Friday, 18 August 2017

On History

It has all been said before. Historian Barbara Tuchman, still hopeful, laid it out. ‘In the United States we have a society pervaded from top to bottom by contempt for the law. Government — including the agencies of law enforcement — business, labor, students, the military, the poor no less than the rich, outdo each other in breaking the rules and violating the ethics that society has established for its protection. The average citizen … is daily knocked over by incoming waves of venality, vulgarity, irresponsibility, ignorance, ugliness and trash in all senses of the word.’[1] This view was arrived at in 1976.
            Her comprehension of history as cyclical serves as hope and warning. We’ve lived through this before. One of my history professors (an Englishman) remarked unforgettably that the United States was by far the most lawless country in the world. And the role of President is not that of Sun King, although Tuchman believed it bewitched its occupants and dazzled the public.
            I doubt that Australia needs a Presidential republic. I wonder who is fit to be head of state?

[1] Barbara Tuchman, “On Our Birthday — America As Idea,” in Practising History: Selected Essays by Barbara Tuchman (London: Macmillan, 1983), p.305.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

On Fortitude

Courage must be renewed daily. While some brave are natural heroes, some devout natural saints, many, including myself, are very ordinary sinners: for us a virtue is no gift, but a practice.  Generally, we practice what we aren’t very good at doing, having, or being.
            Holding fast before danger is more than instinct: it implies strength — of mind certainly — and persevering endurance. Courage may be employed in supporting a virtue, as Justice, or alas a vice, as domination. Persons of great violence can be courageous too. Courage is thus like fire.
Other virtues are entwined with Courage. Justice, which gives to everything that which belongs to it, requires courage in face of injustice. Temperance, or moderation, calls for fortitude turning away from excesses. Wisdom or Prudentia provides discernment to choose when acts are courageous or reckless, moderate or extreme, just or unjust.

            Courage confronts danger in spite of fear. Fear is not the enemy of courage, but its fuel. Fear of God isn’t dread of divine anger, but respect of power so great that all things are possible. The image of Courage is the lady with the lion. It is large and fierce; she has tamed it beneath her hand.

Monday, 24 July 2017

On Patience

In my sad experience, everything takes at least six months. Losing weight, learning a new piano piece, getting the roof fixed. Just about anything takes longer than you think. Patience is a virtue, also a necessity. Yet sometimes patience interferes with mercy.
            The saying ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ refers to situations where patience is applied to the wrong subject: to the oppressed rather than the oppressor. The strong want patience, while the weak need mercy now. In the matter of debts, for example, whether third world debts or welfare debts, extending patience to the debtor is merciful in the creditor. The Lord’s prayer can read ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ and yes, this means money.
            Paul believes a God of patience requires our patience towards one another, not demanding too much speed. Some people may never be very speedy, too. But can we be too patient with sincerely unjust convictions? That domestic violence is a husband’s right, for example, or same-sex couples should be denied marriage? Should the weak show patience with power and privilege?
            The Lord is plenteous in mercy. When in doubt, find mercy. Showing patience with injustice is only confusion

Thursday, 20 July 2017

On Barriers

As I passed by Princes Bridge the other day, I saw brightly coloured traffic barriers lining the walkway: to separate cyclists from the cars, or cars from the pedestrians? Signs of the times, perhaps? They changed the sober Victorian architecture to something resembling a building site.
            Signs of change. I was reminded of the stone viewing tower in Beckett Park, visited soon after arriving here. It was built in 1937 to commemorate Victoria’s centenary, and my guide remembered Empire Day bonfires there. The park was then an outlier, but when I saw it the district was dense with subdivisions: the passage of time is also the passage of space.
            The park is refurbished; the bridge streams with traffic; everything is as it seems to be. The past, though, is different than it seems to be. Many things have changed for the better, some for the worse. Change seems incremental, but wears us out from day to day.
            The Lord of heaven and earth will change them like clothing, says the psalmist. They change now as we speak. The Lord looks upon the earth, to hear the pleas of the prisoners. Do we need more, or less, of barriers?

Thursday, 22 June 2017

On the Fruits of the Earth

This morning’s conversation with the greengrocer was most enlightening. Current practice often associates government with business. We see whole nations given over to representatives of international wealth, led by those holding profit the highest morality. Where are you, Gore Vidal, when we need you now?
            The greengrocer sold the business to an entrepreneur; he works as an employee: competition with the large is becoming impossible. The land, growers, fruits of the land are increasingly owned by big business, who dispose of produce at every stage in the most efficient manner. He didn’t make clear whether the new owner was the agent of one of the great foreign merchant families, or simply someone who took opportunity to advance himself in new surroundings.
            This happens at a time when the government is performing like a travelling circus about a handful of asylum seekers. The prophets exhort us to protect the stranger within the gates, but as far as I know, say nothing about allowing the nations to possess the land.
            Galilee was run for the benefit of large landowners, too. The Kingdom of God, though, is not like this. The Kingdom of God is run for the weak. Blessed are the meek.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

On Seeing

Seeing is believing, if you’re easy to convince. Like Thomas, I begin to think touch more reliable. Some people see things that are not there; many see things that are placed there. Wars, invasions, propaganda may depend on seeing things, present or absent. Ask a migraine subject about the flashing lights. Don’t begin to contemplate the actions of certain drugs, legal or not.
            Photography is a language:  like English, Chinese or any tongue it can be used for truth or fiction. If the devil is the father of lies, photography must be the mother, or at least the sister of lies. Why the sister? Because like Wisdom, she sees deeper than others, but any deceit plays on thoughtless unsupported concepts of veracity: seeing is believing. Many believe wordy falsehoods: even more false pictures.
            ‘I saw you,’ said Jesus, of a man in whom there was no deceit. The quality of the eye is also important. What everyone hopes to see is the truth. Deep, deep in the understanding is a precondition for identifying what the truth might be. Is it a ruthless, punishing God? No God? A merciful, availing God? May you see grace to understand the last.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

On Magnitude

I read about the super-rich constantly building new yachts: massive, bigger than the Normandie. You need a new one, because your neighbour has a new one: bigger swimming pools, in-house submarines, helipads onboard. You need a new one with better features.
            Biggerness and betterness are often conflated. How big? How good? Is magnitude always relative? Do we know when things begin to be large?
            Big trouble is usually easy to find. But if one of the, say, top 100 wealthy feels suddenly poor as the neighbours increase, what does it say about the order of magnitude? Is smaller than the Normandie still big?
            Anselm says God is that which nothing greater can be imagined. We’ll have to define ‘God’, ‘great’, and ‘thought’. Mathematics isn’t my world, but it seems to me the numbers involved must be either very large or very small. So small they become great?
            Aquinas doesn’t buy this argument, because God is a mystery. What, then does magnitude say about the human condition? Comparison with those above (richer, smarter, happier) rather than those below (poorer, and so on) is natural, but unenlightening.
            John the Baptist understood magnitude. “He must increase; I must decrease,” he said.