Friday, October 02, 2009

Mystery

Our lives are suffused with it, and one of life's mysteries is why, if the Free Library of Philadelphia is going to host such compelling speakers as Karen Armstrong and James Ellroy, and if it insists on ending the programs at the library's normal closing hour of 9 p.m., it does not begin the evenings earlier than 7:30.

Quite a number of audience members' questions went unasked, and mine, at least, would have been good. I'd have asked this scholar of comparative religion, this preacher of compassion, this advocate of religious practice and of the ineffable that lies behind the words we use to delineate the divine, why the scriptures of the three religions she discusses most (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) so seldom if ever acknowledge the mysteries that lie at their own heart. Why has it been left for rabbis, exegetes, sages, interpreters and scholars of later times to do so? (And why, one might add, do the oldest Indian scriptures explicitly embody mysteries in ways that Western ones do not?)

Armstrong's current initiative is the Charter of Compassion, and this reminded me of one of the unforgettable crime novels of recent years.

We now return you to our regular programming.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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50 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

I have read several of Karen Armstrong's works and have a number of others by her on my TBR list. She's a remarkable person and scholar.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

I'm becoming familiar with Ken Bruen's work after half the people I spoke to at last year's Bouchercon told me I should. Read THE GUARDS over the holidays and wasn't sure how I felt about it. (Mononucleosis may have had something to do with my ambivalence.) This spring I read PRIEST, and it put the hook in me big time.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

So you went, then, Peter. I'm sorry you didn't get to ask your question, as I think she would have had something interesting to say about it.

I had a similar experience at the L.A. library--a great talk, but then armed policemen were around ready to hustle out of the building immediately afterwards. Very unfriendly vibe. It seemed an odd way to treat a bunch of lit lovers. Though I suppose that is highly suspect these days.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I'd previously read her book about Islam. I quite liked it, though I thought she strayed a bit when she slipped into prescriptions for the current state of affairs in the Middle East. She has quite an interesting background, as reflected in her wisecracks about the Pope and about how Christianity treats women and sexuality. She has a refreshingly broad point of view that might be especially salutary for people who might otherwise be intimidated by religion.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, we may react similarly to the Bruen oeuvre. I was lukewarm about the Jack Taylor novels I'd read before Priest. I have always liked Bruen's Brant and Roberts novels and the three books he has written with Jason Starr for Hard Case Crime, especially Bust and The Max.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I don't want to overstate the atmosphere at the Philadelphia library. There was no tension or hostility, just a bit of a rush, including the event manager's welcome injunction to audience members to phrase their questions as questions. Any police wore plain clothes and concealed their weapons thoroughly.

The event started a bit late, and Karen Armstrong likes to answer questions at some length, which added to the event manager's haste. But I will suggest that the library consider beginning its evening events half an hour earlier.

Who was the speaker in Los Angeles who necessitated such security measures?

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, my immediate inspiration for the mystery question was the first chapter to a book by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, whom you had mentioned.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

It was actually the library they were protecting, not the people, but it was Mark Salzman interviewing Lawrence Weschler--a UCSC grad, by the way. They are pals and it was very lively.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd assumed that with security like that, at least one leader of a G-20 country must have been speaking. Or maybe a leader of the Axis of Evil.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I've read _The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity)

_The Great Transformation_ (changes in thinking within 500 years before Christ in India, China, Greece, and the Mediterranean)


On my TBR list are

_In the Beginning: a new interpretation of Genesis_

and

_A History of God_, the 4000 year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I bought The Great Transformation at the reading, and I've just started it. I like Armstrong's insistence, both at her talk and in the beginning of The Great Transformation, that faith is not a matter of believing a given set of creedal propositions. This has the potential to make us all better readers of religious texts and maybe, if one is inclined that way, better practitioners of religion -- better people, Armstrong might say.

Incidentally, Richard Dawkins is speaking at the library in three weeks.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

No, just protecting their relatively new library from the rabble.

It will be interesting to compare Armstrong to Dawkins, should you happen to go.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In introducing Armstrong (and further eating into the available time), a local pastor praised public libraries for what they stand for and called for them to remain open in all senses of the word. Los Angeles apparently practices openness and was prepared for the consequences.

I don't think I'll be able to attend Dawkins' lecture. In any case, I'm told he's talking more about Darwin and less about God these days, which lessens the delight of the possible meeting onstage between him and Armstrong I'd envisioned. But there is much to be said about Darwin, of course. I'm an incompletist like you, but the opening chapters (all I've read) of The Descent of Man are unexpectedly moving, funny and even humble in their wonder.

October 02, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I can only speak of Christian mystery, and then with only the slightest understanding. An interest in very early Christianity and a couple of visits to the Arian churches of Byzantine Ravenna intrigued me enough to find out more about the Arian faith, condemned as heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325. "When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome," by Richard Rubenstein, 2000, is a very interesting book on this subject. Elaine Pagels’ "The Gnostic Gospels," most recent ed. 1989, also touches on the subject. Although the New Advent/Catholic Encyclopedia says that “the existence of theological mysteries…is clearly explained in Scripture,” (with proof texts cited under “Mystery”) I agree with you that Christian mysteries do not, at least today, receive the wide attention they did during the Middle Ages, for example (I’m thinking of the Medieval French mystery plays I read excerpts from in grad school). One reason for this might be the impact of the Council of Nicaea’s codification of Christian doctrine that sought, among other things, to solidify the power of the church and its clergy and to suppress individual spiritual search. Perhaps Renaissance Humanism and, later, the Age of Enlightenment, also took their toll on mystery. Unlike orthodox Christianity, I believe that Buddhism and Hinduism teach that spiritual enlightenment comes from within and perhaps this is one reason these faiths may "explicitly embody mysteries in ways that Western ones do not."

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Someone asked Karen Armstrong about the Gnostics. She had some interesting things to say, including some disapproval of their attitude toward the human body. She also said that she and Elaine Pagels will appear together on a panel in New York, which drew an ooh and ahh or two from the crowd.

Perhaps more pertinent to your question was Armstrong's invocation of the Trinity. In its origin, she said, this was not something to be taken literally, but rather an aid to meditation on the mystery, a kind of spiritual exercise.

My question occurred to be because Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a Jewish theologian, opens one of her books with an assertion, quoting Rashi, the leading traditional Jewish interpreter, to the effect that the creation account that opens Genesis says nothing about chronology, that it's more full of mystery, in other words, than one might expect.

I noticed, too, that when Karen Armstrong referred in passing during her talk to the first verse of Genesis, she did not use the King James Version's "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," but rather the more accurate (and more mysterious) "In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth."

October 02, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'm reminded of the many Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque works of art like Jan van Eyck's "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" or Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Theresa" as well as hundreds of portable triptychs, books of hours, etc. that were intended to serve as explicit visual aids "to meditation on the mystery" of (Christian) faith.

It sometimes seems that much of contemporary organized religious practice tends to distance itself from the mystery. Yet the mystery is, as you say, at the heart of faith/belief that separates it from knowledge and remains immensely appealing to a faith's adherents.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Karen Armstrong opened her lecture with the statement that painting and music provide the same sort of experience people once derived from religion. She expresses a similar statement in The Great Transformation, which I'm reading now.

Her current book proposes that, while rational thought is fine for science, it does not serve religion well. I think her villain is Isaac Newton, with his suggestion of a rationally designed universe.

October 02, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Pagels and Armstrong in the same panel? Now that would be worth attending.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

"Her current book proposes that, while rational thought is fine for science, it does not serve religion well."

Dawkins, in _The God Delusion_ quotes Martin Luther: "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God."

"Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason."

"Reason should be destroyed in all Christians."

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred said...
Pagels and Armstrong in the same panel? Now that would be worth attending.


I forget the name of the conference, but I do remember thinking the irreverent thought that it would be a kind of Religion With the Stars.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

From what little I know of Karen Armstrong, I suspect that she would find such violence of thought repugnant and antithetical to everything religion ought to be. She seems to have great respect for science, but not as a path to God.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I agree. Armstrong strikes me as being a nonviolent person. Unfortunately, there are too many on both sides of the aisle ready to step with the burning stake.




v-word: weepolog

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It will be interesting to see, if I read a fair bit of her work, where she finds textual and theological support for her ethically laudable position that real religion springs from compassion rather than from belief.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

It's been awhile, but I think she talks about the shift in human thinking that produced the great religious changes in the centuries before Christ. It's in her book _The Great Transformation_, the one you're reading now.

What was new was the sense of morality, of right and wrong actions, that arose in China, India, Greece, and the Mediterranean countries. Prior to that, or this is what I remember anyway, the gods demanded sacrifices and worship only.

I really should take it out of the library again.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

She thinks along those lines in the first chapter's section on India, which I have just finished reading. She seems to see the seeds of change in the metaphysical explorations in which the Aryans engaged even among all their violence, sacrifice and plunder.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Yes, I remember thinking the same thing. She saw a shift in thinking, but I'm not clear as to what caused it.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

Hey, I'm just glad the library is open at all. Sounded for a while as if the doors of Philadelphia's libraries would be locked indefinitely starting October 2nd.

Maybe you all can retire to a bar after the library closes at 9 and carry on.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Isn't Philadelphia the home of the first true public library in the U.S.? It would be both ironic and a bad omen if it were to close.

Karen Armstrong had some interesting things to say about the word belief in her radion talk. I can't quote it, but it has more to do with what one is willing to commit to than blanket acceptance of a list of tenets. It is more like active participation in something than passive acceptance.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I read the section on China last night. I don't think Karen Armstrong tries to find causes for the transformation. It would probably be difficult to argue a single cause to explain analogous spiritual transformations happening across such widely scattered territory. It's probably enough for her to examine what happen and to find its implications for today's world. I think that latter is what she's really up to.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara and Seana, I think that a closing of the libraries would have placed Philadelphia even further to the forefront of this country's retreat from First World status and into barbarism.

Seana, it sounds to me as if Karen Armstrong is good at staying on message. Yes to participation, no to passive acceptance of tenets is very much part of what she talked about in Philadelphia.

Barbara, it would be very cool to walk into a bar with a scholar of comparative religion and a horde of camp followers round about half past nine one evening. I always want to keep talking and discussing after such lectures, but I figure the poor guest just wants to get back and flop at his or her hotel.

That's one reason I like crime-fiction conventions: The talking never stops.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I guess to write about the cause(s) of the transformations would require another book, just as long as _The Great Transformations_. It would be an interesting one, though.

Why did those changes take place and why at approximately the same time in widely separated locations?

Something is the air or perhaps the various civilizations weren't as isolated as we tend to think they were. After all, Alex the Great did conquer parts of India. And, Buddhists had gotten to China, I think, prior to the beginning of the Christian era.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Oops.

That should have read "Something IN the air" not "Something is the air."

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And who can tell if one could do anything but speculate about the causes? And what does it mean to say the changes happenes at "approximately" the same time? Armstrong herself notes that historians no longer believe that the events in question were as nearly simulateneous as did the person who coined the term "Axial Age."

In any case, she's not taking a historian's approach; I don't think such matters concern her greatly.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Something is the air" has a nicely evocative, poetic ring to it.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

seana said... Karen Armstrong had some interesting things to say about the word belief in her radion talk.

Seana, in her Philadelphia talk, she noted the word's roots in words meaning "to love." She found this more attractive than the current meaning "to accept a given set of positions."

October 06, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, that was the gist of it, now that you remind me. I'd actually like to explore the word for myself, and maybe I will.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Love and belief are not often linked outside Monkees songs written by Neil Diamond. It would be interesting to explore the evolution of the word.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That would be a fruitful area of exploration for one of your blogs, and I'd guess that many readers would join you in confessing their ignorance.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Well, there aren't many readers to begin with, so that would come as quite a surprise to me. But I'll still probably post about it when I get a chance.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Many readers anywhere. I'd say most may not know about the love/believe connection or else have forgotten about it. The connection could give rise to all sorts of speculation and rumination on history and other weighty matters.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Well, Armstrong is certainly hoping for some rather big things when people rediscover the connection.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Love and Belief would make a good title for a book and an imaginative taking-off point.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I could maybe tackle the subject, but I'd as lief not.

October 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You fain would avoid the subject, would you? Ah, well. Perhaps it's the sort of subject best for setting one's mind wandering, as opposed to actually working.

October 07, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'm not sure how far some readers might want to pursue this thread, but...

Love and belief in the mystery of the Christian faith is the subject of the last chapter, "The Knowledge of Sensuous Intelligence," in Robert Louis Wilken's book "The Spirit of Early Christian Thought," 2003. The chapter title is taken from a poem by Geoffrey Hill. The chapter provides an overview of the meaning of "love", with esp. reference to the writings of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. The chapter is about 20 pp. long and I found it very useful to an understanding of the concept of "love" within early Christian thinking. And made me think about how far removed much of the organized practice of this faith today is from these early writers.

This in turn made me think of Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus (I just finished "Tooth and Nail"/"Wolfman") who, at least at the beginning of the series, wrestles with his Protestant faith as he tries to find a church that isn't too "hail, well met" or too dour for him. I'm curious to find out how, or if, Rebus resolves his dilemma.

October 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Origen -- yet another name invoked by Karen Armstrong in Philadelphia.

I've read three of the early Rebus novels, and I don't remember him wrestling with his faith. I have also just read Ian Rankin's new grapic novel, which takes place largely in Hell. This may be a clue to where Rankin's faith led him.

October 08, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yes, I wouldn't be too surprised if Rebus ends up becoming an atheist or at least an agnostic; Rankin doesn't seem too sympathetic of his character's religious yearnings. I do think a postmodern detective who practices any kind of religion is rather interesting, however, as it seems very uncommon in the genre.

Mind you, I'm not a Christian so I shouldn't presume to tell Rebus what to do but as I read about his discontent with church after church in Edinburgh I think he might be happiest in some kind of Bible study group rather than sitting in a pew listening to either a sap-happy or fire-and-brimstone sermon.

Rebus's promises to God to stop (or begin) doing such-and-such if only God will (fill in the blank) is probably familiar to many readers. They make me cringe and laugh at the same time.

And PS to another post. Caravaggio! One of the greatest painters of all time. So timeless he seems apart from his Early Baroque timeframe. I had to work with a text on the conservation of his paintings recently and it gave me the chance to look anew at some of his works. The quiet, dramatic intensity of "The Calling of St. Matthew" or "The Conversion of St. Paul" is, admittedly, more powerful than any Mannerist histrionics. (But I still love that Pontormo...).

October 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Rankin graphic novel is horror, though he would probably call it satire. At any rate, it's not a crime story, though the protagonist is a "paranormal detective." This detective is sent to investigate a house where a group of strangers is living as part of a reality television show, only the house is really Hell. Get the subtletly of it? Except for one chilling panel that shows that the old mansion is really on an indoor soundstage, the story doesn't amount to much. I certainly see no indication of deep religious thought on Rankin's part.

Caravaggio is probably the only seventeenth-century painter I've featured on this blog.

October 08, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I do, or rather did, know something about Early Christian writings at one point long ago. In fact, I actually did a presentation on Justin Martyr. For some reason, this entailed me dawning a fake beard and a toga of some sort--really my roommates closet curtain--and reading aloud from an "ancient text" of his writings.

No, no one else made their presentations that way. I still don't have any idea what anyone else made of it. Including the teacher. But he was a true eccentric, so I don't think he minded all that much.

I do remember Justin's writings being pretty interesting, though.


By the way, The Case for God hit the Indie bestseller list and is actually doing a pretty brisk business, all things considered.

October 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

God's big business these days. If he were to be reincarnated in human form, he'd certainly make onto Larry King's show, and he'd be interviewed by Bono, George Clooney or both as part of some "news"magazine's list of the most important people in the world.

I had never heard of Justin Martyr. In my youth I always like the word apologist. Quite a life, I thought, to go around saying, "Sorry!" all the time,

October 09, 2009  

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