ON THE LINE:

The Revelations of Simone Weil: Like Alexei Navalny, she embodied her ideals despite the personal cost. (Megan Dent, Feb 25, 2024, The Dispatch)

Some may associate theology with cloisters, and mysticism with escapism. Many may associate philosophy with classrooms. Simone Weil combusts these associations. She refused to advance ideas that she had not lived or, more specifically, that she had not substantiated with her own body in the coarse complexity of the real world. She remained tenaciously committed to reality—its pain, its unpalatability, its contradictions—for all of her short and remarkable life. “She didn’t only make very strong comments, she went out and did them, which absolutely astounded people,” one scholar said recently.

In recent days, many have been similarly astounded by the example of Alexei Navalny returning to Russia in 2021, into the hands of those who’d poisoned him and who would eventually kill him. Freedom in Russia was no mere idea for Navalny. It was a hope that he carried back to his country in his own body, the novichok barely out of his bloodstream.

Much of our own politics has become the opposite: disembodied. Reductive answers to intractable questions are the bread and butter of the internet. Never has it been easier to assert, with utter conviction, ideas that are simply untethered from the irreconcilable qualities of reality. This can lead to profound dishonesty—to lies about the world as it really is. Often those making the strongest claims have the least to lose. Their own bodies aren’t on the line.

But Weil, by contrast, embodied paradoxes, evading simple political or ideological definitions. She was, in the apt words of a recent biographer, “an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, [and] a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery.”

hIS LONELINESS WAS SINFUL:

The Bible suggests even God gets lonely. Why don’t religious people talk more about it? (Dwight Lee Wolter, 1/18/24, RNS)

Yet rarely is loneliness mentioned explicitly in the Bible or in our churches. It is implied, but not declared. The often dire consequences of loneliness are seen, felt and heard but not acknowledged.

Did you ever wonder if Eve and Adam, after their banishment, were lonely for the Garden of Eden? I would have been. Were Eve and Adam lonely for their son, Abel, who was killed by his brother Cain? Was anyone on the ark, including Noah, lonely for home as they drifted on an endless sea of darkness and uncertainty? Was it out of loneliness that Jesus cried from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” I cannot imagine a lonelier place or a lonelier question on the lips of a lonelier person.

UNIFIED ON THE CROSS, BY SEPARATION:

“God’s Own Descent”: Dante, the Incarnation, & Frost’s “The Trial by Existence” (Myah Gebhard, February 6th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

However, Frost introduces his own poetic shift in these braided traditions by suddenly plunging into an incarnational focus at the end of the poem with the Christological figure of the brave soul. In the sixth stanza, he writes, “Nor is there wanting in the press / Some spirit to stand simply forth / Heroic in its nakedness, / Against the uttermost of earth…./ And the mind whirls and the heart sings, / And a shout greets the daring one…. / And the awe passes wonder then, / and a hush falls for all acclaim.”25 Frost’s previous reference to the daring souls as those “that are slain” and the description of this choice as a “sacrifice” is strongly reminiscent of the thirteenth chapter of Revelation, where silence falls in heaven before Christ appears as the Lamb “slain before the foundation of the world.”26 Scholar Cai Pei-Lin has noted that, besides the biblical resonances, Frost also appears to allude here to Milton’s figure of the Son of God.27 In Book III of Paradise Lost, God asks if anyone in heaven is willing to descend to earth to “redeem / Man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save.” The angels stand “mute / And silence was in heaven,” until the Son stands forth to become mortal flesh for man’s sake, telling the Father: “Behold me then: me for him, life for life / I offer…. / Account me Man; I for his sake will leave / Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee / Freely put off.”28

Frost’s allusion to Milton indicates that the sacrifice of this soul that all the other spirits behold at the top of the mountain is, in fact, the sacrifice of the Son of God in becoming flesh. Pei-Lin has also noted that Frost’s later description in “The Trial by Existence” of this event as God breaking “a flower of gold” is another reference to Milton. Further on in Book III, after the Son has declared his intention to become incarnate, Milton moves into a description of amaranth and gold as flowers connected with the Tree of Life and divinity itself: “Their crowns inwove with amaranth and gold / Immortal amaranth, a flower which once / In Paradise, fast by the tree of life / Began to bloom, but soon for man’s offence / To Heaven removed where first it grew, there grows / And flowers aloft shading the fount of life.”29 The association of this golden flower with the Son means that its “breaking” in the final stanzas points to a certain cruciform move inherent in the Incarnation itself. Thus, Frost pushes past Dante’s reticence by emphasizing that the vision at the top of this purgatorial-type mountain is Christ: in other words, the beatific vision is God-in-the-flesh. The human souls in his poem ascend the cliffs in order to look with “awe [passing] wonder” on Christ as the “brave soul” that chose to become flesh and broken for our binding together.30

From this turn towards the Incarnation, Frost moves into a deeply sacramental view of the world, one in which spirit and matter are irrevocably knitted together and purified by Christ’s presence. After describing the Son of God as a broken flower of gold, Frost continues to explain that God has used this broken flower as “the mystic link to bind and hold / Spirit to matter until death come.”31 Christ is portrayed here as ultimately fulfilling what Frost sees as the essential poetic vocation: to unite spirit and matter. The Incarnation is the final word, there will never be a future in which the spiritual is disconnected from the material. For Frost, paradise cannot be the place where one beholds pure spirit; instead, it is the place where one is finally able to experience their full unification in a divine affirmation of creation and matter.

In the last stanza, Frost turns to the experience of earthly life. Although spirit and matter are bound together in Christ as the broken flower, this does not mean that persons have this perception during their life. In fact, forgetfulness and lack of perception are a key aspect of earthly suffering. Frost draws attention to this in his recognition that “the essence of life here” is “still to lack / The lasting memory at all clear, / That life has for us on the wrack / Nothing but what we somehow chose.”32 These lines express how earthly life is often characterized by an inability to perceive meaning or freedom within suffering; Frost thinks this is because we cannot remember our own will to become enfleshed. However, he finds comfort in the fact that we are not alone in the suffering of earthly experience: “in the pain” there is “one close, / Bearing it crushed and mystified.”33

The description of this “one” as “crushed” and “bearing” human pain immediately recalls the image of Christ as the crushed flower in the previous stanza. His sharing in human flesh means that he is capable of being “close” in human suffering, and this proximity of divine presence is capable of transforming that experience. Frost’s grammar here is creatively ambiguous: one can read “crushed and mystified” as applying both to Christ himself and to the pain that is borne. This connection reinforces the idea of transformation. The descriptor “crushed” alludes to the breaking of the flower and also likely to Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ as “crushed” for man’s healing.34 The description “mystified” likewise contains a multilayered significance. Its more modern and common meaning of confusion echoes the forgetfulness of human experience that Frost attended to earlier in the poem. However, it also has the etymological source and older meaning of “full of mystery,” “mystical… of secret rites,” and mystic as “one who has been initiated.”35 This reading of the word in Frost’s final line emphasizes the sacramental significance of human experience and all of physical creation. Finally, Frost says that it is through this union that we are “wholly stripped of pride.”36 The binding together of spirit and matter allows for a process of purification that is a creative reworking of Dante’s Purgatorio, closely linking purgation as well as paradise closely to earth.

“The Trial by Existence” is an example of Frost’s strong and brilliant reworking of Dante’s poetic tradition in his own work. He incorporates many of Dante’s images, but he also pushes past the ending silence of Paradiso by making the incarnate Christ the sight at the top of the mountain. For Frost, the Incarnation is the religious pinnacle and affirmation of his poetic vocation to unite spirit and matter. It means that no matter how deeply one may enter into the spiritual, one never gets beyond the physical: they always mutually reveal one another. The religious concept of a sacrament or mystery expresses this very thing and is thus deeply incorporated into the ending of Frost’s poem. These theological themes make sense of the way that Frost continually uses his poetry to ascend to the highest spiritual places and yet always return with the conviction that “Earth’s the right place for love,” for Christ is the one in both these movements come together: in which divine descent and human ascent are united.37

It required Christ’s despair for the unification to occur.

WITCH HUNTS ARE A FUNCTION OF WITCHES:

How Witches Shifted from Daily Healers to Heretics and Dangerous Women Under Christian Rule (Marion Gibson, January 22, 2024, LitHub)

In early history, magic was considered to be a power innate in healers, shamans, and religious leaders across multiple cultures. It allowed them to go beyond natural abilities, to change the world in inexplicable ways. Communities would have several such magical workers, combining medical and priestly roles.

There was no clear line between their magical healing and harming, since good and bad magic were two aspects of the same force. On Monday a user of magic might bless you, on Thursday they might curse you—that was just how things were. If you felt a magically gifted person was using that force to do harm, you might vilify them as a “witch”—a user of evil magic—and you might hold a local trial and mandate repentance. You might banish or kill the witch if their crimes were unacceptable.

But witchcraft accusations would not spread widely, and, on the whole, you would not begin to believe all magic was evil. Some societies were concerned about this possibility—the ancient Greeks and Romans feared magic was inherently ungodly—but most retained a blurry notion that magic could be a force for good.

This changed in Europe during the medieval period, when a new theological science was established: the study of devils or demons, appropriately called “demonology.” By the 1400s, the Christian clergymen who developed demonology had convincingly claimed a unique insight into the workings of the cosmos and God’s will. Now, demonologists argued, witchcraft was not just good magic gone bad; it was envisioned as a career committed to wickedness, setting itself against the church.

YOU CAN’T BE BOTH CHRISTIAN AND IDENTITARIAN:

Christian theology and identity politics (Martin Davie, 16 January 2024, Christianity Today)

[F]rom the standpoint of Christian theology the whole idea of dividing the world into good people and bad people has to be seen as completely mistaken. The reason this is the case is that the Christian faith, based on the teaching of the Bible, holds that every human being, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ, is a bad person in the sense that they are a sinner against God and their neighbour.

This basic Christian conviction is well expressed in To be a Christian, the catechism published by the Anglican Church in North America in 2020. The section on ‘Salvation’ in this new catechism declares:

“1.What is the human condition? Though created good and made for fellowship with our Creator, humanity has been cut off from God by self-centred rebellion against him, leading to lawless living, guilt, shame, death, and the fear of judgement. This is the state of sin. (Genesis 3:1–13; Psalm 14:1–3; Matthew 15:10–20; Romans 1:18–23; 3:9–23).”

The key point to note is that all human beings are sinners. In the words of Paul in Romans 3:23 ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ This applies to rich and poor alike, men and women alike, white, black and brown people alike, and heterosexual people and sexual minorities alike.

The consequence of this fact is that although we can (and must) distinguish between the deeds that people perform and say that some are good and some are bad, we cannot divide the world into good and bad people.

We cannot say that we are good while others are bad. As Jesus made clear, all we can ever say is ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). We also cannot say of other people that X is good, and Y is bad. Viewed against God’s standards, everyone is bad. Thus, the conflict in the Middle East is not between bad Israelis and good Palestinians (or conversely between bad Palestinians and good Israelis).

From what I have said thus far it might appear that Christianity takes a very pessimistic view of things since it says that we are all sinners and all we can look forward to is ‘darkness, misery and eternal condemnation.’ However, three further things need to be considered.

First, even if Christianity is pessimistic this does not mean that it is wrong. If we are honest about ourselves, we know that we do not live as we should and that therefore, to quote C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, if God exists and is absolutely good he ‘must hate most of what we do…. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves his enemies.’

Secondly, while insisting that we are all sinners, the Bible, and mainstream Christian theology following the Bible, has always insisted that because they have been created by God in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27) fallen women and men retain an awareness of the distinction between good and evil, and an ability, albeit limited, to perform morally good actions. It is because that is the case that it is realistic from a Christian point of view to seek to ask people to take action to at least mitigate the consequences of conflicts such as the current conflict in the Middle East. That is not asking for the impossible.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Christianity offers hope for everyone.

THERE IS NO “OTHER”:

Nathanael’s Epiphany (Malcolm Guite, January 13th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)


The Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Epiphany (John 1:43-51) takes us to one of the most mysterious and beautiful moments in the New Testament. As the disciples begin to gather around Jesus, Philip finds Nathanael and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) Nathanael’s unpromising response is ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Nathanael is not alone in having this kind of bigoted and prejudiced attitude to ‘other’ places and people…

BECAUSE HUMANS CAN’T BE TRUSTED WITH IT:

Public support for the death penalty is still at its low. Here’s why. (JOHN SIDES , JANUARY 3, 2024, Good Authority)

[A]merican support for the death penalty remains low. That is the conclusion of an October 2023 Gallup poll, which didn’t get much headline coverage. In that poll, only 53% of Americans favored “the death penalty for a person convicted of murder,” while 44% opposed it.

This is basically where opinion has been for the past 7 years, which represents a nearly 30-point decline from the high point of support in the early 1990s.

THE RIDICULOUS SUBLIME:

When the Culture Wars Came for Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “A film so funny they banned it in Norway!” (Kliph Nesteroff, December 8, 2023, LitHub)

As soon as it was released, Life of Brian was besieged by religious fundamentalists. Orthodox rabbis were the first to protest, objecting to a prayer shawl worn by John Cleese at the start of the film.

“It was the first scene to raise any protests,” said Terry Jones. “We always thought we were going to get protests from Christians, but in fact the first lot of protests we got [were] from the … Rabbinical Association of New York.”

Politicians connected to the evangelical movement suggested that the members of Monty Python be tried for blasphemy.

Idle said, “The rabbis went away as quickly as they had appeared and were replaced by angry Christians, who picketed the Burbank Studios in LA, claiming that Warner Bros. were the agents of the devil.”

Blasphemy charges were seldom successful in the modern age. Organized evangelical groups figured they’d have better success if they attacked the film on grounds of obscenity. A half-second glimpse of Graham Chapman’s penis led to a court order which suppressed Life of Brian in the state of Georgia due to “lewd exhibition of genitals.”

The movie was banned in Shreveport, Alabama, outlawed in Alexandria, Louisiana, and harassed in South Carolina.

“The film held up to deliberate ridicule my faith in Jesus Christ and made fun of His suffering,” said Presbyterian minister William Solomon. “It was cruel and sarcastic, but it was not art.” Solomon contacted South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond for help. Thurmond insisted the film distributor withdraw the film, telling them, “My folks take their religion very seriously.” The distributor replied, “We take our freedoms very seriously, too.”

It’s not as if they could top the moment on the Cross where God asks why God has forsaken Him for hillarity.