a few words

Month: February, 2007

of birds and bugs :: a self to speak and spell

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

I admit that I would leave this poem to stand alone on its own merit, or the hope that someone might be enticed to get acquainted with Hopkins (I can hardly recommend this strongly enough!). But I’m inclined to add a few words of my own to Hopkins’, if nothing else, to set this poem in the context of his thought as a whole.

Hopkins, a 19th century British convert to Catholicism and a member of the Jesuit order, was convinced that God’s assumption of human nature in Jesus Christ was profoundly good news. He recognized the significance of God-become-human in far deeper ways than most of us ever encounter. He thought (I’ll attempt a paraphrase – and hope not to embarrass him), “If God shows up in a manger in Bethlehem, why, he might show up anywhere!” Hopkins expected to see, and saw, Jesus show up through lots of particulars in his forty-four short years of life (see the poems: “Hurrahing in Harvest,” “The blessed virgin as compared to the air we breathe,” and his lengthy masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland“).

Hopkins saw that if God valued a particular moment, a particular body, a particular place enough to plant himself there – then all moment, bodies, and places must be tremendously valuable. God must be quite excited about all the particularities, intricacies, and anomalies that he has spun out into the world. This is the main theme of “Kingfishers”; each created thing has its own existence as a gift, be it a bell, piano string (“tucked” to make its own particular tone), or stone dropped to “plunk” uniquely in a well. Each is uniquely valued in God’s eyes. Each flame and flower announces to the world, “Here I am! I am here to be what God has made me for.” Far from being a faceless speck – only one anonymous bit of carbon amongst a vast sea of faceless “others,” the good news of God’s becoming human is that he plays in ten thousand places. That means that all of those ten thousand places (or ten million) are wonderfully dignified.

I’ve been told that Christians are the people who ignore the realities of this present world, preferring instead to stare off into the clouds and sing pretty hallelujahs. There may be some empirical truth behind the accusation. But if Hopkins is right about the meaning of the events by which we recognized God-among-us, Christians are the ones looking to find Jesus wherever he might be found today (see the poem Ribblesdale). Read the rest of this entry »

naming names :: God in public

On the cutting edges of our postmodern culture, anyone who is willing to say “God” in public while knowing what she means is liable to be understood as downright dogmatic, if not a fundamentalist. We the people of the grand tradition known as Western culture seem to be cultivating a grand suspicion of any specificity with regard to the transcendent. We prefer to acknowledge (agnostically, of course) the presence in the cosmos of a general transcendent fog with emotive and motivational powers, but are allergic to attributing personality, or worse, a NAME (!!) to any being we can’t poke with a ten foot pole. Furthermore, suggesting that the named deity in question has specified particular forms of adherence and enlightenment is subject to even more suspicion. In most circles (but not all), it is socially advantageous to be “spiritual” (lest one gain a reputation for shallowness or materialism), but being “religious” is akin to a minor case of leprosy. At the very least, admitting that one names God along with others in an (gasp!) organized fashion is a social sin that must be overcome by one’s personal charisma or alternatively established social status.

First of all, let’s be honest, “spirituality” characterized by avoidance of anything so structured as dogma, doctrine, or theology is a set of beliefs as well, however disorganized. In fact, it is a theology, (albeit a minimalist one where less is more!). Is there any reason to prefer this “standard” cultural theology to a more historically rooted, orthodox brand? I’m willing to admit a few:

(1) No one will ever fight a religious war, burn a heretic, or exclude someone else in defense of his or her own private “spirituality.” Read the rest of this entry »

our (?) bodies :: corporate and personal

Who has responsibility for your body? Whose bodies do you have responsibility for? I came across a news story with fascinating theological and political implications , happening right here in Vancouver.

The basic outline of the story: A Jehovah’s Witness couple has sextuplets. No surprise, the little fellows are a bit underweight, and in need of some medical attention. The Witnesses’ beliefs forbid them from taking blood transfusions. Doctors believe that this is just what the young ones need. Witnesses refuse. Social services takes custody of three of the babies in order to give transfusions against the parents’ will.

Now, we can all agree that it is a good thing for babies to live – no one in the situation wants the babies to die. The Witnesses believe that their faithfulness (in refusing the transfusions) outweighs the risk of (disobediently) intervening to save the lives of the children. If the god in whom they believe desires these children to live, he will grant them life apart from transfusions. But beyond that initial agreement, the situation quickly becomes very sticky.

Do we (as the collective gathered to govern the society in which we live) really want to presume the authority to intervene in issues of religious doctrine? Is that intervention possible to avoid? The government of British Colombia wouldn’t come within shouting distance of most “religious” issues. But where is the dividing line? Read the rest of this entry »