Young man, I say to you, arise

I was recently reminded of having answered the question ‘How does belief in the resurrection affect the lives of Christians?’ with the response ‘It instills in them a casual disregard for traffic lights’. The same friend reminded me how, when explaining years later how I’d come to be a Christian myself, I’d talked about having difficulty organising things, and said that God had helped me with it. I will try now to make more adequate remarks on both topics.

Three years ago, I was dead. I was buried in bitter waters. Having betrayed a benefactor, I was sunk in ice, in the last ditch of the lowest circle. I rose, and now I live. I was happy in my first year at Oxford. I was thriving socially and academically, in what I still think of as a near-ideal environment. That happiness, however, was something of an anomaly for me. Up until then, I had tended to be lonely and I had tended to be sad. Oxford interrupted the pattern, but after a year, the novelty wore off, and the sadness returned.

When my second year began, I ran away. I didn’t pay my battels, and ignored all emails telling me to do so. My phone broke, and I didn’t fix it. People asked me what was up for a while, but then they stopped. Things carried on without me. I was supposed to help out with Inter-Collegiate Quiz competition, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t sign in to email or Facebook or communicate at all, really, and I ended up alone in my room most of the time, listening to Wagner and leaving only to buy necessities.

What was going on, exactly? I think I was failing to handle human relationships. This mostly manifested in anxiety about my responsibilities. The psychic strain of even looking at an email about quiz arrangements was beyond my capacity. To look at those emails was to look into the sender’s eyes as I let them down, and it was horrible. So too for work, for battels, for whatever. There were all these people out there, with whom I shared some kind of relationship, who imposed perfectly ordinary and legititmate demands on me, and I couldn’t stand it. Even the little labour of making and keeping plans with friends was too much. And so I ran away, back to my room and into myself.

There are several factors behind this failure. For one thing, I’m simply not a consientious person. The evidence, insofar as I understand it, suggests that there are five robust personality traits. Conscientiousness is one of them, and I lack it. Hence the anxieties about responsibility. Extraversion is another such trait, and I lack that too, which complicates the business of human relationship. The big five traits, however, are only the beginning of a personality. What matters is what we do with them. What I was doing had become toxic.

Where I had been insufficiently conscientious, I wasn’t just apologising and working either harder or smarter next time. It’s not that I didn’t care. I cared a lot, but in such a lop-sided way that I couldn’t process my failures. I preferred to fail catastrophically somewhere out of sight than to stand up in front of others and own a minor failure. I didn’t respond to my introversion by making a renewed effort to connect with others over what they care about, or to connect others to what I care about. I responded by telling myself that I was special, that I need not make the effort because other people were unworthy of it. Loyal student of Bill Wood’s that I am, I engaged in Pascalian self-deception. I wasn’t letting anyone down; I was doing just fine. I didn’t need anyone else; I was so wonderful that others had nothing to offer me. So I ended up anxious and alone, wholly unenthused with reality. As I have said elswhere, it seems likely that I could have been classed as undergoing a period of depressive anxiety.

I have also mentioned self-harm. I did manage to drag myself to a few of the college bops during this period. After one, I ended up in a nonsense argument with my good friend and fellow Oriel theologian, Anatole Sloan. I hit him. If I couldn’t process my failure to help out with a quiz tournament, you can imagine how poorly I dealt with punching someone whom I love. I deserved exile. I needed punishment. So I marched out of college and into the night. Port Meadow was flooded, and the floods were frozen over. I took off my trousers, shoes, and socks, and waded through the ice. Not only did I cut myself, I eventually slipped under. Thankfully, neither wounds nor water were at all deep. The symbolism, however, is perfect. I had suffered a kind of spiritual death, and brought upon myself an eerily fitting Dantean fate.

And yet, I rose. Perhaps the only thing to bring me joy in this period was Wagner. Brian Magee has some frightening words on the subject: because his work ‘makes possible a passionate warmth and fulness of emotion without personal relationships’ it has ‘a special appeal for the emotionally isolated or repressed: Nietzsche; Proust living alone in his corklined room; Albert Schweitzer, who turned his back on the Western world to live out his life in Africa; Bernard Shaw, under-sexed and unable to relate to others except through ideas…’ So it was with me, alone in my own room, failing in the quest for the Historical Jesus (I was supposed to be studying for my NT paper at the time), and relating to others most easily precisely through ideas.

I could also see myself in Wagner. Most particularly, I saw myself in the character of Wotan. He too was proud, he too failed to handle personal relationships. He deceived himself, and was thus left anxious and alone, wholly unenthused with reality. In his plight I found my own, lavishly orchestrated, thrillingly harmonised. So thoroughly did I identify with Wotan that I grew his beard, as depicted on Sir John Tomlinson in Barnenboim’s cycle from the early 90s.

Wotan and The Ring end in proverbial catastrophe, but that is not where Wagner himself ends. Over the course of the cycle, Wotan’s presence recedes, while his story continues in his descendents: Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried and Brunhilde. That story recognisably extends on into Wagner’s final work, Parsifal, in which the fearless fool Siegfried is transfigured into the pure fool Parsifal. Wagner tried and failed to provide a solution to Wotan’s plight within the world of The Ring. In the new world of Parsifal, he tried again and succeeded.

The solution is an embarrasingly simple one: love. That had been the intended solution in The Ring, but as Wagner himself admitted, love as conceived within The Ring (and, for that matter, Tristan and Isolde) proved to be utterly destructive. The fix was to imagine a better kind of love. The fix was agape. Parsifal is made wise through compassion. He owns his failures and seeks the good of others at great personal cost. He is shaped by a community bound by ideals of service and sustained by a ritual common meal in which the transcendent is made immanent. You don’t have to be studying for a degree in theology to see that the solution to Wotan’s plight, and so my own, on which Wagner settled was essentially the same solution that Christianity has offered to the human condition in general for the last two thousand years. The degree in theology helped, though (particularly Zizioulas in Being and Communion, which is weird given how useless he is in most respects).

Of course, I already knew what the Church taught. I knew what the Beatles sang. As I say, it is some ways an embarrasingly simple solution. If you’d asked me before I started listening to Wagner whether The Beatles had got it right, I would probably have said yes, albeit with the obvious caveats that my philosopher’s mind can hardly help making. But I had to look back from Wotan to myself, both dying of pride, both failing to sustain personal relationships, to recognise what the absolute primacy of agape really means in both principle and practice.

Sustained by the beauty and the truth that Wagner offered, I began slowly to revive. I returned to my studies, which included a great deal of the philosophy of religion. I reintegrated into college life, nowhere more consistently than in chapel, which came to mean more and more to me. I already found God interesting, in the terms so well explored recently by my friend Jem Bloomfield. In my studies, I had come to find God plausible. Not rationally inescapable, by any means. But, as David Lewis observes, knock-down arguments are hard to come by in philosophy. The one thing remaining was to start praying for myself. I did, and it worked, in that I had something new to sustain me. I found the wonderful St. Bene’t’s Church back in Cambridge, and for a while moments of absolute conviction interspersed with renewed doubt. Finally, I allowed myself to be bombarded by the heavy artillery of OICCU. At the end of their mission week, the eyes of the room were closed and I raised my hand to acknowledge my Lord and Saviour. They had the satisfaction of winning me for Christ, I had the satisfaction of affirming catholically the centrality of the body and the incarnation.

Jesus hasn’t made me any more extraverted or conscientious (nor, indeed, has Wagner). When I fail, however, I am able to process my failure, and confidence in God’s mercy helps me do that. I make much more of an effort to connect with others, and the belief that God became human in order to connect with me and with them helps me to do that. But, as Bill’s Pascal argues, there are no shortcuts out of self-deception. It requires something like an ongoing process of religious conversion. I take myself to be called continually to repentance, to the renewed affirmation of the absolute primacy of agape. And so I’ve inched closer to living out the absolute primacy of agape. Now I’m not anxious and I’m not alone, and I am pretty well enthused with reality. I was dead, and behold I am alive: as I believe, forevermore.

Prelude: part 3

The lake’s light blinded him. Motion burned unseen. He caught a swan stealing across the waves. The swan became a woman: Isolde, elegant and fair, drifting on aërial currents. He followed her wanderings over the watery plain, saw her slip into the bosom of the lake. He recalled the swan he had slain here years previously, and the woman he had left to learn the ways of war. Heart’s sorrow held him. Last token of a mother’s blessing.

‘Amfortas’, he whispered, ‘the wound.’

He passed off into the thick wood. Through such woods he had wandered late and far, out of earshot of his mother’s cries. He was strong enough. Beast and brigand he faced alone, under God’s protection. He had waxed without her. Yet without him, she had wasted. Her own son had done it – he, Parsifal, had done it. King and fool. Herzeleide died.

Shielded on soft moss from all the violent world, he grew. How heart’s sorrow held him. Loved, protected, led to strength and courage. Courage to take the arms that she had kept from him. Strength to fight where she had counselled quietness. No wisdom, except by bitter pain and error. Woods trackless, dangers numberless. Ah, Herzeleide. How he had sinned against her.

He was by the lake again, among meadows flush with flowers.

‘And this happened to their god? Their human god?’

 

‘So their stories say.’

 
The women sat cocooned in grass.

 
‘My family has done much ill, but I am glad they kept to the old ways. Year on year, more of the people wandered, but we were firm. My father gave no audience to such fanatics’.

‘You speak of the Gospel?’

Brangane was embarrassed; Isolde was not.

‘Yes, that is what we are speaking of, your good news’.

‘I am glad.’

‘My sister turned to them’, Brangane ventured finally.

‘Oh? How interesting. What happened?’

‘She was – well, different. Changed’.

‘Changed for better or for worse?’

Brangane shook her head. ‘Just different’.

Isolde’s eyes flickered.

‘Well my friends, I leave you to the peace of the lake shore’.

Prelude: part 2

Parsifal was pleased to hear laughter from Isolde’s room.

‘My Lady?’ he asked, knocking.

The laughter stilled. A woman other than Isolde bade him enter. The Lady herself was bent over a loom, while her companion Brangane passed her thread. The one looked pleadingly at the other. Brangane rose and bowed. Isolde’s eyes followed her from the main chamber.

‘Fine work, my Lady’. The first panel showed a woman, seemingly Isolde, holding a severed head. Gore, bone, a protruding metal shard were all carefully rendered. The second showed a pale young man lying on a couch. Standing over him was Isolde, notched sword slipping from her hands. Each gazed into the other’s eyes. Running through both were whorls of vibrant thread, soaring, eddying, falling across the tapestry.

Tracing them with his finger, he asked ‘What is this?’

‘It’s music, the endless melody that only we – only I can hear’.

‘And is that Sir Tristan of Careol?’

Isolde was silent.

‘I have heard the tale. I swear to protect you and support you. All possible comfort will be made available to you. Should you require the rarest threads to complete this work, I will procure them.

‘The comforts of Monsalvat are not merely, or even mostly, material. This is the citadel of the Grail, the fastness of God upon earth. Trust in the holy power that dwells with us. We know well how love can poison and corrupt. My predecessor, Amfortas, was afflicted once as you are. He was seduced and betrayed, and the kingdom wasted. Only the love of God can heal the wounds that human love inflicts.’

‘Fool. It is lust you speak of.’ Isolde resumed her weaving. The music attained yet a higher crest. Shuddering, she turned around. ‘You know neither the splendour nor the dignity of love.’ Her eyes were set just beyond Parsifal. ‘Love is regent of the world’s course, and all things are subject to her. Besides love, there is nothing that is not dust. Not gold not wealth not godly pomp, not home not hearth not lordly splendour, not troublesome treaties’ treacherous bonds, but, blessed in joy and in sorrow, there is only love’. Her voice was even, her face a dark glass.

Several times she made as if to look at him. At last she did so. ‘Who are you? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pure fool.’ Parsifal departed.

Prelude: part 1

‘I hope you have found this house hospitable.’

The guest gazed on the verdant slopes of Monsalvat.

‘You admire the evening splendour of the forest. “Beautiful in elevation is the joy of all the earth”’.

She seemed absorbed entirely in the great expanse of green.

‘Gawain brings the strangest report of you. You drifted to the northern shore on a small frail boat, and but for the ministrations of your handmaid, you would have been dead when he found you. All his art you refused, and you would not tolerate him to touch you or to speak with you. The causes of your condition were beyond his power to discern. I am glad you have made it here, as much that you were willing as that you were able, but I am at a loss for what to do with you.’

‘Leave me’.

‘Of course, I will trouble you as little as I can, but I cannot help you further if I do not know you better’.

Parsifal followed her eyes to where doves flamed in the fading light.

‘The rite you performed earlier in the Temple. I did not understand it’.

He smiled. ‘Neither did I’.

The sun having set, she said ‘I am Isolde, Princess of Ireland, chosen consort to King Mark of Cornwall.’

Parsifal waited.

‘The engagement was broken off’.

‘Ah. And is that why -’

‘No.’

‘Well my Lady Isolde, it is an honour to host you here’.
‘What to me is Parsifal’s honour?’ For the first time she returned his glance. ‘What is it to you?’

Marvelling at Light

Analytic philosophers are not supposed to take history seriously. Anyone who has been following Floreamus will know that I am more favourably inclined towards history. One direction I have been pondering for my B. Phil thesis is that of doing (recent) history of metaphysics as metaphysics (or at least, meta-metaphysics), writing a vindicatory account of the rehabilitation of the subject within analytic philosophy. This would involve, inter alia, rebutting current critics of metaphysics precisely by exposing their historical naivety. But this post is not about metaphysics – although it does make many metaphysical commitments, including to the existence of a Triune God.

I write this because it is currently the OICCU mission week, and so a year since I began to call myself a Christian. You might say I’m writing a history of my faith as an act of faith – a vindicatory one, more or less.

To change tack radically. There is a production of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg currently on at the ENO. I’d love to go, but there doesn’t seem to be student tickets available, so I would need to pay full price (£>100). I was last at the ENO back at the end of my second year of undergraduate study, to hear Phillip Glass’s dismal take on Disney. Maybe see Saving Mr. Banks, but don’t listen to that opera. At the interval, someone behind me mentioned the fact that they were going to dine next night at LMH high table. My companion turned around and said that he attended LMH. To complete the absurd coincidence, I discovered that the companion of the LMH diner was, in turn, my old English teacher. We chatted a while, and he then asked me an unsettling question: had I been any happier at my Sixth Form than when he knew me? As I recall, I answered honestly in the negative. This coming at the end of perhaps the least happy year of my life.

I have long-standing mental and physical health problems. I don’t want to moan, merely to observe. I know that many others have things much worse, including in my immediate social circle. Perhaps I was at my lowest after the midterm bop of Hilary 2013, when I found myself submerged in the icy waters of Port Meadow. I had been driven there to struggle with the knowledge of my own iniquity, but did not go sufficiently easy while the ice was on the flood (see ‘Where to Brood in Oxford’, below).

One thing that helped me out of my rut was, in fact, opera, and in particular the opera of Wagner. Not only did the music thrill me, but in his work I could discern my own difficulties, lavishly harmonised. I was proud as Wotan is proud, and frustrated and lonely as he. Before long I realised that the extent to which Wagner solved in Parsifal those problems he had posed in The Ring was just the extent to which he (artistically) embraced Christianity. It was Wagner who persuaded me that I might be redeemed through love.

(Wagner’s analogue of the Magnificat, opening at 1:25 with the motif often called ‘Redemption Through Love’. )

The great question, of course, is whether I have been so redeemed. I think I have identified the property that I find most attractive in a woman, for which I have co-opted the predicate ‘is radiant’, where radiance is defined as the external projection of a profound interior joy. I know that I am not (usually) radiant. But I am happier than I used to be. Sometimes I am still driven out to Port Meadow, but usually I head straight for the ‘pilgrim church’ of St. Margaret’s Binsey. After an hour or so in the darkness there, I really do emerge radiant, at least for a while (incidentally, it was in that churchyard long ago that I first read Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo, to which I allude in ‘Where to Brood’). I am less anxious and in better control of my life. I still self-criticise plenty, but not so as to cripple myself. I am no more at the social centre than I have been in the past, but I have fewer hang ups about this. There are communities in which I have a place (more such than before), and I am content to occupy those places. The incarnation was not a one-off event, but is an entire and eternal life. So the incarnating of a stony heart. The eyes adjust slowly, but the light is marvellous.

An Oriel Theology Manifesto

Floreamus

I think that what we do as Oriel theologians is special. This is not just another boast about our drinks events; it is not even a boast about our academic results (a poor boast indeed from my fingers). This is a serious claim about the way we do theology. Not so much a claim about the way we study for the various theology courses offered by the University (though often we study for those by taking tutorials with William Wood, so…); this is a claim pitched at a more fundamental level, a claim about the way we think theologically. I think our way of thinking theologically is distinctive; I think our way of thinking theologically is good. So just what is it that is so special about Oriel theology?

The short answer is that theology at Oriel is both analytic and traditional. The sense of ‘analytic’ I have in…

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Where to Brood in Oxford

The Poor Print

by Alec Siantonas

“The void stands before us, the void behind, and while the spirit to the flesh still cleaves it behoves us to gaze into the abyss with unfrightened eyes”

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The void stands before us, the void behind, and while the spirit to the flesh still cleaves it behoves us to gaze into the abyss with unfrightened eyes – especially if the abyss might be Tinder swiping you. For anguished meditations you will find no better backdrop than Oxford, whose spires pierce all illusions. As I stride these ancient streets in search of understanding, it is invigorating to recall the intellects that came before. Who knows but that in the bristles of my beard, the remains of their wisdom may yet accumulate? Today I share with you some of my favourite brooding places.

Oxford

Oriel Library Theology Section

Can our reason search out the ultimate source of being, or must…

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