Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The River of God - Scripture

There is a river that flows from God above._
There is a fountain that's filled with his great love.
Come to the waters, there is a vast supply._
Come to the river that never shall run dry.
(A chorus from the charismatic renewal)

Every now and then when I'm traveling I preach a well-worn sermon (or turn it into a retreat address) on "The River of God." It has remained substantially the same for about 35 years - just new illustrations and up-to-date stories! In my opinion, the river of God is among the most powerful images in Scripture to describe the spiritual life. I thought about it yesterday when posting Fr Schmemman's piece on spiritual thirst.

So, today I simply post some Scripture passages on this theme, and hope that they are a blessing to you.

EZEKIEL'S VISION (Ezekiel 47:1-12)
Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.

Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate, that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.

Going on eastward with a line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the loins. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through.

And he said to me, "Son of man, have you seen this?" Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other.

And he said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea; from Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt.

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing."

A PROPHECY (Zechariah 14:4,8)
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter.

THE VISION OF St JOHN THE DIVINE (Revelation 22:1-4)
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads.

"For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water."

THE TEACHING OF JESUS - A (John 4:10-14)
Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?" Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

THE TEACHING OF JESUS - B (John 7:37-39)
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive . . .

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spiritual Thirst - Fr Schmemman (1921-1983)

The following is an extract from Fr Alexander Schmemann's book, "I Believe" (the first book in his series "Celebration of Faith.") This is really a collection of talks that were beamed into the Soviet Union through Radio Liberty, well before the Iron Curtain fell. As such they are addressed to people who struggle with an imposed "official" atheism. Fr Schmemman's simple yet profound way of putting things is so helpful these days in the west, when in its own way our culture is trying to do the same thing to us.

With spiritual thirst longing,
Wearily I wandered in a desolate desert waste,
And a six-winged seraph
Appeared to me at the crossing of the ways . . .

- from "The Prophet"
by Alexander Pushkin (1799 - 1837)

Years and centuries have passed since Alexander Pushkin wrote the remarkable words of his poem, yet they remain an appropriate inscription to man's destiny on earth: "With spiritual thirst longing..." Civilizations have followed one after another, the external forms of human life have changed, the face of the earth has changed, but this spiritual thirst remains ever indestructible, ever unquenchable. It is a gift, given to human beings alone as the sign and essence of their very humanity, and it is both precious and tormenting: precious because it always draws men and women upward, not allowing them to find peace in the exclusive pursuit of animal pleasure, and enabling them to taste communion with transcendent joys that cannot be compared to anything else; tormenting because it so often contradicts their earthly instincts, and transforms their entire life into struggle, search, restlessness.

Almost everything in this world seems to tell us: give up this spiritual thirst, renounce it and you will be full and satisfied, healthy and happy. "Just be satisfied with your life, be meek and mild ... " wrote Alexander Btok (1880 - 1921) in one of his darkest poems at this century's dawn. And sure enough, complete ideologies have sprung up, based on the rejection and renunciation of spiritual thirst, on hatred toward it-ideologies striving with all their might to get us to suppress within ourselves the very source of this thirst, to admit its delusion and self-deception, and then to join in building a life now purified of all searching whatsoever. If anything sets apart our 20th century from all previous centuries-fundamentally and not just on the surface-then above all it is the extreme sharpening of two opposing, antithetical understandings of human life and of man himself. One view affirms that man is man precisely because of the spiritual thirst within him, a searching, a restlessness for transcendence. For the other, man begins his human destiny only after having killed this thirst. In this battle everything else, all that is occurring in the contemporary world, is ultimately secondary. For everything else flows from the depths of this primary question: politics, economics. culture, everything people argue about so passionately, and in the name of which they fight each other.

Thus, whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, the religious question is at the heart and very centre of contemporary life. For religion, by its very nature, is in fact the sign and presence in this world of spiritual thirst. Just as the smell of smoke tells us there is a fire nearby even if we do not see it. so religion's presence in the world, whatever its forms, is reliable testimony that man's spiritual thirst, spiritual search. has not ceased to live within him.

True, there are those who try to prove to us that religion is a comforting escape, a refusal to struggle, man's self-betrayal, dead and immovable dogmatism leading us away from hard questions and searching. However, those who make such claims invariably suppress words which describe the very heart of religious experience and religious faith: "'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst ... " (Matthew 6:6); "Seek and you will find..." (Matthew 7:7); "1 came not to bring peace, but a sword..."(Matthew10:34). It is significant that those who hate religion always base their attack on this crude and elementary deception, for without this lie their assault on religion would be impossible to sustain for even a single day. This deception is so obvious today, that perhaps speaking about it no longer serves any purpose. What we do need to speak about is the spiritual thirst itself. What is it a thirst for? What is its longing about? With what search is it filled? It is these questions we need to address because at this moment in the world there is no subject more important. The world now stands at the very "crossing of the ways"9 of which Pushkin spoke. Today, the various appeals directed to man collide with each other in the world with unprecedented force; the various "ways" constantly intertwine, cross and then diverge. And above them all, looming ever more terrible and striking. is the spectre of unimaginable catastrophes, unprecedented upheavals. "If anyone has an ear to hear, let him hear..."(Revelation 13:9).

It is already too late for us to resolve all this by partial measures, by patching material that is now threadbare and rotting. Again we begin to understand why the Gospel proclaims salvation-precisely salvation-and why it is directed to those who are perishing. Christ says: "I came to cast fire upon the earth, and how 1 long that it were already kindled" (see Luke 12:49). Religion is truly religion only when it concerns what is most essential, when it reveals simultaneously both man's spiritual thirst and the response to that thirst; when it is fire, a fire that both purifies and transforms our weak and shameful life. We do not have the strength of the to six-winged seraph who revealed himself to the prophet at "the crossing of the ways." But each of us, according to the measure of his strength. is called today to be a witness to that "One thing needful" (Luke 10:42).

The New Testament ends with these terrifying, yet joyful words: "Let the evildoer still do evil and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold I am coming soon . . . Let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price . . . " (Revelation 22:11,17). If only we would not betray this gift of spiritual thirst and exchange it for something else. if only we would open our eyes and open our ears to that shower of light, love and beauty pouring on us eternally. May God help all of us to be truthful and steadfast, humble and loving, for then it will he impossible to hide the ever-shining light, the salvation given to the world.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The New Atheists (again)!

Hello everybody. I do apologise for the absence of posts on this blog, due to my moving around. I'm still at the stage of getting organised, BUT I couldn't resist making more widely known these excerpts from David Bentley Hart's essay "Believe It or Not" on the New Atheists (as selected by Martin Downes on his blog). I'm sure many readers will find Hart's comments incisive, to say the least!

Here are some highlights:

I think I am very close to concluding that this whole "New Atheism" movement is only a passing fad-not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County. This is not because I necessarily think the current "marketplace of ideas" particularly good at sorting out wise arguments from foolish. But the latest trend in à la mode godlessness, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.
The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today's most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one's conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).
But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists-with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral "truths," their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about "religion" in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?
But a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another-say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called "humanism." Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.
A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

On Richard Dawkins he writes:

But something worse than mere misunderstanding lies at the base of Dawkins' own special version of the argument from infinite regress-a version in which he takes a pride of almost maternal fierceness. Any "being," he asserts, capable of exercising total control over the universe would have to be an extremely complex being, and because we know that complex beings must evolve from simpler beings and that the probability of a being as complex as that evolving is vanishingly minute, it is almost certain that no God exists. Q.E.D. But, of course, this scarcely rises to the level of nonsense. We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?
Numerous attempts have been made, by the way, to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity. But all the evidence suggests that Dawkins has never understood the point being made, and it is his unfortunate habit contemptuously to dismiss as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude him. Frankly, going solely on the record of his published work, it would be rash to assume that Dawkins has ever learned how to reason his way to the end of a simple syllogism.

On Christopher Hitchens he says:

To appreciate the true spirit of the New Atheism, however, and to take proper measure of its intellectual depth, one really has to turn to Christopher Hitchens. Admittedly, he is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists, as well as (not coincidentally) the most entertaining, but I take this as proof that he is also the least self-deluding. His God Is Not Great shows no sign whatsoever that he ever intended anything other than a rollicking burlesque, without so much as a pretense of logical order or scholarly rigor. His sporadic forays into philosophical argument suggest not only that he has sailed into unfamiliar waters, but also that he is simply not very interested in any of it.His occasional observations on Hume and Kant make it obvious that he has not really read either very closely. He apparently believes that Nietzsche, in announcing the death of God, literally meant to suggest that the supreme being named God had somehow met his demise. The title of one of the chapters in God Is Not Great is "The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False," but nowhere in that chapter does Hitchens actually say what those claims or their flaws are.
On matters of simple historical and textual fact, moreover, Hitchens' book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them. Just to skim a few off the surface: He speaks of the ethos of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as "an admirable but nebulous humanism," which is roughly on a par with saying that Gandhi was an apostle of the ruthless conquest and spoliation of weaker peoples. He conflates the histories of the first and fourth crusades. He repeats as fact the long discredited myth that Christians destroyed the works of Aristotle and Lucretius, or systematically burned the books of pagan antiquity, which is the very opposite of what did happen. He speaks of the traditional hostility of "religion" (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countlesslives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).
In the end, though, all of this might be tolerated if Hitchens' book exhibited some rough semblance of a rational argument. After all, there really is a great deal to despise in the history of religion, even if Hitchens gets almost all the particular details extravagantly wrong. To be perfectly honest, however, I cannot tell what Hitchens' central argument is. It is not even clear what he understands religion to be.

And on Nietzsche he notes that:

The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage-his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats-is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.
Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God's death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists-those who merely do not believe-to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity's heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.
Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?