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Friday, March 11, 2011

Appropriating Augustine

The first book of Augustine's Confessions is available online here. The Confessions read like prayers or psalms, which inspires me to take license with Augustine's thoughts and adapt them to my own thinking. For example, in this first chapter of the first book, consider the understanding of God as everything in the world and then some. There is an aspect of God, then, that is awe inspiring. This is an aspect of God that we acutely experience while standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or out in the open ocean, many other natural and scientific wonders. I think of this as a prayer to that God, which is all creation.
And man desires to praise thee, for he is a part of thy creation; he bears his mortality about with him and carries the evidence of his sin and the proof that thou dost resist the proud. Still he desires to praise thee, this man who is only a small part of thy creation. Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee. Grant me, O Lord, to know and understand whether first to invoke thee or to praise thee; whether first to know thee or call upon thee. But who can invoke thee, knowing thee not? For he who knows thee not may invoke thee as another than thou art. It may be that we should invoke thee in order that we may come to know thee. But "how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher?" Now, "they shall praise the Lord who seek him," for "those who seek shall find him," and, finding him, shall praise him. I will seek thee, O Lord, and call upon thee. I call upon thee, O Lord, in my faith which thou hast given me, which thou hast inspired in me through the humanity of thy Son, and through the ministry of thy preacher.
Everything quoted is from the Bible. Citations omitted.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Closing Thoughts on Caesar

Well, I had been stalled out a bit on Plutarch, so I decided to get through Caesar and move on to Augustine. Strictly as a story, I enjoyed Caesar better than the other lives covered by Plutarch in the selections.

Plutarch gives us the famous veni, vidi, vici and he notes its potential as a slogan.
On leaving that country and traversing Asia, he learned that Domitius had been defeated by Pharnaces the son of Mithridates and had fled from Pontus with a few followers; also that Pharnaces, using his victory without stint, and occupying Bithynia and Cappadocia, was aiming to secure the country called Lesser Armenia, and was rousing to revolt all the princes and tetrarchs there. At once, therefore, Caesar marched against him with three legions, fought a great battle with him near the city of Zela, drove him in flight out of Pontus, and annihilated his army. In announcing the swiftness and fierceness of this battle to one of his friends at Rome, Amantius, Caesar wrote three words: "Came, saw, conquered." In Latin, however, the words have the same inflectional ending, and so a brevity which is most impressive.
I was under the mistaken impression that this quote was one of pure triumph and had missed its dismissive tone. Once again, reading primary sources is pretty cool.

There are other zingers. After the soothsayer predicted the Ides of March would be Caesar's downfall, Caesar saw the seer on his way to the Senate saying, "'Well, the Ides of March are come,' and the seer said to him softly: 'Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.'" Plutarch does not give us "et tu Brute," but puts this as Caesar's last words as crying out "in Latin: 'Accursed Casca, what does thou?' and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: 'Brother, help!'" The story closes with those who betrayed Caesar, like the one who betrayed Christ, killing themselves. Cassius "with that very dagger which he had used against Caesar" and Brutus by literally falling on his sword, "while a certain friend, as they say, helped to drive the blow home."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Spiritual discipline

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Last year Pat & I gave up meat for the season, and we are going to do it again this year. Being raised in the Protestant Church I was aware of folks who were hostile to all things Catholic. "It's not what goes into your mouth but what comes out of it that saves you," they would say in discussing the tradition of giving up red meat on Fridays. I wonder how they feel about the Muslim tradition of praying five times a day.

Seeing these practices as requirements to enter a post-death paradise misses the point. These practices call us to be mindful. They cause the Spirit to intrude into our ordinary lives. They remind us that faith should be tranforming. Indeed, my pastor, Reverend Linda Miller, pointed this out to Chalice in noting that we always read of the tranfiguration before the season of Lent. Sort of a goal, I suppose.

As the Buddhists say, "Be Mindful."

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Modern Problems in Ancient Rome

Plutarch's exposition of Caesar's life touches on a couple of problems that are near and dear to me in my practice. First, he discusses a method used by Roman judges to avoid the problem of Clodius, a wealthy man, who was on the one hand clearly guilty of serious crimes, but on the other hand a favorite of the masses. The solution was that Clodius escaped punishment, because "most of the judges giving their opinions so written as to be illegible that they might not be in danger from the people by condemning him, nor in disgrace with the nobility by acquitting him." When I read a judicial opinion that ducks the real issues of the day by appeal to procedural difficiency created by the judges, or worse yet, by the creation of a legal fiction, it seems they are employing a modern version of this technique.

Next is a discussion of Caesar's practice of paying bribes to get his friends into office, and then having those same friends appropriate large sums of money to Caesar. As Plutarch explained, "It seemed very extravagant to all thinking men that those very persons who had received so much money from Caesar should persuade the senate to grant him more, as if he were in want."

These two came together when the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United claimed that the lack of coordination between corporations who sponsor ad campaigns and the beneficiary of those campaigns means that it is impossible that at some time in the future the corporation could demand a political favor as repayment for that expenditure. This time delayed quid pro quo is either ignored, or even endorsed, by the justices in the majority in recent campaign finance cases.

I fear that the result of preventing regulators, or in the case of Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett the citizens of a state, from deterring corruption, the Court will doom us to the same extravagances observed prior to the fall of the Roman republic.

Monday, March 07, 2011

A Thoughtful Post on Heaven & Hell

Rev. Robert Howard, Ph.D., provides a thoughtful summary of the problem of Hell. Seems particularly timely given the Westboro Baptist Church's recent victory.

Longing for Greatness

In summing up Alexander I mentioned the context in which I most often hear Alexander referenced--he conquered the known world by age 30. Last year I met a young man who was not yet thirty and was set to argue a case before the Supreme Court. I compared him to Alexander, a comparison he pretended to reject because of Alexander's young death, but which in truth I think he quite enjoyed. Reading about Caesar, I came across this.
In his journey, as he was crossing the Alps, and passing by a small village of the barbarians with but few inhabitants, and those wretchedly poor, his companions asked the question among themselves by way of mockery, if there were any canvassing for offices there; any contention which should be uppermost, or feuds of great men one against another. To which Caesar made answer seriously, "For my part, I had rather be the first man among these fellows than the second man in Rome." It is said that another time, when free from business in Spain, after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. "Do you think," said he, "I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable." As soon as he came into Spain he was very active, and in a few days had got together ten new cohorts of foot in addition to the twenty which were there before.
How curious that Caesar should have these thoughts as well. Some desire to see themselves as a new version of great people. President Obama allegedly studies Ronald Regan. The Tea Party movement casts itself as the new Civil Rights Movement. Patton saw himself as the reincarnation of Hannibal. This all seems fairly similar to casting Jesus as the new Moses or the new Elijah.

I think we sometimes do this on a less grand scale, even as ordinary people. We delight in children behaving similarly to their relatives. Maybe we even enjoy sharing characteristics or traits with our parents as adults. I wonder if it creates the sensation of participating in eternal life--in life that is not bounded by our own mortality.