by a bunch of bored executives sitting somewhere on a yacht. Which in real terms translates into your imagination being taken captive by the local shopping mall. If we persist in serving up this kind of meaning-myth to our teenagers we should not be surprised when they want to top themselves.

As we talked and prayed on the weekend, we were reminded by Bonhoeffer (who had to confront a much more stark ‘Babylon’: in the shape of the Nazis) that a good starting point is a deliberate act of silence, of passive surrender to the quietness of what has been called ‘the dreadful and captivating mystery of God’s presence’, during which we allow the divine Word to act, to awaken our imagination from the banal spell of our shop- keeper god. As Lewis once remarked, ‘Stone walls cannot a prison make half so secure as rigmarole.’ This is why prayer has been described as ‘rebellion against the status quo’. Walter Brueggemann goes on to say that ‘the return from exile begins with an emotional act of civil disobedience.’** Perhaps today could be a good day for you to also engage in an emotional act of civil disobedience.

*Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

** Brueggemann W. Conversations Among Exiles: This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997, pp. 630-632.)