Tag Archives: Christianity

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Struck While Jogging? No, But After

Sirens, police cars, stopped traffic—that’s what I saw and heard as I jogged along the Potomac for part of my run along the mall in Washington, D.C. For a moment or two I was struck by it all, and I thought that something of crisis-like proportions must have occurred; yet soon I reminded myself that in a big city, sirens are a pretty common occurrence and do not necessarily portend a major disaster.

Until my run that morning I had never seen the Lincoln Memorial, though like all Americans I know what it symbolizes. It was completed in the early 1920s and houses the famous statue of Lincoln, whose design by Daniel Chester French was executed by the Piccirilli brothers, American-born sons of the well-known Italian sculptor Giuseppe Piccirilli, who emigrated from his native land in the nineteenth-century. The building itself, which evokes the greatest of Greek temples, the Parthenon, is the work of the architect Henry Bacon. But these are all details gathered easily enough from the official website.[1]

As I jogged up that monument’s steps, I somehow had a feeling that I had been there before, though in fact I never had. Yet I could feel the pulse of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I had not realized until I was writing this was actually delivered when I was but a small child. I have no personal memory of that speech, but the very sound of Reverend King’s words are nonetheless vivid in my mind and I savor his powerful, grand and inspiring tone, and relish the cultural memory.

The Jefferson Memorial was more beautiful, I thought, delicate and less imposing that the powerful and more substantial Lincoln Memorial. What these structures and the Washington Monument across the Potomac’s tidal basin from the Jefferson Memorial all mean, however, is much more important these days than perhaps ever before. They would seem to symbolize the best about our country, the potential for our country to be united, to set better goals and to seek to achieve better ends. The harsh words, the virulent and palpable hatred of our politicians these days, the political squabbling that has virtually immobilized our country, as well as our government’s out-of-control spending—all of that clashes badly with what these monuments mean, what they preserve.

That this is the case became clearer to me after my jog when I returned to my hotel. I was on my way to a conference on the challenges of secularism to religion.[2] Representatives of the three major monotheistic religions were sitting on a podium and discussing intelligently the issues that each of their faith traditions face in an increasingly secularized society. Now there were a lot of things that struck me that day, from early morning police sirens to the monuments that I saw on my six-mile jog, culminating with that interfaith dialogue, and I could wax poetic or at least prosaic on any number of them. But let me choose just one, the last of these.

Here sat three leaders from three different faiths—a rabbi, a sheikh, and a prominent Roman Catholic[3]—on a stage before an audience that I imagine was as amazed as I was to listen to these tremendously wise men, one of whom was in town also to receive the Irving Kristol Award.[4] There was no wrangling, no arguing, no vitriol, but rather profound respect for one another and each other’s religious traditions. And this was taking place in Washington D.C., the city of spleen. These men understood the significance of the monuments on the mall. The contrast between the bickering and back-biting of current leaders in of our country who, though they represent different parties, presumably hold a heart the commonweal and these men, whose religious differences are presumably greater than any political divide, could not have been sharper.

And that’s what struck me after I spent a day running around the monuments, struck me harder than anything I saw that day: respect, admiration and cooperation. Can you imagine? Now that would be striking.


[1] https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/memorial-features.htm.

[2] https://www.baylor.edu/washington/index.php?id=944857

s[3] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (President of Zaytuna College), and Professor Robert George (Princeton).

[4] The highest award given for by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Suggestive Weirdness

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

In the second chapter of what is perhaps his most renowned piece of apologetic narrative, C. S. Lewis writes, “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.” How sadly true this rings these days in light of the tragic events in France and Turkey.
        Yet Lewis is not speaking about current events, not really, for he immediately goes on to say, “That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel that we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing that anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.”
         Lewis continues, in Aristotelian fashion (as he often does in Mere Christianity) to parse out the question of God, dividing opinions about the divine into Epicurean/Nietzschean/Hegelian terms (i.e., non-existent or at least non-interventionist, detached, beyond good or evil) on the one side, to conceptions of God connected with justice, righteousness, etc., on the other. In this latter group he places Islamic, Jewish and Christian thought.
        Bdonkeyefore I left for Europe, as I walked my dog one last time I was thinking of another idea, not so much about God as about strangeness, which dovetails with the “twist” that Lewis mentions in the above citation. In the story of Balaam and Balak from the perhaps not-too-often-read book of Numbers in the Old Testament, more often known as the “story of Balaam and his ass,” Balaam is summoned by Balak, the king of Moab. Though he is warned explicitly by his talking donkey about going to Balak’s court, Balaam nevertheless complies with the regal summons. After Balaam’s arrival in Moab, Balak requests, presses, even tries to trap Balaam into pronouncing a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22:6-17).
       To grasp fully the implications of Balak’s insistence that Balaam make that curse, one has to recall that in the ancient world curses were really a big deal. Although nowadays I but rarely hear of anyone pronouncing a curse on another person—though it still does happen and is not hard to find on the Internet. In antiquity these were staunchly


believed to bring ruin and disaster on the accursed. The third heir to the Roman principate, Nero Claudius Drusus, who was known with the agnomen by the adopted name Germanicus Iulius Caesar, or simply Germanicus for short, died under a curse before he could ever take the imperial reins (described vividly by Tacitus in his Annales 2.69). Some Greek inscriptions—a famous one, for example, from the island of Thasos[1]—even offer instructions about how to get out from under a self-pronounced curse. We have thousands of curse tablets, too—i.e., shards of broken pottery with nasty little curses written on them. Socrates was the victim not only of a death sentence pronounced on him unjustly by the Athenian court but was the subject of many such curses written on potsherds and cast into wells in Athens.[potsherds2] Even in the period of the Renaissance/Reformation, Martin Luther (probably impishly, inasmuch as it comes from his Table Talk [671]) put a quite nasty sounding curse on whoever happens to love the work of Erasmus—and he did so in Latin, no less—followed shortly by a further playful quip, “Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus” (Table Talk, 672).
       But what I am calling “weirdness” and what brings us back from the rare dinner party conversation about ancient curse tablets or the rivalry between Luther and Erasmus to the more likely breakfast-time (and at any rate more edifying) conversation about C.S. Lewis is theastonishing behavior of Balaam. I do not mean the fact that in this story the ass can speak or even what it says, but rather what Balaam himself says, which I shall cite at this blog’s end. When urged, compelled, downright bullied by Balak into cursing, Balaam nevertheless blesses. And that, it occurred to me as I walked my dog, is what is really strange about this story and what is weird about God, for that matter, as I understand him from Holy Writ. Such weirdness, simply put, is that blessing, an unusual thing to do, is a recurrent theme. To wit, St. Paul expands upon this unusual point of view in his epistle to the Romans (12:14-17), “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep… . Recompense to no man evil for evil.”
       When I say unusual, I mean it is simply because I do not feel like blessing when I am wronged. I do not feel like blessing when I am bullied. In fact, I rarely feel like blessing anyone at all. And this to me seems to be the “you could not have guessed” factor that C.S. Lewis is speaking about. It has nothing to do with a debate about Jesus’ miracles or political hot-button issues or even the hot-button issue of whom one should vote for in any election, let alone one as confusing as the next American election. Rather, this teaching, which in a sense goes back to a man known better for his ass than his counterintuitive stubbornness, is central to the New Testament narrative. It must have astounded his disciples when he said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor,’ and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). The same theme is even more riveting when it turns up among the words of Christ on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
       These are all, it seems to me, very weird teachings, what Lewis calls “that queer twist.” Yet someone might object: “They do not sound that weird to me! After all, the Bible is a religious book. Why should you be surprised to find pietistic teachings in it?” Yet the notion of “religious” alone does not necessarily evoke such profoundly counterintuitive teaching. In fact, the Bible itself is often indicted for its violence, as accounts of rape and incest are recorded there, as are many a war, many a battle—wars often advanced to claim a land for the Jews at the expense of Canaanites or others already inhabiting those regions. Add to this that one of the more memorable verses recorded by Moses is, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23). And other spiritual books outside of the Bible speak of just retribution, using violence to achieve justice and to right human wrongs on behalf of God. Yet Christianity turns this formula on its head: “Pray for your enemies.” “Bless, and do not curse.”
       In closing, I present neither proof of God nor of Christianity. Rather, I offer here merely an observation indebted to C.S. Lewis’ comment; my own is based not on Balaam’s talking animal but on Balaam’s own speech: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent; hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? Behold, I have received a commandment to bless: and he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (Numbers 23:19f.). In these turbulent, violent and inhuman times, may Balaam’s ancient but quite excellent summation offer us a path to sanity and healing in a world gone mad.


[1] Russell Meiggs and David Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford Clarendon, 1969), entry no. 83; on the notion of being foresworn, cf. A.J. Graham, “An Ellipse in the Thasian Decree about Delation (ML 83)?” American Journal of Philology 110 (1989): 405–12.

[2] Inscriptiones Graecae 3.3 Appendix, Defixionum Tabellae [=DTA], 7, 10, 97, et al.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Prayer for Paris

… Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy:
when I fall, I shall arise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light unto me.
—Micah 7:8

This week’s blog was to be about gratefulness and thanksgiving for seeing an old friend in Rome and making a new one in Paris. But that will have to wait. Now Paris has come under attack, and those of us who care, which I hope are most of us, are caught in a swirl of thoughts and emotions about a city that most have never visited.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that somehow we know Paris, even if we have never had an occasion to be there. Those of us old enough to have grown up after World War II recall pictures, mostly black and white (e.g., in Look magazine), when we were kids, as Paris, like London and other cities that sought to recover from the Second World War, was being rebuilt and restructured. We think of the liberation of Paris in late August of 1944, when the Germans surrendered the city and retreated. liberation of Paris

American in ParisIf we should happen to be a bit younger, we might know Paris through film. Perhaps we’ve watched Singing in the Rain or been to a production of “An American in Paris” (or seen the movie) and can easily recognize Gershwin’s familiar tune. Paris is, and for most of us always has been, a place that represents something much more important than most big cities. It symbolizes and brings together style, frivolity, the power of art, history, romance, and beauty—in essence, all of Europe’s splendor and charm—in a single place. It is the place that by its very nature betokens a free society, where art and literature can flourish, where stamp collectors can wander through vendor booths along the banks of the Seine, where the name of a gothic cathedral can serve as a declaration not only for the most important female figure in Christendom, but also for the city, serving as a maternal figure for its country and perhaps the world: Notre Dame, Our Lady.Notre Dame

I took the picture you see here just a week ago when I was in Paris. I was there to meet a friend of a friend who was to help me with a large project I was working on in French. Maria and I struck up an immediate friendship, one that I hope and imagine will last for some years to come. And that is why I wrote to her immediately when I saw the news about Paris yesterday. My heart went out to her and to all Parisians for their immediate dire circumstance. I am glad to say that Maria was unharmed and is safely out of Paris now. But the fact remains, she could have been killed, and I, perhaps the most recent of her friends, would have been heartbroken; if I, how much more her parents and longer-term friends, teachers, colleagues?

And our heart goes out to all those whom we have not known, too, and it must. For the lives affected there are real lives. Real families are devastated. Even as I write this, in Paris some mother is lying on her bed sobbing (or a father on his knees crying out to God) because her only child was killed in a theater or a restaurant, simply because he or she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if we have a child, we can feel with that person, we can sympathize and we pray that our heartfelt sympathy will pneumatically comfort that mother or father across the miles, by some miracle of the wind blowing wherever it pleases. May it please that Wind to bring comfort now to those in need.

Someone might say the decadence of the West has brought this upon itself. And they would be wrong. I am not here saying that the West does not have its fair share of decadence. But no one in that restaurant was especially decadent. They were just people eating dinner. The problem with any argument that blames the victims is that it is patently facile. I can recall in the early 1980s certain Christians, some of them friends of mine, saying that the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment upon those who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons. But little hemophiliac children who needed blood transfusions were also dying of AIDS. The only way such an argument could work is to say that God is inaccurate in doling out his punishment; He cares less about collateral damage than might a general in the armed forces. But generals do care very much about collateral damage, and if a human being cares, how much more the Divine.

Rather than blame the West for its excess, I propose that we look for a moment at the human heart and ask ourselves a more relevant question: why do we hate anyone? By “we” I don’t mean we in the general detached sense of “mankind” but in the particular sense of you and me. I mean, in fact, why do I hate anyone. So I will start with me, and I will put the blame on the Paris attacks where it really belongs, on me as a human being, not necessarily me alone.

What is it about me that makes me hate my neighbor? I have spent the last 35 or so years trying very hard not to hate. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography knows why. If you’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, you know what happens to Augustine in the eighth book. If you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you can find in the tenth chapter an account of something similar. With all due respect to Daniel Burke, I believe—rather I know—that there can come a point in some people’s lives where they (decide to?) turn in another direction. Or perhaps they are turned, but I leave that subject aside; I can only say that, after chapter 10, I now want to try not to hate any longer.

Yet I admit that I have not been entirely successful. It is difficult to look in the face of evil on September 11, 2001 or November 13, 2015 or October 26, 2015 (if that is the correct date), or countless other dates these days, when innocents die in any number. We live in a cruel world, becoming crueler by the second. Fewer and fewer folks are going to church, though world religions in general are not shrinking. In the east and now in much of the west, religion is thriving, but it is not Christianity. To quote a recent article, “Muslims … in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”[1] While that article attributes the principal reason for Islam’s expected growth to “simple demographics” (i.e., Muslims will have significantly more children than other folks), it seems to me that there may be another reason, one derived from doctrine, that might speak to the growth of that religion: that, in Islam, works count toward salvation. But, though that can explain a lot and even give us, perhaps, some insight into the motivations of the suicide bombers in Paris, I leave that aside.

And I do so because we need to look into our own hearts, not those of others, to come to grips with what has happened in Paris. If we are capable of hating—even retributively—we must realize that others are, as well. We must understand that the blame for what happened in Paris falls on us all. It certainly falls on me. I have indulged in hatred, for whatever reason, many times since chapter 10. I am therefore as much a part of the problem as anyone else, including the terrorist himself.

Yet just because we are all to blame, does not imply that the response to injustice should be tepid. On this earth, people have been establishing justice through due process in the West since well before 458 BC, when AeschylusOresteia dramatizes the beauty of civic justice; in the East, 356 BC, under Duke Xiao of Qin. France’s president, François Hollande, has stated that the response will be severe . President Obama has said that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the French.

I close with this thought, one for myself, but perhaps for us all. I shall not hate the terrorists. Yet that does not imply a lack of resolve. I shall not indulge in execration. Rather, I shall pity them in my thoughts and lavish mercy on them in my prayers. Will that make a difference? Will it make God any “happier” with me? To the former, I hope yes; to the latter, I can only say that I think Milton is right when he says, “God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts.”[2] As for me, I hope to hold mercy in my heart even as I pray for stark justice in this world. That is my hope, my recipe for this week: Seek justice, love mercy.[3]  Bon courage, mes amis à Paris. Be safe, Maria …

Love Paris? click here

Recipe for 13 November 2015: Hope for Paris, and us allwelsh spoon


Ingredients (serves one [at a time]):

One part mercy, one part justice, and a cup water from the well alluded to below. Mix with a Welsh love spoon thoroughly, and live. Failure to blend ingredients will produce less than desirable results. Failure to care about your neighbor at all will produce death; probably has already. As with another recipe, bake at 365 days a year; eat while still warm, and walk humbly.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

—Micah 6:7-8


[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/#beyond-the-year-2050.

[2] “On His Blindness.”

[3] Micah 6:8.