09/30/14

Mass at Santa Marta- Angels and demons

The fight against the subtle plans of destruction and dehumanization brought forth by the devil — who “presents things as if they were good”, even inventing “humanistic explanations” — is “an everyday reality”. And unless we fight “we will be defeated”. But we have the certainty of that we are not alone in this fight, because the Lord entrusted to the archangels the task of defending man. Pope Francis recalled the role of Michael, Gabriel and Raphael on Monday, 29 September, during morning Mass at Santa Marta.

 

The Pontiff began by pointing out that “the two Readings we heard — both that from the Prophet Daniel (7:9-10, 13-14) and that from the Gospel according to John (1:47-51) — speak to us about glory: the glory of heaven, the court of heaven, the adoration in heaven”. Thus, he explained, “there is glory” and “in the midst of this glory there is Jesus Christ”. In fact, Daniel says: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him”. Here, Francis said, is “Jesus Christ, before the Father, in the glory of heaven”.

The day’s liturgy also reintroduces this reality in the Gospel. Thus, the Pope continued, “to Nathaniel, who was astonished, Jesus says: ‘you shall see greater things than these…. you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’”. And the Holy Father used “the image of Jacob’s ladder: Jesus is at the centre of glory, Jesus is the glory of the Father”. A glory which, the Bishop of Rome clarified, “is promised in Daniel, is promised in Jesus. But it is also a promise made in eternity”.

The Pontiff then referred to the “other Reading” from Revelation (12:7-12). In this text as well, he indicated, “glory is spoken of, but as a battle”. In fact, it reads: “Now war arose in heaven: Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him”. It is the “battle between the Devil and God”, he explained. But “this battle happens after Satan seeks to destroy the woman who is about to give birth to her child”. Because, the Pope stated, “Satan always seeks to destroy man: that man whom Daniel saw there, in glory, and who Jesus told Nathaniel would come in glory”. The Pope said further that, “from the beginning, the Bible tells us about this: Satan’s seduction to destroy. Perhaps out of envy”. And in this regard, referring to Psalm 8, Francis highlighted that the angel so highly intelligent “could not bear this humiliation on his shoulders, that an inferior creature could be made superior; and he sought to destroy him”.

“The task of the People of God”, the Pontiff explained, “is to guard the man himself: the man Jesus. Guard him, because he is the man who gives life to all men, to all humanity”. And, from their side, “the angels fight in order that man wins”. Thus, “the man, the Son of God, Jesus and man, humanity, all of us, fight against all these things that Satan does to destroy him”.

Indeed, Francis affirmed, “so many projects, except for one’s own sins, but so many, many projects for the dehumanization of man are his works, simply because he hates man”. Satan “is subtle: the first page of Genesis says so. He is subtle, he presents things as if they were good. But his intention is destruction”.

In the face of Satan’s work “the angels defend us: they defend man and they defend God-man, the superior man, Jesus Christ, who is the perfection of humanity, the most perfect one”. This is why “the Church honours the angels, because it is they who will be in the glory of God — they are in the glory of God — because they defend the great hidden mystery of God, that is, the Word which came in the flesh”. He is exactly “who they want to destroy; and when they cannot destroy Jesus the person, they seek to destroy his people; and when they cannot destroy the People of God, they invent humanistic explanations that actually go against man, against humanity and against God”.

This is why, the Pope said, “the battle is a daily reality in Christian life, in our family, in our people, in our Churches”. Such that “unless we fight, we will be defeated”. However, “the Lord has mainly given this task to the angels”, that is, “to fight and win”.

And also for this reason, he added, “the final song of the Apocalypse, after this fight, is so beautiful: ‘Now salvation is fulfilled, the strength and the Kingdom of our god and the power of his Christ, because our brothers’ accuser has fallen, the one who accused them day and night before our God”. The objective, therefore, was destruction and, as a result, there is this “victory song” in the Apocalypse.

Recalling the Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the Pope affirmed that this was an especially suitable day to turn to them. And also “to recite that old but beautiful prayer to Michael the Archangel, that he continue to fight to defend humanity’s greatest mystery: that the Word became man, died and rose again”. Because “this is our treasure”. And, Francis concluded, let us ask that the Archangel Michael continue “to fight to guard it”.

09/30/14

Worship makes our lives bigger and better

FEATURES

In this extract from his new book Rowan Williams argues that effective ritual is far from being a retreat to a comforting alternative world
By ROWAN WILLIAMS on Friday, 26 September 2014
IN THIS ARTICLE

From the print edition, September 27, 2014

Ritual includes elements of drama, but is not identical with it. Building on definitions offered by Richard Sennett, we could say that ritual is repetitive, transformative and publicly theatrical. It traces the same pattern of performance in different enactments over time; it makes ordinary physical stuff (including words and gestures) carry meanings that are not intrinsic to themselves; it involves us in performance that is about more than what happens to be in our individual minds. It has a nuanced relationship to the passage of time: rituals are conserved over time, so that it appears that we are doing the same thing at different moments in time, and the time of the ritual itself provides a narrative sequence that does not vary; yet the reason they are conserved is that they are believed to be pertinent to a constantly changing context of human action and utterance.

To return again to a ritual form is to bring together my/our current situation, choices made or to be made, so as to allow them to be informed by patterns of intelligible act and speech which are not directly conditioned by that present situation. In other words, the story of my/our current doings is located against the backdrop of another and supposedly broader narrative canvas.

When we join in a celebration of Remembrance Day in the UK, we juxtapose our current lives with the record and collective memory of major international conflicts, so that issues around our corporate identity, vision and well-being are configured differently. When Christians join in a celebration of the Eucharist, they allow themselves to be interrogated by the story of Christ’s self-sacrifice, to be questioned as to whether their present lives are recognisably linked with Christ’s and to be reconnected with the story of Christ’s death and resurrection by the renewing gift of the Holy Spirit. So the awareness here and now of how my life is unfolding, and my reflection on what I am going to put “out there” in linguistic exchange to be recognised and responded to is confronted and enhanced by a story whose form is already fixed: a story which has happened, in such a way that my present options are extended or altered. Effective ritual is a matter of holding myself to account, not of retreating to a comforting alternative time-track in which everything is resolved.

Part of seeing the speaking self as time-bound is thus also seeing the self as capable of being “brought to account” in ways like these. The self ’s development normally moves in dialogue with “normative” discourses, internalising the values ascribed to this or that action or style of living; but these normative points of reference are themselves regularly embodied in narrative, drama, ritual. To grow as a reflective speaker and agent is to learn how to engage with these; to become “conversant” with the worlds of imagination they present in order to continue to be able to imagine oneself – to go on projecting possible futures of acting and speaking. To let yourself be questioned is, as we have seen, integral to the whole business of intelligent speech; and this is all the more significant when we are thinking of the fundamental questions of what we value or how honest we are that arise when we seriously try to “let ourselves matter” to others. The varieties of ritual imagination exist to enable and equip that questioning. It’s an instance of that deliberate complicating or “stressing” of discourse which we practise in order to extend our imaginative and moral reach. And when we think about the processes by which we educate our feelings and reactions, our sensibilities, we commonly think in terms of exposure to an increasingly resourceful set of narratives, dramas and rituals.

We might, in the context of British culture, reflect about what was the best time to introduce a child or young adult to his or her first “proper” theatre outing, to a Dickens novel, a funeral, a football match, a rock concert or even a visit to family abroad, perhaps living in a more formal and traditional setting (there are several British cultures, after all). And we think about such things in order to assist a younger generation in understanding how to “go on” in various contexts by showing them what an intelligible flow of action looks like in these highly formalised environments. We say, in effect: “This is – in intensified form – what it is to grow up as a human agent/speaker: to become increasingly aware of ways in which we can continue an exchange, a discourse we are sharing.” And it is in this connection that we may start thinking about what the inescapably temporal character of our speaking has to do with language about God or the sacred.

Our speaking is always time-related; it is always incomplete, and in search of the perspective of another; it is characteristically engaged not only with other speakers in the same direct environment but with the more radical sorts of otherness represented by ritual and fictional narrative or drama; it is in search of tools for the critique and enrichment of its “repertoire” – and quite often in full flight from such resources when they threaten to become excessively critical and unsettling. Speaking in a way that is conscious of the time-related nature of language requires a measure of humility and of courage, a mixture of reticence and bold affirmation (the staking of a position).

In what ways does all this bear upon the affirmations of religious faith? It might be thought that faith has an investment in “finished” stories and the avoidance of the kind of risk we have been thinking about; and there are undoubtedly varieties of religiousness that work in just such a way. However, this is a monumental misreading of the issue. What we have been exploring in this chapter are the implications of knowing that I am finite – that my thoughts and words are learned over time, that my utterances are open to the – perhaps abrasive – responses of others, that I do not have the resources as an individual to sustain meaning or honesty in my own practice. Choosing finitude, says [Stanley] Cavell, is “the choice of community, of autonomous moral existence”; that is, to be an autonomous moral agent is, counterintuitively, to be an agent aware of choices that are real because they are limited, limited by the sheer thereness of others and by the factors that have as a matter of fact made me the agent I am. Adult autonomy – contrary to what is lazily assumed by much of our culture – is never the liberty to decide in abstraction from what others are, what others say. It is not, after all, the exclusive opposite of dependence. It is the “staking” of ourselves precisely in recognition of the non-transparent thereness of others, committed to the risky business of being there with or for them in their radical difference.

But this means that if we are to speak honestly about ourselves, we are committed to a more and more far-reaching investigation of dependence. We are, as speakers, in search of the most dependable and comprehensive resource for our truthfulness and clarity; we are moving in the direction of something to which we can be unequivocally present, by which we can “allow ourselves to be comprehended” in the most extensive sense imaginable. This is not something we can depict: to depict it would be to reduce it to the scale of what our minds can construct. And even to “represent” it, in the specialised sense I have given to that word, is a complex and risky enterprise. We can say that it is the invisible end of a trajectory whose beginnings we can trace, the trajectory of exposure to an other whose presence both assures and challenges. And for such an other to be a presence that is not merely the presence of another interest, a point of view that itself needs assurance and challenge, it cannot be reduced to being represented as a further item in the list of things that there are. It cannot have interests that are in competition with the things that there are in the universe. To hark back for a moment to [William] Downes’s argument, whatever it is that would make this aspect of our linguistic practice fully intelligible and adequately grounded would have to be “unrepresentable”, in an even stronger sense than the unitary self.

Simone Weil famously said that she was “absolutely certain that there is a God, in the sense that I am absolutely certain that my love is not illusory” and equally “absolutely certain that there is not a God in the sense that there is nothing real which bears a resemblance to what I am able to conceive when I pronounce that name”. The implication is that to speak of a “divine” other is in an important sense more even than projecting an infinite line out of the trajectory we now discern, but at least we have a basis for some sort of linguistic representation in so far as we can talk about the imagined effect of an other to whom we were unconditionally present, in terms of an unconditional permission to question and reimagine the self without any anxiety that the project would ultimately run out or terminally fail or undermine itself.

To live and speak from such a place of non-anxiety is one plausible account of “faith”; and it is the point of connection between the process of repeatedly “staking” oneself in the incompleteness of language and the stability of faith.

© Rowan Williams, 2014. Taken from The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. To buy The Edge of Words at 25 per cent off the RRP click here and use discount code EDGE25 at the checkout

09/3/14

Evolution and religion: separate or complementary?

AP:Associated Press

Alister McGrath
Published at 6:10PM, August 29 2014

Michael Gove’s legacy as Education Secretary has been much debated in recent weeks. One radical change that received relatively little coverage is his decision that, from next term, evolution will be taught in primary schools. It’s an important development, which raises some interesting questions.
For a start, it’s rather difficult to convey the basic ideas of evolution to children of such a young age (Year 6 pupils, who will be taught evolution, are aged 10 to 11). It’s important to distinguish between the phenomenon of evolution and specific theories of evolution. It’s relatively easy to explore how the fossil evidence points to the evolution of species. It’s rather more difficult to explain to primary school children how that process happens. Recent educational research in the United States has demonstrated that the core Darwinian ideas of “adaptation” and “natural selection” are so complex that they are generally misunderstood by children.
Researchers such as Deborah Kelemen (Boston University) have shown how one of the best ways of teaching evolution at this age is using storybook approaches which help children to grasp the idea of natural selection imaginatively by carefully designed and engaging stories. Robert Winston’s delightful Evolution Revolution (2009) shows the potential of this approach.
Yet while evolution will be taught in science lessons, it clearly has wider cultural implications, some of which can be grasped by primary school children. I recall overhearing a conversation during a train journey from Oxford to London, in which a highly engaged child asked his mother why apes weren’t allowed to vote. “After all, we’re related to them!” It’s a line of thought that underlies the philosopher Peter Singer’s critique of what he terms “speciesism”, and it’s not going to go away.
Some of these wider issues are religious. As the recent “Trojan horse” scandal in Birmingham has made clear, many conservative Muslims see any idea of evolution — especially human evolution — as contrary to the traditions of Islam, and oppose its teaching in schools. My own conversations with Muslim school students in London over the past five years suggest that some of them see the compulsory teaching of evolution in schools as part of a western anti-Islamic agenda, and thus react against evolution for non-scientific reasons. The same issue arises, although to a lesser extent, within British Christianity, where forms of “creationism” (generally holding that the world was created in six days about 6,000 years ago) are becoming increasingly influential, particularly within Pentecostalism.
There are really two issues here: the theoretical question of how evolution relates to religious faith, and the more pragmatic question of what can be done to lessen religious anxieties about evolution. Because these questions are complex, raising different issues for different faith traditions, I will focus on Christianity, and allow readers to make any necessary adaptations. There are three broad positions to consider.
First, there is the view that science and faith are completely separate worlds of thought and action, and ought to be kept apart. Science gets taught in the classroom, and faith gets taught in the home or at church. It’s a neat solution in some ways, and keeps science and religion out of each other’s way. But it’s problematic. What, for example, if religion teaches something that is scientifically questionable? Or if some scientists resist a new theory because it seems “religious”? The astronomer Fred Hoyle famously resisted the “Big Bang” theory because it sounded too much like religious ideas of creation. Second, there’s the view — often referred to as the “warfare model” or “conflict thesis” — which holds that science and faith are locked in mortal combat. This approach began to emerge in the late 19th century, and has been popularised in recent decades by the biologist Richard Dawkins, particularly in his God Delusion (2006). Dawkins believes in a permanent conflict between science and religion, and regards Darwin’s theory of evolution as the atheist’s weapon of choice against faith. For Dawkins, any talk about an “alleged convergence” between religion and science can only be “a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham”.
Although this view has received increased media attention in recent years, it’s important to note that this was not Darwin’s view. Darwin repeatedly emphasised that he could see no fundamental religious reason why a Christian couldn’t accept his theory of evolution. Although popular history tends to present the Church of England as hostile towards Darwin, there was much support for Darwin’s ideas at the highest levels in the late 19th century.
The third position is a mediating approach which holds that science and religious faith exist in a complex relationship. This is characterised by moments of tension and synergy, yet opens the way to an enriched vision of reality which is both existentially and rationally satisfying. We find it in Augustine of Hippo (354-430), probably Christianity’s most important theologian, who argued that the idea of “creation” was best understood as an instantaneous moment of initiation, followed by a long process of development, in which new forms of life came into being over an extended period. I belong to this school of thought, and see it as a way of holding together and affirming the strengths of science and faith, while recognising the limits of both.
What can be done to lessen religious anxieties about evolution? In a recent article in The New York Times, Brendan Nyhen considers what happens when science and faith are in tension. His argument deserves to be heard: “We need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on highprofile issues.” If religious believers of whatever type are made to feel that they must choose between their faith or evolution, they are likely to choose their faith. They may be criticised for doing so — but so must those who put them in that position by insisting that evolution and religious faith are irreconcilable, when this is so clearly contestable. Religious fundamentalists are the chief beneficiaries of the ridiculously simplistic slogan “you can’t believe in evolution and God”.
It’s time for a more serious conversation, both about the theoretical issues and their wider implications.

Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford

09/3/14

Cleric calls for Prophet’s tomb to be destroyed

The Prophet Muhammad’s remains are buried beneath a green dome of the Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina

Hugh Tomlinson
Published at 12:01AM, September 3 2014

Religious authorities in Saudi Arabia are considering moving the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad to an unmarked grave, threatening uproar in the Islamic world.
The plan, put forward by an ultraconservative cleric, proposes removing the Prophet’s remains from beneath a green dome of the Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina to an anonymous plot in a nearby cemetery. It also calls for the destruction of rooms surrounding the tombs – which were used by his family – a proposal which threatens to inflame tension between conservative Sunni supporters of the plan, and Shia muslims, because of their association with the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima.
The proposal has emerged with the haj pilgrimage only a month away, when up to four million pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia to pray at holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
In a 61-page document submitted to the committee that oversees development of the two cities, the cleric Ali bin Abdulaziz al-Shabal suggested that allowing worship at the Prophet’s grave encouraged idolatry.
Much of Saudi Arabia subscribes to Wahhabism, an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam that views acts of devotion towards anyone but God as idolatrous. Absolutist Wahhabis see any shrine to the Prophet as idolatry and want to remove any trace of him.
Further suggestions involve removing a column that marks where the Angel Gabriel is believed to have given revelations to the Prophet. Mr al-Shabal even proposes tearing down the mosque’s green dome.
There is no sign that the plan will go ahead, but some Muslims are unhappy at the development at holy sites in Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, home of the Grand Mosque and Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, ancient sites have been razed for hotels and malls. Irfan al-Alawi, a British-based Saudi academic, warned the latest plan could cause outrage.

09/1/14

Not only should we pursue righteous goals, our methods in achieving those goals must be righteous as well.

.THE TORAH portion Shoftim opens with the classic phrase, “ tzedek tzedek tirdof .” “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteron – omy 16:20). Why repeat the word tzedek ? Is it for emphasis? Is it to teach us how important the pursuit of justice is to the worldview of the Torah? Or is the Torah trying to make a statement about what tzedek really means? Tzedek can be translated in two ways, justice or righteousness.

Tzedek means to act ethically, but it can also be used to describe our spiritual strivings. A tzaddik , a righteous person, is one who is of the highest character and is simultaneously intensely connected to God.