Sunday, July 04, 2010

Doomed to the Decent Thing

Seamus Heaney uses this phrase of a young man training to be a priest:

I could only see you on a bicycle,

a clerical student home for the summer
doomed to the decent thing. Visiting neighbours,
Drinking tea and praising home-made bread.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (in 3 Minute Theologian) makes a similar reference to the whiphand of conformity, and how we have to "act nice" even if we don't "feel nice".

      the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.

One of the good things about being a retired priest is not having to be generally agreeable when you don't feel like it - not having to say that every show you see (by the kiddies in the church hall) is wonderful, when it isn't. In fact not having to go to such shows at all.

The Strangeness of Sanity

I've read two of CG's books: "The Human Evasion" and "The Decline and Fall of Science".

She begins the first with an observation about human psychology: that it is rather strange.

In particular that:

Human beings live in a state of mind called "sanity" on a small planet in space. They are not quite sure whether the space around them is infinite or not (either way it is unthinkable). If they think about time, they find it inconceivable that it had a beginning. It is also inconceivable that it did not have a beginning. Thoughts of this kind are not disturbing to "sanity", which is obviously a remarkable phenomenon and deserving more recognition.

There is no denying the force of this. And it is this force, together with the power of her aphorisms, one of which is presently a heading for this blog, that led me to look more closely, and take seriously, what she is saying.

I remember when thoughts like these were first troubling to me. The endlessness of time was a puzzle in itself, but when contrasted with the finiteness of me it left me feeling quite unstable. Thinking of the relativity of space had a similar effect. I could not see why the vastness of our known universe might not yet be microscopic in the context of one of much greater finite magnitude. A fantasy I entertained was that our solar systems, stars, suns, planets, could themselves be sub-atomic particles of a still greater reality. Conversely, the crumbs of dust that I brush from my lap when leaving the table after a meal might be the constituent parts of creaturely civilizations, too small for us ever to apprehend, thus swept away by my unthinking gesture.

If at a distance these thoughts now seem fanciful, they were I think the first conscious stirrings of what became an interest in the meaning of existence. My intellectual and spiritual journey has led me away from these earliest unsettling thoughts to a more mature, adult reflection.

Or has it?

Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Green Revolution?

I'm feeling the need to respond in some way - theologically, philosophically, spiritually - to Celia Green's writings. They amount to a serious attack on much that I have stood for and taught and indeed preached in my life and ministry so far. I am open to such an attack and will only resist it when it seems to me to be unfair, unbalanced, inaccurate or just plain wrong. But where it is merely asking that I rethink and re-imagine what it could mean to be a Christian, a priest, and a human being in the twenty-first century, I pray for the boldness and humility to follow.

Let's see.