Not long ago my family and I spent an afternoon walking around Parliament Hill here in Ottawa. It’s here that much of the negotiation surrounding public policy and the common good takes place. One of the reasons this is so challenging is that we don’t agree on what the point of life is. What is the good life? How can we begin to suggest that one life is lived well and another not? Are their goods beyond life? These are hard questions and fun questions and good questions to talk about over a pint or around a camp fire. Our ability to talk about these things and, even when we disagree, to affirm something resembling a shared vision for justice underwrites the peace of our pluralist society. My hunch, though, is that the differences that emerge around these questions aren’t limited to conversations that cross the boundaries of one faith to another. Read more
The screen on your phone and the screen on your computer are populated with icons. You can probably picture them: there’s the one for your web browser, maybe it’s a fox or whatever the Google thing is, somewhere there is probably a music note representing your collection of recordings, you probably have something that looks a bit like a camera too. I want to suggest that these icons surrounding us can serve as a reminder of several things Christians believe about our calling as human creatures. Read more
I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said there was no such thing as society. The quote is usually taken out of context but has still come to symbolize the severity of modern individualism, just the sort of thing to send a shiver down the spine of a communitarian (like myself). Now, I think we’re actually becoming pretty conscious of the many drawbacks of the blinkered individualism Thatcher’s comment has come to (mis)represent. The new urbanism might be one example. Churches are another. Many churches have come to realize that nurturing community isn’t just preparation for the real work we do—it is itself an essential part of that work. But for all the doubtless good that comes with this renewed emphasis on community, I do worry that a form of relationship that lies between individualism and communitarianism is being overlooked. Read more
Some former students have been asking me about the writing project I was working on this past winter at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Minnesota. In short, I was doing research on how the Christian theological/worship tradition might help us pursue human flourishing in an age dominated by the creeping pervasiveness of technology. Technologies both enhance human power and act as a medium between our ‘self’ and nature, between our ‘self’ and other humans and, strangely enough, between our ‘self’ and our bodies. I’m most interested in the ways everyday technologies do this, not the super-new, cutting edge stuff only available to a few. I’m interested in the way these technologies shape our lives and, more positively, how the focal practice of Christian worship (to steal part of an idea from the Catholic philosopher Albert Brogmann) might help us face this challenge. While at the Collegeville Institute I gave two public lectures. One was given at the Saint John’s School of Theology and is available here. It gives you a sense of how I’ve been exploring these issues in the context of Margaret Atwood’s fictional depiction of our age. Thanks Caz, for prompting me to make this more widely available.
Some of you know that I’ve been meeting with an old Christian saint for coffee these last weeks. His name is Gregory of Nyssa, and he lived during the fourth century of the current era. He lived in an area known as Cappadocia, just south of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Unlike many influential Christians from that period Gregory was probably married. Before he was called to the priesthood and church leadership he taught rhetoric.
Gregory wasn’t as charismatic as his more famous older brother Basil; nor as original as his saintly sister Macrina. But he did come from the same venerable family. His sister, known as Macrina the Younger, bore the name of their grandmother, Macrina the Elder. Macrina the Elder came to be revered as a saint because she refused to deny her faith and subsequently was forced to flee her hometown. Their grandfather too was highly respected: he was killed during an imperial persecution of Christians. Read more
Two ends of a spectrum: My father is getting close to completing one of his long term goals, hiking every mile of the Appalachian Trail. One of my sons has just started walking. For those two and in honor of walking in general, I thought I would post a longish quotation from Gregory of Nyssa. It needs a bit of introduction however. Gregory was a patristic theologian who lived in the fourth century. This quotation comes from his The Life of Moses, which is an example of his mature theology and an illustration of an ancient form of biblical exegesis. Gregory is looking to Moses as a moral and mystical example of the Christian life, an example worth imitating. Read more
- Couldn’t help but notice several faces familiar to OMC in the current issue of The Canadian Mennonite. What’s that all about? I thought we were outside of the Mennonite heartland.
- The Blue Jays got another good outing from R.A. Dickey yesterday. In 2013 Wycliffe College, U of T awarded him an honorary doctorate. I graduated a year earlier. Can I count him as a ‘school chum’? Would learning to throw a knuckle ball have been easier than writing a dissertation? (probably not)
It’s a well-known fact that standards of beauty change from time to time and that they vary from place to place. Whether it’s the size of a bicep or the way a man wears his facial hair, the fullness of a woman’s figure or the tone of her skin—the ideals are constantly shifting. What this means is that when the Bible tells us that Esther was “fair and beautiful” or in another translation “beautiful (of) figure and lovely to look at,” we really don’t know quite what to imagine. Even so, it might be because of this description that we are sometimes given the impression that the story of Esther should be of particular interest to young girls. It appears to fit right in with the popular princess mythology. However, I am beginning to think that Esther’s story is anything but pretty. It certainly is not delicate. And neither, I’m afraid, is it a story particularly suited for children. Read more
Some of you may recognize the name Christopher Hedges. He was a war correspondent for some 20 years. He worked for the New York Times, among other publications, and was a co-recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. In 2002 he published War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. Earlier this year, in an interview with the CBC’s Paul Kennedy, Hedges described the way war can become addictive: “It offers emotional, and physical stimulus that cannot be replicated (except maybe, perhaps with synthetic drugs).” War is horrific, but Hedges points out that there is also a “combat high.” He ways, “When you’re in combat you’re aware in ways you never were aware before.”
I’m not sharing Hedges’ comments to point a finger at those in the military. No, it’s just that he gives us an example of how things that are terrible and destructive can become things we crave. They can give us a certain amount of satisfaction. My guess is that it’s as true of war as it is of gossip, as true of combat as it is of envying other people’s stuff (their manservants or maidservants, or their ox or ass—or wife, as the KJV puts it). But here’s where it goes, says Hedges, “. . . when you step outside the warzone you can’t relate, you can’t function. You have to go back.” And what’s deeply frightening is that for those who can’t extract themselves from this cycle the result is “early death.”
My hands are dusty from packing up my office. I don’t know why that is. Where does the grit on these brown boxes come from? Most of what I’m packing is books. I pack the majority without thinking about them too much. They’ve been friends on the shelf; they will get along in a box for a few weeks. A few, though, find an intermediary resting place on my desk. I need companions for a little while longer.
A copy of Jim Reimer’s posthumous essays docks there because I owe a review of it to a Canadian journal. I’ll think it over when we drive through Reimer’s home province of Manitoba. I keep out Robert Louis Wilken’s book on patristic theology too. I love the church fathers for their ignorance, that is, their ignorance of the divide between practical and academic theology. I’ll need mentors in a few months. Buechner’s memoir of vocation also finds an open slip. The back cover says he was a Presbyterian minister. And then, I add a pair of books by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison. I have the new blue and white volumes, with the footnotes about the footnotes.
[Read the rest of the essay on the Collegeville Institute website here. Check out the rest of their site while you’re there. It’s full of good stuff.]