Helen Bar-Lev & Johnmichael Simon: Poems and Paintings about the Land of Israel

Israeli poets Helen Bar-Lev and Johnmichael Simon’s new book of poetry, Cyclamens and Swords, is now available from Ibbetson Press. This collection is beautifully illustrated with Helen’s watercolor paintings of Jerusalem and the Israeli countryside. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the culture and landscape of the Holy Land, as well as poetry fans generally.

You can purchase your copy by emailing hbarlev@netvision.net.il or j_simon@netvision.net.il . Prices are 65 NIS (including postage to Israel), US$18 (including postage to US or Canada), 14 euro (including postage to Europe or Australia), or 10 pounds sterling (including postage to the UK). Payment accepted by cash, check or PayPal.

See what the critics are saying about this book:

The achingly beautiful cover of timeless trees, earth, flowers and rock, is redolent of Israel’s destiny. This little land, so hallowed in human history, seems the literary and spiritual core of existence to most of humanity. If strife is ever present here, how can there ever be the peace of ancient promise? This land seems to symbolize the eternal quest for harmony where forces of turmoil march ceaselessly. Bar-Lev and Simon explore this theme for us. Cyclamens and Swords will become a treasured classic, echoing as it does so fluently, the longing, fearing and questing that marks these troubled times. Helen Bar-Lev’s poem Beauty sums up the reader’s feelings as we reluctantly finish this special book: “and I,/the ingrate,/ever insatiable,/implore you,/please,/ show/ me/more.”

–Katherine L. Gordon
Author, Editor, Publisher, Judge and Reviewer, Resident Columnist for Ancient Heart Magazine

Bar-Lev and Simon open the reader’s eyes and hearts to Israel as a land of dazzling, sometimes tragic juxtapositions. The timeless tranquility of Bar-Lev’s unpopulated landscape paintings gains poignancy alongside poems that show an equally ancient violence alwayslooming on the border. This elegantly designed book shines with love and gratitude for the small miracles of natural beauty and human kindness that flourish even in a war zone.

–Jendi Reiter, editor of www.winningWriters.com and author of A Talent for Sadness

There is a point where art transcends our daily lives and past experiences to touch deep the old stories from where all of humanity arose. In this volume Helen Bar-Lev and Johnmichael Simon have drunk deep from the wellhead of this locus to combine poetry and visual art into a Jungian statement that illustrates how, when portrayed at its artistic essence, the story of one place becomes a story of us all.

–Roger Humes, Director of The Other Voices International Project, Author of There Sings No Bird

Helen Bar-Lev and Johnmichael Simon bring the beauty of Israel to life in Helen’s lush watercolors and evocative monochrome paintings and in the sensitive poems they both write. Their verbal and visual depictions of the breathtaking scenery, flowers, birds, fish, deer and ants, testify to Israel’s magnificent natural environment. But like an undertow in a dazzling ocean, the ongoing undercurrent of conflict tries to steal the serenity of the scenery. Their book is simultaneously exhilarating and jarring. They reveal the beauty and the pain which live side by side in the compelling, complex reality that is Israel. One shares their hope that serenity will triumph.

–Rabbi Wayne Franklin, Providence, R.I. 


A selection from Cyclamens and Swords:

Waters of Gaza
by Johnmichael Simon

They moved out of Gaza
not without protest, not without prayer
feeling like ivy ripped off the walls
like irrigation pipes torn from the soil
they moved out on unwilling legs
on buses to nowhere
fathers, mothers, children
and children without fathers
without mothers

They moved into Gaza
not without covet, not without envy
feeling like water released from a dam
bursting into surrendering fields
carrying all before it, trees, houses
places of prayer, fences, gardens
waves breaking over alien temples
again and again till water covered all

After the water came briny hatred
lusting for a redder liquid
and the skies darkened again
lightning and thunder returned to Gaza
rained on this thin strip of unhappiness
writhing between the wrath of history
and the dark depths of the sea


Cyclamens and Swords
by Helen Bar-Lev

Life should be sunflowers and poetry
symphonies and four o’clock tea
instead it’s entangled
like necklaces in a drawer
when you reach in for cyclamens
you pull out swords

This is a country
which devours its inhabitants,
spits them out hollow like the shells of
defies them to survive
despite the peacelessness,
promises them cyclamens
but rewards them with swords

It is here we live with
symphonies and sunflowers,
poetry and four o’clock tea,
enmeshed in an absurd passion for this land
entangled as we are in its history,
like butterflies in a net
or sheep in a barbed wire fence

Where it is forbidden
to pick cyclamens
but necessary
to brandish swords

Poem: “A Myth”

Before the dam was built our people slept 
   under the water
and worshipped the dark bird-shadows of 
   boat hulls
which passed overhead, seen through 
   the ripples of distance.
Our crops were the weeds and growths that 
   trailed like tears
out of the sunken skulls of fish.
We scarcely noticed the water
weighing on our chests like a stone:
how do you notice a burden that has never 
   been lifted?
Speech went nowhere, a breath released into 
   the thick silence
that bathed us and sealed us in.
To communicate, we handed each other objects
dropped down from boats — a spoon for kindness,
a chronometer for death —
the phrases the gods had set for us.
After the dam was built we lay naked on 
   our dry beds.
It was so light we could not rest.
We had to believe that an element we 
   could not see
was now our own. The shadows we’d 
   learned to worship
streamed from every object. Some of us 
   bowed down
to birds whose shadows flickered across 
   the grass,
some to waving clotheslines’ shadowy flags,
and some to clouds that passed over the 
   whole scene,
dimming our other gods
to nothingness for a moment.
The weight of water being lifted from 
   our chests,
we learned the terror of aspiration, 
   as balloons
soaring, knowing they may burst.
And our words carried through the 
   new spaces
almost more than we could bear — released 
   like us
to travel, to die at unimagined distances.

         published in The Christian Century

Prison Poet “Conway” Inspired by Blake

Some more excerpts from my correspondence with “Conway”, a prisoner at a supermax facility in central California who’s serving 25-to-life under the state’s three-strikes law for receiving stolen goods. For Christmas, I sent him some books he’d requested (Kipling, Thoreau, Blake), and he responded in January with this poem that was inspired by Plate 3 from William Blake’s The Book of Thel:

Bring Me Clouds

The clouds were dancing, playing
disappearing games in the sky
as they softly windswept flew
out of the corner of my eye
I had no recollection of their worth
when they quietly faded away
I wonder do they have a voice
if so, what do they say?
A lonesome tuft of pillowy white
against that bright blue field
floated a vale of powder across the sun
and turned into a shield
This shadow calm and quick did pass
in only but a moment’s time
when the sun peeked back his head
across his golden climb
Twas then I recognoticed [sic]
their silent voices dancing in my brain
though they were absent from my ears
sweet tears are singing inside the rain
hovering flittering without care
Till pregnant there, a storm does bring
a shower on the newborn spring
Those clouds make birds-n-flowers sing
so, you see it’s all by choice
all this is part of the clouds voice…


Conway sent me some more poems last month:


This inhumane endeavor
inside the ashes of an expired world
dread realm of desired breath
The indignence of exile sucks
what’s right from our hungry sight
swallowing the souls last gasp
into the abyss drawing night
causing the wickedness in the world
to mix, blend and stir together
creating a forever decomposing maze,
cracked walls, sidewalks and
heavy unscribed tombstones
sucking at the soles every step
resenting every place ever known
bringing glory to the keeper
without rules except action
violent ruthless distraction
ruling without conscience.
I would rather be me
with empty cup
Than the whip lasher dead
from the shoulders up…



   You can see the polished trails, and spots
where human feet, hands have longingly lingered, or
heads have rubbed, tossing-n-turning in exhaustion.
   That rough concrete smoothed and shiny, reflects
those souls lost in this bitter maze.
   Wandering, forever herded like cattle prodded
along in chains, jingling like slave bangles.
   As this wretched machine clinks and clanks, devouring
with steel doors chomping down bite after vicious bite.
   From the inside consummated, slowly
we view our digestion, realizing this concrete and steel
nightmare’s no deal.
   Dead are they, who observe this torment
unmoved from a far away place, with unspoken breath.
   What really is Death, if not dull
like the gray ashes dust, lifted and blown about
nakedly exposed inside a Sun’Ray dancing, for
only a moment away specs performing, reflected
with a stars bright sparkle.
   Those spectacles were once a wall, or being
about this tall, escorted chained, down to that
loathsome execution hall.
   Truly now, they live and play gay in a way,
face the day uninhibited.
   Unlike this steel door, or cold cracked
concrete floor, sucking hard on the lonesome footsteps
of a condemned creation’s last march to ruin…

Alegria Imperial: “Love-Lettered”

Another week slips into
the inevitable: the end of
a string of days. What is to
unravel or recall determines the
weight of this week’s end.
To your first week end
evening, dusk I hope
descended grace on its brow
instead of thorns on its
fingers as it props you up
struggling to haul your fatigue
onto a train.

Where is your stop, Caro?
Is if to the waiting
‘muneca’? Her seas tonight
I hope had ceased roiling and
holds a quiet bed of words
she wreaths you with, scented
lily-calm or cherry silken-ed
What awaits you bounding
on Madrid streets, love
in your instep to
her door I hope not sour drops
littered behind the door-click, mouth-
hurting pebbles that her thoughts
had become when thinking of
you ‘living your life as your life’
not ‘life with her as your life’.

Loving and un-loving
that have for fifteen moons
tossed and battered you–
even if at times washed you
kissed and brilliant in suns,
interminable moving suns, that
dip and set then rise
ir-recognizable even to you who
has a sun for a heart—I wish
soon ends this ‘fin de semaine’. A
new moon rising unseen as yet
I wish grips the seesaw lever
and balancing you on pole-ends
pulls you upright from the
ribs, coaxes a deep breath,
gifts you a glass-clear sense
not so much to know what’s right
but what you want from loving
or un-loving.

The fruit not the tree, you say,
Caro, seems to rot in your hands when it
finally falls. I say, it does, if your
desire ends in your hands—in it
a fruit unmasked shows hairs, dimples
or scars. Its essence is in its fruit—ness
not in that weight on your hands. A
woman like a fruit has her essence
hidden. More than a fruit, a woman
rots not. To want to hold her it is her
spirit you must bridle and if you could
you must sip and swallow or if not,
sip and spew. One other
secret: you have to let her imbibe
your spirit as you do hers. If to this
you demure, then turn away
for ends of weeks may not
turn around and loving will
remain un-loving.

Am I a Woman?

My brave husband and I have just returned from the radical feminists’ anti-porn conference at Wheelock College. My reactions to this event were so complex that they’ll take several posts to sort out, but I’ll start with a question that’s preoccupied me since I became a regular reader of Hugo‘s blog: Am I a feminist? Why or why not?

Before I begin to address this, I recognize that I have the privilege to even consider this question because of the efforts of many other activists who have self-identified as feminist. My criticism of the term isn’t meant to discount their efforts, just to question whether “feminism” is the best theoretical way to frame my identity and beliefs.

Though I’ve always believed in women’s full equality in every sphere of life, I shy away from the “feminist” label. In college, that was because I identified it with political views I didn’t share: abortion rights, devaluing the homemaker role, and a general disposition to cast men as villains and women as victims. Now I’ve become aware of a much greater diversity within feminism, but the label still doesn’t fit comfortably. I’m groping towards some reasons why that might be the case:

I don’t primarily think of myself as a woman. Sure, my biological gender is female, and I like collecting dolls and wearing pretty dresses. I talk about my feelings all the time, and I take too much responsibility for the feelings of others. But I could do all that equally well as a codependent drag queen.

When I think about what makes me me, I identify much more with my mind than with my body. I resist efforts to draft me into a collective interest group based on unchosen characteristics. When I was converting to Christianity, it bothered me that some folks would urge me to be loyal to my Jewish heritage, for purely tribal or historical reasons. The fact that my parents and grandparents believed something has no bearing on whether it’s actually true.

Similarly, sharing a gender with 50% of people on the planet doesn’t guarantee that our similarities will outweigh our differences. The most heartbreaking aspect of this weekend’s conference was how efforts at feminist solidarity kept breaking down into hostility and mistrust as soon as we tried to articulate why we opposed porn and what our ideal society would look like. There were many reasons for this, which I’ll explore in a future post, but one factor was that for many of us, our very diverse experiences of religion, sexual relationships, class and ethnicity were at least as constitutive of our identities as being female, if not more so.

To the pornographers, of course, we’re all just cum dumpsters, just as the Nazis didn’t discriminate among Orthodox and atheist Jews. But why can’t we concentrate on our common interests to collaborate on specific political projects, without trying to forge a spiritual or metaphysical identity around our vulvas? I’d like to depersonalize feminist politics so that it becomes more task-oriented and less about our feelings.

In other words, I’m a guy.

I don’t see gender as the human race’s moral dividing line. In fact, I don’t believe in such a line at all. In my Christian worldview, we’re all equally sinners. I oppose the oppression of women for exactly the same reasons as I oppose the oppression of prisoners, African-Americans, fat people, and boys named Percy.

I don’t believe in salvation through politics. Feminism, of whatever variety, believes that utopia comes about by rearranging the distribution of power. For me, this is a second-order problem. There is no system that can’t be subverted eventually by the clever predator that is Homo sapiens. I can’t base my identity on a political ideology because I think evil is ultimately a spiritual problem, and one that we can’t solve by ourselves.

Feminism itself doesn’t generate a theory of the good. Men are oppressed by women; so what? Why should we be outraged? Answers to that question come from religion and moral philosophy, not politics. I’d rather identify myself in terms of the foundational religious/moral lens through which I see the world, which is not gender-based.

Christian Wiman on Poetry and Religion

Christian Wiman, editor of Chicago’s venerable Poetry magazine, shares some brilliant thoughts on poetry and religion in the Winter 2007 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. This article (unfortunately not available online, so subscribe now!) is taken from his upcoming book Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Some highlights:

Language can create faith but can’t sustain it. This is true of all human instruments, which can only gesture toward divinity, never apprehend it. This is why reading the Bible is so often a frustrating, even spiritually estranging, experience. Though you can feel sometimes (particularly in the Gospels) the spark that started the fire of faith in the world — and in your heart — the bulk of the book is cold ash. Thus we are by our own best creations confounded, that Creation, in which our part is integral but infinitesimal, and which we enact by imagination but cannot hold in imagination’s products, may live in us. God is not the things whereby we imagine him.


You cannot really know a religion from the outside. That is to say, you can know everything about a religion — its history, iconography, scripture, etc. — but all of that will remain inert, mere information, so long as it is, to you, myth. To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that “you can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general” (George Lindbeck)….I would say that one has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. This is true of poetry, too: I do not think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.

(For an elegantly written book on the latter theme, check out George Steiner’s Real Presences.)

Blogging will be light this weekend because I’ll be attending the feminist anti-porn activists’ conference at Wheelock College. Of course the biggest question on my mind this afternoon is “What should I wear?” So far I’ve packed my leopard-print sequinned hat, camo pants and a crucifix. Let ’em wonder.

Episcopal Church USA Rejects Primates’ Ultimatum on Gay Bishops and Weddings

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church USA yesterday issued a pastoral letter expressing their continued desire to remain in the Anglican Communion, but declining to comply with the requests set forth in the Communiqué of February 19, 2007 from the Primates of the Anglican Communion meeting at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The money quote from that document is as follows:

the Primates request, through the Presiding Bishop, that the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church
1. make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention (cf TWR, §143, 144); and
2. confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent (cf TWR, §134);
unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion (cf TWR, §134).

If the US bishops did not comply by September 30, the Communiqué strongly suggested that the ECUSA would be ousted from the worldwide Anglican Communion. Yesterday’s letter brings us that much closer to that divorce.

Depending on your beliefs about Christianity and homosexuality, this is either a “profiles in courage” story or a sad tale of heresy. Either way, the US bishops’ explanation of their decision is nuanced and heartfelt, and may overturn some stereotypes about this debate:

With great hope that we will continue to be welcome in the councils of the family of Churches we know as the Anglican Communion, we believe that to participate in the Primates’ Pastoral scheme would be injurious to The Episcopal Church for many reasons.

First, it violates our church law in that it would call for a delegation of primatial authority not permissible under our Canons and a compromise of our autonomy as a Church not permissible under our Constitution.

Second, it fundamentally changes the character of the Windsor process and the covenant design process in which we thought all the Anglican Churches were participating together.

Third, it violates our founding principles as The Episcopal Church following our own liberation from colonialism and the beginning of a life independent of the Church of England.

Fourth, it is a very serious departure from our English Reformation heritage. It abandons the generous orthodoxy of our Prayer Book tradition. It sacrifices the emancipation of the laity for the exclusive leadership of high-ranking Bishops. And, for the first time since our separation from the papacy in the 16th century, it replaces the local governance of the Church by its own people with the decisions of a distant and unaccountable group of prelates.

Most important of all it is spiritually unsound. The pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation. The real cultural phenomenon that threatens the spiritual life of our people, including marriage and family life, is the ease with which we choose to break our relationships and the vows that established them rather than seek the transformative power of the Gospel in them. We cannot accept what would be injurious to this Church and could well lead to its permanent division.

That last paragraph offers an interesting retort to those who would write off the US bishops’ position as irresponsible American individualism or an anti-family agenda. It’s times like this when I’m almost proud to be an Episcopalian again. Now if they’d only go to the mat like this for the Trinity, I could go back to my church. Evangelicals just don’t understand coffee hour.

Book Notes: Proper Confidence

Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship is a must-read for Christians and others who perceive the sterility of the fundamentalism-relativism debate over the possibility of religious truth, but don’t know where to turn for a third option.

Newbigin (1909-1998) was an internationally renowned British missionary, pastor, and scholar. He began as a village evangelist in India, and eventually held such positions as bishop of the Church of South India and associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Because he spent so many years sharing the gospel in cultures that were unencumbered by Western philosophical baggage, Newbigin was in a privileged position to perceive our contemporary post-Enlightenment assumptions about knowledge and certainty as merely one ideology among many, open to challenge. He belonged to that rare breed of theologians who not only had genuinely original ideas, but expressed them with clarity and verve.

Proper Confidence is a slim volume (105 pages) that expresses more concisely the ideas in Newbigin’s best-selling The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Though at times repetitive and dense, this latter book is also a treasure that belongs on every Christian apologist’s bookshelf. 

Newbigin sees a fundamental divide running through Western thought from the Greco-Roman period to the present day. Is ultimate reality impersonal, such that we must maintain a detached perspective in order to know the truth, or is it personal, requiring us to risk involvement in the story that God is telling? There is no neutral perspective from which one can prove the superiority of either option. Rather, which option we choose will itself determine our standards of proof in religious matters.

The gospel shocked the Greco-Roman world because it merged two realms that classical thought had kept separate. Truth was identified with universal, timeless principles. The logos, like the dharma in Eastern thought, “referred to the ultimate impersonal entity which was at the heart of all coherence in the cosmos.” (p.4) How could the logos be identified with something as radically contingent as the life and death of a particular man, Jesus, in human history?

At this point, says Newbigin, the hearer has only two choices. Retain the classical worldview, which has also become the post-Enlightenment worldview, with all its dualisms (fact/value, objective/subjective, reason/faith). Or “listen to those who tell the story, and perhaps (indeed above all)…witness the cruel death of those who would rather face the lions in the circus than disavow this belief. If that course is pursued, then the very meaning of the word logos and the whole edifice of thought of which it is the keystone have to be taken down and rebuilt on this new foundation, this new arche. The language of Scripture, the evangelist announces, will be either the cornerstone or the stone of stumbling; it cannot be merely one of the building blocks in the whole structure of thought.” (p.5)

If we believe that reliable knowledge is best obtained through logical discovery of universal facts — an epistemology that puts us totally in control — then it would be absurd to take up this invitation. However, if we’re open to the idea that knowledge depends on an act of trust, then confidence in the gospel witnesses may lead us to confidence in God.

What is obvious and important at this stage is that the acceptance of the biblical tradition as a starting point for thought constituted a radical break with the classical tradition, whether in its Platonic or Aristotelian form. To put it crudely, in the latter form we begin by asking questions, and we formulate these questions on the basis of our experience of the world. In this enterprise we are in control of operations. We decide which questions to ask, and these decisions necessarily condition the nature of the answers. This is the procedure with which we are familiar in the work of the natural sciences. The things we desire to understand are not active players in the game of learning; they are inert and must submit to our questioning. The resulting “knowledge” is our achievement and our possession.

But there is another kind of knowing which, in many languages, is designated by a different word. It is the kind of knowing that we seek in our relations with other people. In this kind of knowing we are not in full control. We may ask questions, but we must also answer the questions put by the other. We can only come to know others in the measure in which they are willing to share. The resulting knowledge is not simply our own achievement; it is also the gift of others. And even in the mutual relations of ordinary human beings, it is never complete. There are always further depths of knowledge that only long friendship and mutual trust can reach, if indeed they can be reached at all.

There is a radical break between these two kinds of knowing: the knowing often associated with the natural sciences and the knowing involved in personal relations. We experience this radical break, for example, when someone about whom we have been talking unexpectedly comes into the room. We can discuss an absent person in a manner that leaves us in full control of the discussion. But if the person comes into the room, we must either break off the discussion or change into a different mode of talking.

This is a proper analogy of the break involved in the move from the classical to the Christian way of understanding the world. If, so to say, the Idea of the Good has actually entered the room and spoken, we have to stop our former discussion and listen. (pp.10-11)

How does this choice between two philosophies affect us today? Newbigin sees both liberals and fundamentalists as mistakenly clinging to concepts of proof and certainty that belong to the “impersonal” worldview. The former throw out all the aspects of the Christian story that can’t be reconciled with modern science or proven according to the ideal of mathematics, that is, without reference to the personal commitments or situation of the thinker. Their fundamentalist opponents tacitly concede this notion of truth, but tie themselves in knots trying to show that the Bible and Christian doctrine measure up to these standards.

In three chapters titled “Faith as the Way to Knowledge,” “Doubt as the Way to Certainty,” and “Certainty as the Way to Nihilism,” Newbigin surveys how Western theology and philosophy slipped away from the incarnational, personal approach to knowledge embodied in the gospel, and how the quest for certainty failed.

In the 13th century, reacting to the influence of Muslim rationalist philosophers like Averroes, St. Thomas Aquinas introduced a fateful two-tier scheme of truths that could be known by reason alone, and truths that required special revelation from God. It was inevitable, as scientific discoveries in the so-called secular realm progressed, that the truths of faith would come to occupy second-class status as private sentiments. Moreover, if there were a truth-seeking method that functioned apart from God, why would we need another method? “If philosophy has to be called in to underpin that knowledge of God which (it is claimed) comes by revelation; if, in other words, the religious experience of those apprenticed to the tradition which has its foundation in the biblical narrative is not itself a sufficient ground for certainty, so that other, more reliable grounds are to be sought; it follows that those other grounds must be completely reliable….But they are not.” (p.19) Science and philosophy constantly overturned old proofs with new arguments and evidence, leading 17th-century Europe into a crisis of skepticism.

In this climate, Descartes proposed to establish religious certainty on a foundation of radical doubt, reversing St. Augustine’s dictum that “I believe in order to understand.” That statement offends us today because Augustine seems to be begging the question. How can he find truth if he’s already chosen the conclusion he wants to reach? Heirs of the Cartesian worldview, we assume that the thinking subject is the only active participant, and everything else is just data. But really, how could we expect an impersonal method to give us knowledge of the God of the Bible, who is a supremely personal God? The God of the philosophers, by definition, can’t walk into the room and tell us something we couldn’t have figured out for ourselves. Newbigin’s insight is that the Cartesian epistemology, no less than the Augustinian, predetermines the types of answers that will be considered legitimate.

In retrospect, it wasn’t inevitable that Descartes chose abstract thought as the bedrock of our knowledge of reality. He could have said “I love, therefore I am” or “I act, therefore I am”. “By isolating the thinking mind as though it existed apart from its embodiment in a whole person and thus apart from the whole human and cosmic history to which that person belongs, Descartes opened up a huge gap between the world of thought and the world of material things and historical happenings.” (p.22) This mind-body dualism, long rejected by science, persists today in popular thought about religion and ethics, from the liberal church’s scorning theology in favor of political and charitable work, to John Rawls’ attempt to define a just society based on procedural values alone (the famous “veil of ignorance“).

By making doubt seem morally and philosophically superior to faith, Newbigin argues, Enlightenment thought ultimately led us into an impasse where no knowledge seems reliable:

The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd. Both faith and doubt are necessary elements in this adventure.  One does not learn anything except by believing something, and — conversely — if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relation between the two cannot be reversed. Knowing always begins with the opening of our minds and our senses to the great reality which is around us and which sustains us, and it always depends on this from beginning to end. (p.25)
It was left to Nietzsche to pull the thread that unraveled the Enlightenment’s sweater. Rational criticism rests on beliefs which themselves are open to criticism by the same method. The “eternal truths of reason” depend on uncriticized axioms which are the product of particular historical and personal developments. If truth is defined as that which cannot be logically deconstructed, there is no truth, just competing expressions of the will to power. Hence the postmodern skepticism and emotionalism in which we now find ourselves.

The Christian epistemology sketched by Newbigin perfectly matches the Christian understanding of sin, grace and human nature. That is why conservative Christians who claim to possess Enlightenment-style infallibility about religious doctrine are also misguided.

If we are to use the word “certainty” here, then it is not the certainty of Descartes. It is the kind of certainty expressed in such words as those of the Scriptures: “I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12). Note here two features of this kind of assurance which distinguish it from the ideal of certainty we have inherited from the Age of Reason. In the first place, the locus of confidence (if one may put it so) is not in the competence of our own knowing, but in the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known….Secondly, the phrase “until that day” reminds us that this is not a claim to possess final truth but to be on the way that leads to the fullness of truth….(p.67)

When we speak of God’s self-revelation, we are certainly speaking of more than information and even invitation: we are speaking of reconciliation, of atonement, and of salvation. Our discussion so far has assumed that we are, so to speak, competent to undertake the search for truth — this has been the unquestioned assumption of modernity….The call, so often heard in ringing tones, to “follow truth at all costs,” assumes that we are so made that we know what it is that we are seeking and that we shall recognize it when we find it. Here we have to come to that part of the whole Christian tradition against which the Age of Reason most strenuously took up arms. At the heart of the story of the ministry of Jesus as interpreted by the Fourth Evangelist, there occurs an encounter between Jesus and those of his hearers who had believed in him. It is reported that he said, “If you continue in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31). Here we seem to have a direct reversal of one of the axioms of modernity, namely, that freedom of inquiry, freedom to think and speak and publish, is the way — the only way — to the truth. Jesus appears to reverse this. Truth is not a fruit of freedom; it is the precondition for freedom. It is not surprising that it was these words of Jesus which (according to the Fourth Gospel) precipitated an attempt to kill him….

We are not honest inquirers seeking the truth. We are alienated from truth and are enemies of it. We are by nature idolaters, constructing images of truth shaped by our own desires. This was demonstrated once and for all when Truth became incarnate, present to us in the actual being and life of the man Jesus, and when our response to this truth incarnate, a response including all the representatives of the best of human culture at that time and place, was to seek to destroy it. (pp.68-69)

Newbigin’s insight helps explain why the liberal churches have been so eager to water down the doctrines of the incarnation, the atonement, and original sin. For all the political self-flagellation that goes on in liberal sermons about the ethics of Jesus, our central idol — our own moral competence — remains intact. Virtue is within our reach as long as we make more material sacrifices. The modernist worldview attacks the gospel miracles, ostensibly to defend the obvious benefits of science and free inquiry, but really because facing the radical corruption of human nature is intolerable unless we place an equally radical confidence in God’s grace.

The conflict between the Bible and the Enlightenment is only secondarily about Darwin versus Genesis and all the other issues in the “culture wars”. It is about truth-as-propositions versus truth-as-story. At the beginning of the modern era, we decided that universal principles discovered by reason were more reliable than the particular historical narrative which the Bible records and which it calls us to continue. Now that those principles no longer look so universal, we doubt the possibility of all knowledge. The church’s task is not to justify the Bible story according to modernist principles, but to make our lives witnesses to Christian truth in action.

The business of the church is to tell and to embody a story, the story of God’s mighty acts in creation and redemption and of God’s promises concerning what will be in the end. The church affirms the truth of this story by celebrating it, interpreting it, and enacting it in the life of the contemporary world. It has no other way of affirming its truth. If it supposes that its truth can be authenticated by reference to some allegedly more reliable truth claim, such as those offered by the philosophy of religion, then it has implicitly denied the truth by which it lives. In this sense, the church shares the postmodernists’ replacement of eternal truths with a story. But there is a profound difference between the two. For the postmodernists, there are many stories, but no overarching truth by which they can be assessed. They are simply stories. The church’s affirmation is that the story it tells, embodies, and enacts is the true story and that others are to be evaluated by reference to it. (p.76)

Newbigin calls on fundamentalists to abandon their fear of error, their reification of the Bible as a set of objective “facts” whose authority stands or falls together.

At every point in the story of the transmission of biblical material from the original text to today we are dealing with the interaction of men and women with God. At every point, human judgment and human fallibility are involved, as they are involved in every attempt we make today to act faithfully in new situations. The idea that at a certain point in this long story a line was drawn before which everything is divine word and after which everything is human judgment is absurd…. (p.86)

The manner in which Jesus makes the Father known is not in infallible, unrevisable, irreformable statements. He did not write a book which would have served forever as the unquestionable and irreformable statement of the truth about God. He formed a community of friends and shared his life with them. He left it to them it be his witnesses, and — as we know — their witness has come to us in varied forms; we know about very few of the words and deeds of Jesus with the kind of certainty Descartes identified with reliable knowledge. To wish that it were otherwise is to depart from the manner in which God has chosen to make himself known. The doctrine of verbal inerrancy is a direct denial of the way in which God has chosen to make himself known to us as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (p.89)

Whether one accepts or rejects the gospel, then, the quest for truth is never without personal risk. Both liberals and fundamentalists have tried and failed to establish perspective-independent knowledge. If anyone has such knowledge, it would be God alone. Ultimately, the search for truth depends on trust that ultimate reality wants to be known by us. The story of God’s self-giving love in Christ is the best story we’ve found to base that trust upon.

Saving Jesus (Episode 8): Passion and Compassion

The theme of this week’s Saving Jesus class was “Jesus’ ministry of compassion”, but the most fruitful part of the class was the discussion period, when our minister asked us to talk about the greatest acts of compassion we’d experienced or witnessed. This invitation was met with a silent, reflective period that gave rise to a further question: why was it so hard to come up with examples of spectacular compassion? Probably because true compassion doesn’t call attention to itself. Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees who made a big show of their alms-giving.

Com-passion literally means “together-suffering”; the central fact for you in this moment is the other person’s pain, not your need to be a helper or even your unselfish impulse to solve her problems. In its purest form, it means gratuitously descending into a place of suffering and helplessness, simply in order to be present with someone else who didn’t choose to be in that same place.

Jesus’ ministry of compassion, then, can be seen to go beyond the earthly works of mercy that were the sole focus of this week’s video. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, KJV)

This series is at its best when it reminds us of the difference between God’s kingdom and Caesar’s. One of the obstacles to compassion is our fear of powerlessness. As one of the class participants said, we’re afraid to acknowledge the other’s suffering because it reminds us of our own. In a situation of oppression, moreover, compassion looks like a luxury we can’t afford. On the DVD, Prof. Luther Smith argued that Jesus gave oppressed people the key to a spiritual power greater than any political force that was exercised against them. Whatever their worldly situation, they always had the freedom to wield God’s power of love, by seeing the oppressor as a fellow human being even when calling him to account for his sins.

For a modern-day, psychologically nuanced and safe model of compassion in abusive relationships, I recommend the Boundaries series by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and the book Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Linn. Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance explores the interplay of compassion for self and others from a Buddhist perspective, but Christians will recognize many points of commonality.

I’ll be absent from next week’s class (no doubt to the delight of my minister) because I’ll be attending a reading of this book, but will try to borrow the DVD after hours so I can find out “Who Killed Jesus?” (Hint: It wasn’t Kristin Shepard.)

Update on the Human Condition

Two quotes today that sum up my current philosophy of life. The first is from Catholic blogger Cacciaguida‘s review of “Breach“, the new movie about FBI agent/Russian spy Robert Hanssen:

The world is not in fact divided between the pure and the impure (or take any other matched set of a virtue and its corresponding vice): it’s made up of impure people who acknowledge the obligations of purity and try to meet them, and impure people who don’t.
The second comes from the blog of award-winning poet and fiction writer Sally Bellerose, talking about what she’s learned from her experience of chronic illness (her own ulcerative colitis and her father’s dementia):

People need to feel safe.  I sure do. Who wants to be reminded that we are soft-skinned vulnerable creatures? For security sake we need to feel in control of our environment and our selves. All kinds of conditions threaten that control. What could be more basic than the need to feel safe in our bodies? That we are born dependent can’t be denied, but a few years after birth, control of bodily function is a given for most people. Disease, disability, any condition that takes away that baseline of corporal control is a kind of body betrayal to the person affected and an unsolicited reminder to the well and the unwell that humans are vulnerable and that (forgive the very bad pun) ‘shit happens’. But things do go wrong. All bodies refuse to work as desired at some time or other. As humans, we don’t want to be confronted with the fact that no amount of research, medical break-through, or new technology is going to keep our bodies from eventually breaking down.

We are at risk, some more than others, but not just four year-olds getting spanked for a situation beyond her control, or old folks with a confirmed diagnosis, all of us, at one time or another. Most people are not happy to be reminded of their own frailty. I think most chronic illness, but especially conditions like UC, which exposes the messiness of life, scare people because they are forced to consider their own tenuous bodies. People who are well want to believe that disease happens to other people, other people who have somehow lost control, older people or people with less access to care, people unlike themselves.

But it’s not just UC that people fear. My real life dad has Alzheimer’s. I write, sometimes, about a demented dad. People often ask, “How do you feel about exposing your father in print?” They mean, “How could you possibly disrespect your dad by portraying his dementia?” For expedience and self protection I lean on the, “I write fiction,” answer. I really “feel” that dad suffers from an extreme of a universal condition. All people in the real and imagined world are a bit doddering. Our minds, like our bodies, just don’t always do what we want them to do. This is not news to anyone with an iota of self awareness. No one escapes this human condition. If you think you are never weak-minded, you are, at the least, in jeopardy of being a bore.

Say you won a Pulitzer in Literature at 30, and died in a car crash at 32; some part of you died mentally frail. You may have been successful at keeping your fragility from your editors, publishers, and readers, but something in you was teetering and foolish. Like failures of our GI tracts, whether in a big way as happens with UC or in a more contained and only occasional way, as happens with an intestinal virus, all our systems fail all of us, in greater and lesser ways.
It’s to Sally’s credit that she can make this sound like good news. Which, in a strange sort of way, it is.