Saturday, October 31, 2009

Two years on...

To celebrate the second anniversary of the kidney transplant (31 October 2007), at breakfast this morning I gave Nancy the new edition of the Van Gogh Letters. Given all the Van Gogh-related translation work that Nancy has done in the past two decades (currently she's working on a book about Van Gogh forgeries), it seemed doubly appropriate. Also the CD of the letters that comes with the set is likely to be a useful resource.

The book had a big launching at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the day before I flew to the US several weeks ago. Nancy went the next day with Diane Webb, one of the book's three English-language translators. Here's an extract from a letter Nancy sent me that evening:

"What a lovely day! Diane asked if I wanted to go with her to the Van Gogh Museum to see the new exhibition on the letters. She had been there the evening before for the opening (attended by the Queen), but so much else was happening that she didn't actually see the exhibition. She said all she saw was wine and canapes and lots of people. So we spent the rest of the day there. It was fabulous. The exhibition is definitely worth a visit. A selection of Van Gogh's letters are shown in glass cases, with the paintings and drawings he refers to on the walls. Breathtaking. You just can't believe what you're seeing. No catalogue, no matter how good the picture quality, comes close to being face to face with the real thing. And I saw the book -- or should I say books! Diane showed me the whole thing, including the part she did. I have a very serious book lust here. You wouldn't believe how beautiful the design and quality is. A six-volume boxed set. To get a glimpse, check out the museum site:

"The whole thing is copiously illustrated with everything that Vincent refers to in his letters -- his own paintings and sketches and paintings of other artists that he refers to. And the quality is superb. Each of the three translators is being given two copies. When you come back we really should try to see the exhibition."

It's an expensive set of books, but a substantial discount is offered by several online bookshops.

Two years on with Nancy's kidney, I seem more than ever aware of what a miracle it is to be really well, not to say no longer being a prisoner of dialysis.

If you want to take a fresh look at our transplant blog (A Tale of Two Kidneys), it's still up:

Also there is a folder of transplant-related photos here:


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Friday, October 16, 2009

pastoral care of a serial killer

One of the highlights of the current visit to the US was a meeting with a prison chaplain whom I must leave unnamed.

My questions about her work led to the discovery that one of the people in her pastoral care is a convicted serial murderer. I asked many questions about him. He was a male nurse who worked in a number of hospitals and who has freely admitted to ending the lives of many people who were, in fact, already dying. Apparently he couldn't bear to witness the end-of-life suffering of patients he was caring for. For providing pastoral care, the chaplain herself has endured a great deal of harsh criticism, often from her fellow Christians, including threats of attack. (Given the crimes he committed, the man as no right to pastoral care, execution would be too good for him, etc.) At times she has needed police protection -- not that she has ever defended his actions. In fact neither has the man. Police discovered how many were people killed only because, arrested for one death in a "sting operation," he insisted on admitting in detail what he had done with other patients. He pleaded guilty and presented no defense.

Apparently some of the hospitals where he was employed suspected a nurse was in fact giving deadly doses of a heart medication but preferred not to investigate, apprehensive that any investigation would produce results that would result in suits that would cost them dearly.

The man now lives an ascetic life in permanent solitary confinement. His chaplain has helped him develop a somewhat monastic spiritual life with four major elements: the Jesus Prayer, prayer with icons, a rule of daily prayer marked by the seven times during the day when a bell is sounded in the prison, and prayer with the psalms. He is a passionate reader. (It turns out he is one of the readers of my book on praying with icons.) He has also, as a prisoner, become a kidney donor, an act which he was able -- with assistance from his chaplain, prison officials and the doctors who were involved -- to do anonymously. An astonishing story.

You might pray for the man. Let me use a pseudonym. Call him "George the Prisoner" -- God will know who he is.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

The God Problem

In this period, in which a militant form of atheism is once again becoming popular and widespread, it's interesting to see a review in The New York Times of a book (The Case for God) that takes a fresh look at what is meant by the word "God."

I was also happy to see that book's author, Karen Armstrong, draws attention to the "apophatic" approach to God, something familiar to Orthodox Christians but "Greek" -- and Greek it truly is -- to most Christians in the West. (What apparently neither Armstrong nor the reviewer understand is that the apophatic way of seeking God thrives on apparent contradictions -- a God who is both approachable and unapproachable, known and unknown, a God who seems radically absent and God who is in search of us.)

Some of the people I have loved most were (or are) atheists, my parents for starters, at least during the years I was growing up, though they changed their minds later in life.

There are many good reasons for not believing in God. I find atheism often has less to do with certainty that there is no God than with disgust with religion in general (a disgust I often share), or with various forms of Christianity (there are so many), or with appalling things that have been done by people who claim to be Christians, or simply with the fact that so many Christians seem to be far less influenced by Jesus and the Gospels than by the oppressive political and economic structures they happen to be have been born into and passionately support.

When I talk to people who describe themselves as atheists, I sometimes ask them to describe what god it is that they don't believe in. Most of the time I can respond, "I must be an atheist too -- I don't believe in that god either."


note: The photo is of the main staircase of the Bible Museum, housed in a Golden Age house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam.

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New York Times / / October 1, 2009

Perpetual Revelations

review by Ross Douthat

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The Case for God
By Karen Armstrong
406 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95
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The Bush era was a difficult time for liberal religion in America. The events of 9/11 were not exactly an advertisement for the compatibility of faith and reason, faith and modernity, or faith and left-of-center politics. Nor was the domestic culture war that blazed up in their wake, which lent a “with us or against us” quality to nearly every God-related controversy. For many liberals, the only choices seemed to be secularism or fundamentalism, the new atheism or the old-time religion, Richard Dawkins or George W. Bush.

But now the wheel has turned, and liberal believers can breathe easier. Bush has retired to Texas, and his successor in the White House is the very model of a modern liberal Christian. Religious conservatism seems diminished and dispirited. The polarizing issues of the moment are health care and deficits, not abstinence education or intelligent design. And the new atheists seem to have temporarily run out of ways to call believers stupid.

The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”

Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.

These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

It’s a knack, Armstrong argues, that the Christian West has largely lost, and the rise of modern science is to blame. Not because science and religion are unalterably opposed, but because religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy.

Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God. Convinced that “the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God’s providential care,” Western Christians abandoned the apophatic, mythic approach to faith in favor of a pseudo-scientific rigor — and then had nowhere to turn when Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived on the scene.

An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.

To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”

This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties. But it deserves to be heavily qualified. Armstrong concedes that the religious story she’s telling highlights only a particular trend within monotheistic faith. The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of pre-modern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

In reality, these Christian sages were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” But their inventiveness was grounded in shared doctrines and constrained by shared assumptions. Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant-ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.

Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

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Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.
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