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Posts Tagged ‘creation’

I preached about prophecy this morning at Mass. I was provoked (I won’t say inspired) by the whole non-Mayan non-apocalypse non-event that was Friday 21 December 2012. It shows how even an urban myth that becomes an uber-trending news story can stimulate some helpful reflection.

the end is not for a while by voteprime

Part of the attraction of the ‘crazy religious people waiting for the end of time’ story is that it seems to pit crazy religious people against un-crazy scientific people. But one of my small points this morning was that the desire to believe in prophecy, at least in its slightly over-simplified meaning of ‘telling you something that is going to happen in the future’, is actually one with the scientific instinct. It’s a longing to believe that everything makes sense, that everything happens for a reason, that the future is (through some very mysterious processes of futurology) pre-determined and knowable.

The belief that the world as a whole and every detail within it is meaningful, and that in theory this meaning can be discovered, is a belief that shapes both the worst excesses of superstition and the best endeavours of science. We don’t want to believe that everything is simply chaos; and in fact we have good reasons to think (if our epistemology is sound) that there is a fundamental order to the universe, and that our minds can gradually discover that order.

This hunger for order drives the scientist and the Mayan apocalypse seeker. It also drives the conspiracy theorist, as portrayed so well by Don DeLillo in his novel Underworld, who can’t conceive that a world-changing event like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana could have been caused by something as banal as a lone gunman or a tragic accident.

Yes, there are crazy prophecies; and there are non-prophecies (it seems that not even the Mayans really believed that this one was coming). But there are true prophecies as well, where God has spoken into history, and promised or predicted (perhaps they mean the same thing from the perspective of eternity) that something would happen in the future.

We see two of them in the scriptures today. First, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah promising that a leader would be born in Bethlehem; one who would shepherd God’s people, unite and strengthen them, and bring them lasting security and peace. And second, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was with child in her old age. No wonder she went to visit Elizabeth with such haste; partly to share her joy at the Incarnation, but partly to see with her own eyes a truth she could only hold in faith up to that point.

Prophecy used to be such an important part of the Judeo-Christian imagination. It reminded us that all things – including the course of history – are in God’s providential hands; it showed us his power and his wisdom; it was a sign of his care for us and of our own dignity – that he would speak to us and involve us in the unfolding of his plans; and it was above all a powerful indication of his faithfulness to us, and our need and our duty to trust him because of the objective signs that he has given us in history, as well as the personal signs he has given in our own life story.

I think we have lost our confidence in all this, for all sorts of reasons: historical criticism of the Bible; a loss of the sense of the supernatural; the shift from a historical religion to a personal spirituality, from an objectively founded faith to one based on inner subjective experience; and many others.

Some of the scepticism about prophecy is justified, and it reflects a whole different world view. But some of it is not – it is an unscientific narrowing of the human mind: to think that there is no fundamental order to the universe or to human existence; that God the creator is unable to guide his creation or direct the events of history; that he cannot in his infinite wisdom know what he ‘is’ doing or what he ‘will’ do; or that he cannot share his knowledge of what he will do through revelation in general and through the prophetic word in particular.

This is our faith as Christians, that these things are possible for God. And it’s not just a credulous, superstitious faith; it’s based on our rational understanding of what it means for there to be a universe at all, and our conclusion that some transcendent power and wisdom must lie behind this creation, a power that we have discovered – in the Old Testament and ultimately in Jesus Christ – to be personal and loving.

Prophecy still matters. The fact that God has spoken through the prophets and fulfilled his promises is one of the factors that allows us to believe with more confidence. It may not provide a proof that what we believe is true, but it is a good stimulus to belief, and an ongoing support.

This is how the First Vatican Council put it, a teaching that is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century (Dei Filius, Chapter 3):

4. Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all.

5. Hence Moses and the prophets, and especially Christ our lord himself, worked many absolutely clear miracles and delivered prophecies; while of the apostles we read: And they went forth and preached every, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it [18]. Again it is written: We have the prophetic word made more sure; you will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place [19].

6. Now, although the assent of faith is by no means a blind movement of the mind, yet no one can accept the gospel preaching in the way that is necessary for achieving salvation without the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all facility in accepting and believing the truth [20].

7. And so faith in itself, even though it may not work through charity, is a gift of God, and its operation is a work belonging to the order of salvation, in that a person yields true obedience to God himself when he accepts and collaborates with his grace which he could have rejected.

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The Guardian asked various artists, playwrights, musicians, dancers, etc. to give their top tips for ‘unleashing your inner genius’. Take a look here. It’s a great way to decide on some new year resolutions if you wish you could be more creative and adventurous over the coming year, even if the only ‘canvas’ you have to paint on is the day ahead of you

Here are some of my highlighs:

Guy Garvey, musician:

Spending time in your own head is important…

Just start scribbling. The first draft is never your last draft. Nothing you write is by accident.

Don’t be scared of failure.

The best advice I’ve ever had came about 20 years ago from Mano McLaughlin, one of Britain’s best songwriters. “The song is all,” he said, “Don’t worry about what the rest of the music sounds like: you have a responsibility to the song.” I found that really inspiring: it reminded me not to worry about whether a song sounds cool, or fits with everything we’ve done before – but just to let the song be what it is.

Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer:

Forget the idea that inspiration will come to you like a flash of lightning. It’s much more about hard graft.

Find a quiet studio to work in. Shostakovich could not have composed with the telly on.

Try to find a studio with more than one window. I work best when I have windows in two walls, for some reason; maybe it is because there is more light. At the moment, I’m working in a room with no windows. It’s not going well at all.

If you get overexcited by an idea, take a break and come back to it later. It is all about developing a cold eye with which to look over your own work.

Rupert Goold, director:

The best ideas are tested by their peaks and troughs. One truly great  image or scene astride a broken mess is more intriguing than a hundred well-made cliches.

Once you have an idea, scrutinise the precedent. If no one has explored it before in any form then you’re 99% likely to be making a mistake. But that 1% risk is why we do it.

Make sure you are asking a question that is addressed both to the world around you and the world within you. It’s the only way to keep going when the doubt sets in.

An idea is just a map. The ultimate landscape is only discovered when it’s under foot, so don’t get too bogged down in its validity.

Love the effect over its cause.

Isaac Julien, artist:

I have a magpie attitude to inspiration: I seek it from all sorts of sources; anything that allows me to think about how culture comes together. I’m  always on the lookout – I observe people in the street; I watch films, I read, I think about the conversations that I have. I consider the gestures people use, or the colours they’re wearing. It’s about taking all the little everyday things and observing them with a critical eye; building up a scrapbook which you can draw on. Sometimes, too, I look at other artworks or films to get an idea of what not to do.

Lucy Prebble, playwright:

Act it out yourself. Draw the curtains.

If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Feeling intimidated is a good sign. Writing from a place of safety produces stuff that is at best dull and at worst dishonest.

Write backwards. Start from the feeling you want the audience to have at the end and then ask “How might that happen?” continually, until you have a beginning.

Break any rule if you know deep inside that it is important.

Susan Philipsz, artist:

If you have a good idea, stick to it. Especially if realising the project is a long and demanding process, try to keep true to the spirit of the initial idea.

Daydream. Give yourself plenty of time to do nothing. Train journeys are good.

Keep it simple.

Be audacious.

It doesn’t always have to make sense.

Polly Morgan, artist:

Don’t wait for a good idea to come to you. Start by realising an average idea – no one has to see it. If I hadn’t made the works I’m ashamed of, the ones I’m proud of wouldn’t exist.

Be brief, concise and direct. Anyone who over-complicates things is at best insecure and at worst stupid. Children speak the most sense and they haven’t read Nietzsche.

Don’t try to second-guess what people will want to buy. Successful artists have been so because they have shown people something they hadn’t imagined. If buyers all knew what they wanted before it had been made, they could have made it themselves, or at least commissioned it.

Don’t be afraid to scrap all your hard work and planning and do it differently at the last minute. It’s easier to hold on to an idea   because you’re afraid to admit you were wrong than to let it go.

Ian Rickson, director:

You cannot overprepare. Enjoy being as searching and thorough as possible before you begin, so you can be as free as possible once you’ve started.

Lots of this, of course, can be applied to preaching. In fact, wouldn’t our preaching take off if we really took some of this to heart (and kept praying and meditating on the scriptures and deepening our faith etc…).

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On Sunday afternoon I met with a group of young adults to talk about the Christian understanding of work. It’s an important topic!

Very often people don’t think about it – even those who have a deep faith. They just go to work and get on with it; and perhaps they bring it to prayer when they are about to lose their job, or when they are seeking a new one. But not much more reflection than that. Or they ‘over-Christianise’ work, and think that as Christians they ought to be doing something that is ‘holy’ (which is half-true), which usually means something that is in the charitable sector or in one of the caring professions – and if they are not, they end up feeling guilty and a bit inadequate about their more mundane job.

So what is the meaning of work for a Christian?

A couple of paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very helpful (2427-8):

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honours the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.

It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.

In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labour stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work.

Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

So there are a number of different motives for human work, different meanings, and they all have their place in the divine plan. One is not more ‘holy’ than another. It’s worth putting them into a more systematic list, and then seeing what each of them means for one’s own job – whatever it is.

Why get up in the morning? Why go to work? Here is the list. We work: (1) to earn money so that we can live and so that we can support our family; (2) to share in God’s work of creation through what we are actually doing; (3) as a way of serving others or contributing to the good of others – directly or indirectly; (4) to honour God by using our gifts and talents and fulfilling our potential; (5) as a way of bringing the Spirit of Christ to bear on ordinary life; (6) as an opportunity for us to grow in holiness; and (7) as a way of sharing in the redemptive work of Christ, above all by accepting the suffering and hardship of work.

Notice how the theology here is both idealistic and realistic at the same time. There is the nitty-gritty of simply needing some cash so that we and our family can live – and that is a good thing, not to be despised. There is the idealism of sharing in God’s creative and redemptive work, of fulfilling our potential, of serving others, etc. But there is also the realism that work is often hard and at many levels unfulfilling, yet it still has a meaning – as an opportunity to grow in virtue and offer up our difficulties to the Father in a spirit of sacrifice and faith.

What’s missing? Perhaps something about how we work, often, simply because we enjoy it (perhaps this comes under ‘fulfilling our potential’), or because we like being with people, or because we have a vision or passion for what we are doing, or because our parents, for example, have pushed us into following a certain career path. Maybe these extra ideas fit into the main list somehow.

And notice how many questions it raises. How do we know what job to take (if indeed we have a choice at all)? What if we can’t find any work? What if our work is destructive (morally? culturally? environmentally?) rather than creative? What if we are not using our talents, but apparently wasting them? What if the work is so hard or degrading that it becomes a form of injustice or oppression? What if we are required to be involved in wrongdoing or illegality – directly or indirectly? Or if we know about others at our workplace who are involved in such things? Is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it wrong to want to do better than others in order to succeed? What if the culture of work is damaging our relationships, our family life, our ability to live our faith? And a thousand other questions – many of which we discussed on Sunday.

I’m not going to try to answer them all here! Maybe there is material for some future posts here…

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Jack's Beanstalk

I forgot to blog about the Kingdom of Ife exhibition at the British Museum, and I’ve just found out that it closes on 4 July. So you have a few days to go.

This is the exhibition that includes those remarkable brass heads from 14th and 15th century West Africa. They are stately and serene, but still highly personal. William Bascom, an American anthropologist who was involved in the finds, wrote: “Little that Italy or Greece or Egypt ever produced could be finer, and the appeal of their beauty is immediate and universal”

Less powerful, but equally interesting, were two terracotta chameleons about 4 inches long, each perched on a stone. Chameleons had a mythical status in Ife culture, and the captions retold the Ife creation myth (I’m summarising):

Olodumare, the supreme god who inhabited the sky, sent the god Orishanla to create the world and humankind. He got drunk on palm wine and fell asleep, so his younger brother Oduduwa took over the job.

Oduduwa climbed down an iron chain that had been hung from the sky to the watery land below. He carried from the sky above a snail-shell full of soil, a five-toed chicken, and a chameleon. He emptied out the soil, and the dry land was formed by the chicken kicking the soil around as he searched for food. The chameleon tested the land to see if it was firm. And then Orishanla (now sober) created human beings, while Oduduwa formed the rest of the living world. Oduduwa is described as the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

I love creation stories. But this one excited me so much because it reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. This beautiful image of the world above being united to our own world by some kind of cord. Either let down from above, like the chain; or grown up from below, like the beanstalk. The Tower of Babel. Jacob’s ladder. The Cross. Human desire stretching up; and God – perhaps – reaching down. Although for Jack the world above the clouds was not particularly heavenly.

It was always one of my favourite children’s stories. And even the comic version done for TV by the Goodies seemed magical to me. I must find a modern children’s book to see how it is being depicted today.

Here is the British Museum plug for the exhibition. It’s well worth catching:

This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of brass, copper, stone and terracotta sculpture from West Africa.

The Kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) was a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa (in what is now modern south-west Nigeria). 

Ife flourished as a political, spiritual, cultural and economic centre in the 12th–15th centuries AD, and was an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.

The exhibition features superb pieces of Ife sculpture, drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper to create a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. The technical sophistication of the casting process is matched by the artworks’ enduring beauty.

The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include images of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity.

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That's Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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Herod's Temple on Jerusalem model_1358 by hoyasmeg.A few days ago I was preaching about Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. The story is well-known: Zechariah goes up to the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem to offer incense, and has a vision. He is told that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son (John the Baptist) who will prepare God’s people for the coming saviour. When Zechariah expresses his disbelief, he is struck dumb, and doesn’t speak another word until the prophecy is fulfilled.

As I was doing some background reading about this passage I came across a wonderful explanation of the significance of Zechariah’s inability to speak (in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 680). This is how I went on to express it:

At the end of his vision, Zechariah is struck dumb — he can’t speak a word. And the silence has a curious effect. It means that when, in his priestly role, he leaves the sanctuary and goes out to meet the people, he is unable to give the final blessing. As he steps outside to bring the service to a close — he remains speechless. So this service, this Temple liturgy, remains unfinished. Put another way: It remains open-ended, continuing.

It’s as if Zechariah steps out into the temple precincts, into the streets of Jerusalem, and into his own home still presiding at the liturgy. It’s as if the doors of the temple had been left open wide, and the worship of God spills out into the streets behind Zechariah – who continues his priestly work, unable to bring it to a close. It’s as if the whole people are holding their breath, a divine hiatus, wondering how they are meant to live this liturgy in these unfamiliar places. Wondering when the final blessing would come.

I like this idea of the sacred spilling out into the secular, and almost embracing it. It’s the deepest meaning of Christianity: that the whole world is redeemed; that God steps into his creation through the Incarnation, through the birth of Jesus; and that Jesus steps outside the boundaries of Judaism in order to draw all people into his embrace. It doesn’t mean that the distinction between the secular and the sacred is lost – as if there were no longer any possibility of identifying the divine or taking hold of what is holy. It means, instead, that God’s presence can be discovered in every situation, because the whole of creation has been gathered together in the humanity of Christ.

This interpretation of Zechariah’s silence fits with another scriptural idea: that Jesus was crucified ‘outside the city gate’ (Heb 13), outside the world of the sacred, so that he could offer up and sanctify the secular.

[If you want to read the whole sermon I have pasted it below as the first comment.]

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