Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 5)

"Brotvermehrungskirche BW 3" by Berthold Werner - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
This morning I was reading in Matthew's gospel the story of Jesus' miraculous feeding of five thousand.   Matthew locates this sign directly after the death of John the Baptist: after the banquet which Herod gives  (which turns out to be no celebration for him but a feast of shame and death), Jesus is host at a different kind of meal, showcasing a different sort of abundance...

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)

Friday, May 23, 2014

After Diagnosis

'Earth' photo (c) 2009, tonynetone - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Someone told me that your life splits into B.C. and A.D.   That's Before Cancer and After Diagnosis.

That's a tad melodramatic for me.  But the moment after diagnosis really is one when, all of a sudden, the world looks completely different.  Suddenly, going on with life as usual is no longer a possibility.  The default option is no longer an option.

Of course I still do have an option not to accept treatment.  I could say that the side effects seem too unpleasant, or that getting treatment shows a lack of faith, or indeed that the medical establishment is just out to make money by tormenting its patients.  But declining treatment would not magic me back to the world B.C.

No, even though cancer treatment is scary and unpleasant - even though it is full of uncertainties and probabilities - even though there is a huge amount we don't know - the right thing for me to do is to follow the best advice I can obtain, to take this journey through chemo and radiation.  Once I understand that the default option is no longer an option, it becomes clear that treatment - the fear-laden, disruptive option - is the right option.

The ancients made an analogy between the microcosm (the human body) and the macrocosm (the whole planet).  Seems to me that regarding human-caused climate change and environmental degradation, the macrocosm is also living in the period After Diagnosis.

The question is whether we are able to accept and act on the claim that "the default option (business as usual) is no longer an option."   Will we take the scary road to treatment?  Or will we keep trying to wish ourselves back to B.C.?


A couple of other pieces making the same analogy at greater length:
Image from Wylio.com

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Health update

Life on the edge
It's the fourth Sunday after Easter.  Cranmer's collect for this week is one of my favorite prayers:
O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
It's also two weeks since Liane and I learned that I have cancer.  An operation on April 28th removed a carcinoma of the parotid gland - that is one of the glands in your neck, below your ear, which make saliva. The operation will be followed up by radiation therapy and chemotherapy, which will begin on June 2nd.

Life can change in a moment (a true "point of inflection").  And yet where true joys are to be found does not change.  They never were in the now-threatened future accomplishments, the memorials I might dream of building.  They are hid with Christ in God, in his eternal present.

I'll mingle some updates and information about how I'm getting on with the other reflections on this blog.  I hope that will be okay for readers: of course, feel free to skip the more personal stuff if you don't know me and/or it is TMI for now.

Grace and peace


Saturday, May 17, 2014

At Bertram's Hotel

Towards the end of her long reign as England's Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie wrote a book which seems, at first, to be an exercise in pure nostalgia: At Bertram's Hotel

Miss Marple, the village detective whom Agatha Christie introduced more than thirty years before in Murder at the Vicarage, is now old and frail, and the apparently immutable background of her life - with its minor gentry, its middle-class gossip, and indeed its Vicarage - has gone down like hay before the scythe.  By courtesy of her nephew she spends a couple of weeks in London at Bertram's Hotel, where it seems that the social certainties still hold in full force:
..you felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world.  You were in Edwardian England once more.
At Bertram's, seed cake is still served for tea, sundry aristocrats and clerics populate the dining room, and breakfast is delivered by "a real chambermaid looking unreal... a smiling, rosy, countrified face.  Where did they find these people?"  The reader, lulled into an indulgent sympathy with the author who seems to be allowing her alter ego to enjoy they pleasures of a vanished age one last time,   misses the insistent sounding of the note of unreality.  What was once (in Miss Marple's youth) the ordinary way that her world operated has been simulated, by artifice and at considerable cost.  By the end of the book we understand that Bertram's is a facade for an elaborate conspiracy: a work of art, but, as Miss Marple remarks, "it is sad when a work of art has to be destroyed".

I was enjoying the book again just a few days ago when it occurred to me what a clear-eyed view of a certain temptation the book presents.  Within the world of the novel, we don't presume to question the lifestyle of Miss Marple's youth.  But she is sensitive enough to realize  that, whatever its past, it cannot be continued into the present without one's becoming an accomplice, even if unwittingly, in an extractive criminal enterprise.  Bertram's Hotel can serve as a metaphor for other unreal facades powered by extraction.  We may expect to see more of them.


The video above is of the incomparable Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the BBC adaptation of At Bertram's Hotel.

IMO, the best critical analysis of Agatha Christie's novels is Robert Barnard's A Talent to Deceive.  As Barnard points out, there are other novels in which Christie enlists the reader's sympathy for social stability as a device to mislead, most notably The Patriotic Murders (=One, Two, Buckle My Shoe in UK).

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hardy and Beck

I was reading Richard Beck's new book The Slavery of Death last week (I love everything this guy writes - head over to his blog Experimental Theology for more). With his trademark blend of theological and psychological analysis, Beck explores the idea that "our slavery to the fear of death often manifests as idolatry, as service rendered to suprahuman forces", such as apparently durable and meaning-making institutions, cultures, or value systems.

And he argues that it is insofar as I receive my identity as a gift from outside myself, through Christ the kenotic giver, that I am set free from the fear of failure, or meaninglessness, which are so pervasive in our world and which Beck would see as neurotic mutations of the basic fear of death itself.

The mechanism that Beck identifies seems to be involved in the questions we've been thinking about under the heading "Creation and Meaning", where I've referred to the threat to the "meaning-making project of the future" posed by the scientific news that humanity's current planet-wide growth trajectory is probably unsustainable.

It's also visible in ordinary professional life.  In A Mathematician's Apology, Hardy writes
Mathematical fame, if you have the cash to pay for it, is one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.
But his argument doesn't seem able to assuage his anxiety
 Yet how painful it is to feel that, with all these advantages, one may fail. I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100 . A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down books, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell
could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia Mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated.…
In the Apology, Hardy begins by describing himself as "a man who sets out to justify his existence and activities".  For years, I have hardly been able to read those words without a tear.  Thank God that the business of "justifying  our existence and activities" does not rest with us.