August 31, 2014

The Speed of God: Mainline Religion

Karl Marx famously observed that religion was the opiate of the masses, meaning that it provided an escape from the harsh realities of life. This may well be true, but looking at the conflicts arising in the Middle East these days, I’m inclined to observe that religion is the amphetamine of the masses.

Now, some will suggest that the conflicts between Arabs, Christians and Jews in Palestine/Israel, or between or among Islamists (Sunni and Shi’a) are simply proxy struggles for what is at base political conflict. I think this gets things wrong, and does a disservice to religion, as well as politics.

There may well be cynical non-believers who make use of the religions conflicts of our time to their own political ends. However, there are also true believers for whom the religious issues are the source and end of the conflict. A look at European history will show that this is not a new phenomenon. Look back to the European conflicts of the 15th through the 17th century — focus just on England if that makes it easier — and you will see people killing each other over things like vernacular liturgy and the theology of the Eucharist. There is nothing new about beheading or burning people over religious differences. As I said in an earlier post, if you want to understand the Muslim present, look to the Christian past.

It is also no use trying to play one Muslim off against another — or to accept with an easy nod the soothing reassurances of the “good Muslims” that the Islamists are in error and do not truly represent Islam. Who says? Council after council anathematized those it deemed “heretics”; the Pope said the same thing about Elizabeth I; American Baptists distance themselves from the folks in Westboro; the Global South Anglicans will condemn Episcopalians as apostates. These divisions of opinion do not mark the boundary between true and false religion — or if they do, who is to decide which side is right? One chooses one’s side based one’s own understanding of what is right and just and true — but so do they all, excepting the odd occasional cynic who might just be doing it all for political gain; and I think every side may have one or more such game-players.

So I hate to be the bearer of bad news to those who think that “good” religion will solve the problems of the current world crisis. Religion isn’t the solution; it is the problem. Christians trying to be sweet and reasonable by saying to Jews and Muslims, “We all worship the same God” is really a bit condescending, and ultimately false, since only some nominal Christians are willing to soft-pedal the orthodox notion that Jesus is God — so not really quite the same as the God of Judaism or Islam, at least from their point of view.

However, we nor they need not alter beliefs in order to work towards a pluralistic world in which people resolve not to kill each other over religious differences. What is needed is something like the Elizabethan settlement — which derives not so much from an act of will or resolve to peace as from a war-weariness in which all but the most zealous finally recognize that the continued fighting is getting them nowhere fast, and it is time to stop mainlining the speed of religion. Christianity more or less reached this detente a few centuries ago; we can only hope that Islam doesn’t take as long to reach its stasis point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 29, 2014

Heaven on Earth

Charles Chapman Grafton was an early member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, with a missional heart and soul for the Gospel nourished in the Anglo-Catholic spirit of Edward Bouverie Pusey: which is to say, one who understood both the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. He served at Boston’s Church of the Advent, and later as Bishop of Fond du Lac. He was an active supporter of the revival of religious life in The Episcopal Church, and assisted in the foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. He also sought rapprochement with the Orthodox and Old Catholic church leaders of his day.

It would be a great mistake to reduce such a legacy to the “Fond of Lace” school of prettified and petrified worship of the means of worship. For people like Grafton, the smells and bells were not an end in themselves, but a mark of the singular dignity evoked by a lively awareness of the presence of God in our midst, and in our persons, a deeply incarnational faith.

May he and all who seek the glimmers of God's presence — in art and music and the human person — here on earth rejoice unto the ages of ages in the imperishable halls of heaven.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
icon in wash and ink 2013

August 26, 2014

(No) Thanks for the Complement

One of the problems with the theory of gender complementarity is that it tends to reduce the human to the visually physical. Heterosexuality is held to be normative on the basis of gross anatomy — the fact that male and female bodies exist is taken uncritically to mean that they not only can join, but only can join. This biological determinism ignores that much (if not most) of sexuality is mental and emotional — and that these aspects of the human being are also just as much physical (in the brain and nervous system, in particular as acted upon by the endocrine system) as the gross anatomy of the external sexual characteristics. The “dishonorable members” cannot say to the brain, “I have no need of you.” Every member shares in the wholeness of the body.

The essence of sexuality, as in so much else about what it means to be human, lies in the inside, not the outside: it is content, not form alone, that constitutes the human person.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 21, 2014

Living in Another's Skin

I have only ever once been accused of shoplifting, at a Pathmark in Yonkers, when the "security" attendant saw me put something in my pocket and failed to recognize it as a shopping list. (What of value in a supermarket he imagined I could put in my pocket, I can not tell, but suffice it to say the incident was embarrassing, angering, and put me off shopping at that store ever again.)

However, I also realize that what was a one-off unpleasantness for me is, for anyone born brown or black in this America, a daily possibility or worse, probability. I recall years ago hearing in shock from one of my African-American brothers in Christ of his experience being challenged as he opened the trunk of his own car as we gathered for an evening meeting in White Plains NY. That simply would never happen to me, in my own skin, which makes me both grateful and furious.

For I do not deserve this favor, nor did he deserve the hassle, nor does anyone deserve to be shot unarmed in the street, strangled on the sidewalk, or pummeled on the highway. The chances of my being challenged as I enter my own home or car are vanishingly small. The possibility I will be shot in the street, unarmed, is almost nonexistent. As a white male I have almost no basis for sympathy with my African-American brothers and sisters on the basis of my own experience, other than my being human, and being at the end of it all saddened and shocked and angry that I live in a racist nation.

There, I've said it. I live in a racist nation. Having a black president only goes so far; and I dare say if Barack Obama were wearing a jogging suit on a poorly lit street, not surrounded by Secret Service agents, he might well be challenged if he tried to open the trunk of a car one evening in the aptly named White Plains.

I just want to say, Stop it. Stop it, now. Train the police to use less lethal methods, and prosecute to the fullest extent those who don't. Put to rest the constant need to suspect on the basis of a profile all too aptly suited to fit the native prejudices. End the madness of the war on drugs that has nourished the vast bulk of this problem in the first place, like its pale ghost uncle Prohibition. End it all. Just stop!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 20, 2014

Bernard's Song per Dante

In celebration of the feast of Bernard of Clairvaux, here is a rehearsal tape of the Hymn to the Virgin from the Celestial Rose, from Dante's Paradiso, Canto XXXIII. I composed this for St Luke in the Fields back in the 80s, for performance in Advent. I made a tape of the rehearsal, but the recorder died during the actual liturgy. Still, it gives an idea of what I was after. Bill Entriken is the organist, and the cellist is from the St Luke's Chamber Orchestra.

Bernard sings:

«Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta più che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,

tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sì, che ’l suo fattore
non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.

Nel ventre tuo si raccese l’amore,
per lo cui caldo ne l’etterna pace
così è germinato questo fiore.

Virgin Mother, daughter of you Son,
Humble and high beyond creature,
Fixed limit of the eternal counsel,

You are she who so ennobled human nature
that the Creator did not disdain
to make of it his maker.

Within your womb was rekindled
the love by whose heat, in eternal peace,
thus was germinated this flower.

(The Flower is the celestial rose which is constituted from the company of saints themselves...)

Pardon the poor quality of the tape.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

MP3 File

August 13, 2014

Greater Love

Jonathan Myrick Daniels holds the honor of having fulfilled the greatest love attested by our Lord Jesus Christ himself: to lay down one's life for one's friends. The story of his self-sacrificial placement of himself between a bigot's arms and the body of a young African-American co-worker in the struggle for civil rights is well enough known to obviate the need for me to tell it once more here. Suffice this to be a moment to give honor to this honorable young man, fervent in faith, steady in resolve, and sudden in action to do what was right in the face of grievous wrong. May we all contribute a glimmer of such light by our own feeble candles.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
ikon of Jonathan as the seminarian he was

August 11, 2014

The Butterfly

Taking a sabbatical on the bridge’s bannister
— a momentary flex or two of wings a major
interruption in your short life-span —
I notice that your dappled right-hand wing
has lost a section of the dexter chief
of your escutcheon, your family crest thus dis-
emblazoned by a proper relic of
some former battle with a spiderweb.

You rest — and when I move you flutter off,
but then return, to bask another moment,
to lengthen our unspoken consultation;
finally to flutter off and by — a Viceroy
or a Monarch (I too ignorant of
the heraldry of Lepidoptera to know) 
but rested, ready to reclaim the air
with wounded wing.

You know my wounds, Lord; some of them you gave me,
some I gave myself. I still will fly —
but with your help, for you alone can save me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG, 2006

August 8, 2014

In a Glass, Darkly

When religions of whatever sort have the power of armed forces at their disposal they will go to war with those they hold in contempt, eager to convert or expunge. That goes for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, as well as most other sects. The larger Christian bodies lost their state-supported armies a few hundred years ago. A few insurgencies lasted until my own lifetime, in, say, Ireland; and there are fringe groups in the Pacific Northwest whose force of arms warrants our concern. 

That there is relative peace among Christians in our day has precious little to do with Christianity as a religion of peace, but more to do with the withering of state and popular support for Christian warfare, a pragmatic response summed up by Elizabeth I in her desire to keep her counselors’ heads upon their shoulders.  

For whenever Christians had the coercive power of arms at their disposal, they were just as likely to use them as anyone else. Imperialism, triumphalism, conquest and intersectarian bloodbaths are all a part of our Christian past — the Gospel notwithstanding. Look to that Christian past and you will see the Muslim present. It is not a pretty reflection, nor is it monolithic: there are islands of sanity amongst the chaos and crisis, but the theme is one of struggle rather than of settlement. Meanwhile, the God of peace weeps over his foolish children.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG