FROM TOWER OF BABEL TO PENTECOST

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence

(Genesis 11; 6-8a KJV)

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they {ie. the disciples} were all, with one accord in one place.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared to them unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

Acts 2:1-6

In the Tower of Babel story human beings use their collective knowledge and speech to seek to arrogate their status to become gods. God shows this is the way that leads to disintegration. Their collective knowledge and speech is lost and they are scattered abroad speaking many tongues.

In the second story God sends the Holy Spirit to his chosen disciples who carry the knowledge of the resurrection in their hearts. They now have one message to speak to the hearts of people of all tongues.

In our own language we are made aware God speaks to us of love of Him and love of all. We are to bring that assurance to our own culture and participate in its sharing with all cultures.

WILLIAM BLAKE : “JESUS WAS AN ARTIST”

Verily , verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”

GoSPEL OF ST. JOHN 12.24

Curiously, although brought up on the Bible, I never noticed this saying until I read Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov where it is used as an epigraph. The power of the saying acting with the creative insight of poetry immediately struck me.

The saying relates, of course, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his death and its consequences. The single grain of corn if left on the surface is unfulfilled. The buried seed is as dead, but contains new life bringing forth new seeds of growth.

If this sounds like great poetry bringing out the deepest meaning, is this what Blake meant when he distinguished Jesus as an artist? For Blake this did not mean that Jesus expressed himself through the arts. Like Socrates, Jesus produced no written work. Blake sees, however, in Jesus a power of creative imagination central to being an artist or a poet. The Imagination is the quality which Blake, rather like Coleridge, appears to see as the supreme gift.

For creative imagination we might single out his “sayings” or his power of vivid speech. He speaks creatively not by presenting rules or flat statements or simple directions but by utterances that involve us in seeking to puzzle out what he means. Whether it is by direct teaching or by telling stories, as parables, he leads us into re-thinking. His sayings are ever memorable: think of a few of dozens:

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head”,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,

Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt hath lost its savour wherewith shall it be salted”,

He is an artist as shown by his pervasive story-telling. (But without a parable spake he not unto them. Mark 4.34). Think of the parable of the prodigal son, called the most perfect short story ever told. How he gets us to enter into the state of mind of both sons! with the younger: And he fain would have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat and also with the elder But as soon as this thy son was come which devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf . But he also takes us into the mind of the Father, not directly by thought, but by action: But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. At the end the Father sums up the reason for joy which the elder brother has to decide if he is going to come to terms with : This thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found. In the shortest compass we have been invited to use our imaginations to access three minds and work out our own feelings.

Or think of the parable of the of the Good Samaritan ever an inspiring tale, exposing bigotry, of a person of rejected background acting with charity as against those with official religious duties who passed by on the other side. It is a tale that runs so deep in our culture that we use the phrase, to be a good Samaritan.

The imaginative power that enables Jesus to create such tales also enables him, with supreme quickness, to see into the minds of those seeking to bring him down. Think how he deals with the challenging questions of those seeking to trap him: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? and Jesus’ answer ” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Always he seems equipped through his imaginative understanding of the questioner and what is at issue to answer in a way that, instead of falling into the trap, he puts the questioner on the spot.

But it is not only his speech and parables that show creative imagination. He also acts creatively on those who need healing. He is sensitive to the touch of the woman, who, afraid to speak to him, touches his robe. He brings her forward, in fear, but having “made her whole” he reassures her beautifully: Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. To those whose illness or mental disturbance is caused by awareness of sin he is again reassuring: Son thy sins be forgiven thee

His imaginative capacity to see beyond limits means he refuses dogmatism. Brought up in the Jewish tradition he naturally respects the Law but is also daring enough to challenge its whenit limits thinking.”Ye have heard it said “Thou shalt love thy enemy and hate thine enemy”, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” To those who would condemn the stoning of the woman taken in adultery he challenges” Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone”.

With creative power and highly developed critical understanding, he challenges conventional attitudes both towards sinners , and exposes the self-righteous. Once heard who can forget the story of the Pharisee and the publican?: The pharisee thanked God he was not as other men are. and he is contrasted with the publican who stood afar off and would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me , a sinner

Creative people prize spontaneity and have a natural love of the openness of children. Jesus held up children :

Unless ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven”.

And also he held up those devalued by society : much to her amazement, St John has him in long conversation with the ostracised Samaritan woman at the well:”Give me to drink” and then proceeds to tell her what she needs to know:

Whosoever shall drink of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give them shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

His imaginative action is also declared in his life purpose, his journey carrying his sense of God’s calling. We might pick out particular actions of dramatic power: the Palm Sunday parade on a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple protest, the passover meal, the washing of his disciples’ feet . These are all acts of a man who understands the power of dramatic teaching pointing us to understanding of the meaning of what he is doing.

Wondrously he sees himself not only as a prophet but also the point, God-guided, towards which the Jewish tradition is leading him. On tradition T.S.Eliot is helpful here: by understanding the way in which he, in his art, has been shaped by tradition he develops the awareness of the way in which he can extend the tradition. Jesus steeped in the Scriptures- in the Psalms ( quoted on the cross), in the prophetic understanding of Isaiah and Daniel and Zechariah-understands in what direction he must go, even though that direction leads to the Cross.

To call Jesus an artist is not to delimit him but to point to the nature of his creative power.

THE JOURNEY TO EMMAUS

St Luke 24. 13-35( KJV 1611)

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about three score furlongs.

And they talked together of all these things which had happened.

And it came to pass, that while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.

But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad.?

And the one, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things that are come to pass there in these days.

And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people:

And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death and they crucified him.

But we trusted it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done.

Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre:

And when they found not his body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive.

And certain of them which were at the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:

Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

And they drew nigh unto the village whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.

But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is towards evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together,and them that were with them,

Saying the Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.

And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them by the breaking of the bread.

Comment.

The story of the Journey to Emmaus is one of the great short stories within the Gospels. Its spiritual value is developed, especially in the King James Version of the Bible, by its strengths as literature. It focuses on the walk of two disciples, we presume to their village home, following the crucifixion of their master. Their walk is clearly intended to be one way, but becomes, through the nature of their encounter on the road, a return journey. So they end up at the place they started from but utterly changed.

On the road from Jerusalem to their village the mood of the disciples -one of obvious despair and bewilderment- is expressed by the walkers’ body language as “they communed together and reasoned”. “Communed” suggests the close intimacy of their communication and their sadness is conveyed to the one who overtakes them. The sound of the ancient word “holden” (from the verb “to hold” so meaning something like “held” by their preoccupations ) is perfect for conveying this heavy downcast mood which makes them unable to look properly upward and outward to see that the stranger might be Jesus. Giving a perfect summary of the reasons for their sadness the stranger surprises the listeners with his critical response that challenges their understanding of the meaning of what they have experienced. Based on scriptural authority, the stranger shows them there is another perspective. They, in their misery, have not seen what is there to be seen.

We, as readers, are in the position of knowing who the stranger is so we are in a privileged position. We can watch what they do.Yet, as readers, we can identify with the disciples seeing things as they do-so too would we. Thus we watch in knowledge while we are also dramatically involved in the effect that the revelation is going to have on the two disciples.

Obviously stirred by the words of Jesus, the disciples urge him to “abide” with them. The word “constrained” ( compare “invited”) suggests the pressure inside them to urge him. It is the sharing of the meal that brings revelation. The wonderful sentence that leads to this deserves special attention: “And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, that he took bread,and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.” Count the commas!. The commas ensure pauses, adding the slow rhythmic build- up reinforced by the alliteration of “bread”, ” blessed”, “brake” all rhythmically accented. The pauses with the “and”s (four of them including the start) help to isolate each stage of the action, each of significance to the hosts (who will know, anyway, of the Last Supper ritual).

The King James’ Version is rightly famous for its appropriateness for public reading. It is both formal and simple. In addition however it opens the way to imaginative contemplative reading. The build up of clauses and the start “And it came to pass” which works like the word “behold” (at the start of the story) to invite contemplative focus. These phrases help to concentrate the reading for this kind of focus on the significance of what is to pass or be beholden.

The revelation “and their eyes were opened and they knew him” brings it into direct contrast the beginning of the encounter “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him”. Glancing through a variety of recent translations no modern version makes this kind of strong linkage using the eyes: though several have “their eyes were opened” none specifically use the contrasting sense of their eyes being earlier blinded. At this point Christ vanishes. The point of recognition reached, his visual presence is required no longer.

The revelation impels action. The joyous journey back contrasts with their initial outward state of dolour. Their conversation reflects their wondrous joy: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he opened to us the scriptures”. (Again notice the effect of two strong words “hearts” and burn” being placed side by side, slowing speech to emphasise the significance) . Where they were blind before, now they see.

It is this kind of slow , strong rhythmic beat emphasising key words and not allowing a more flat kind of recording prose to predominate. The point of scripture is that it is not there to be ordinary to be presented in an ordinary kind of conversational prose but to direct attention to what is truly significant. What we have in the King James Version is the story beautifully told to bring out the potential for renewed vision enabling a movement from despair to joy.

“MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?”

Gethsemane presents a new situation. Before this Jesus would retire from the multitudes, and also from his disciples to be apart. He sought out solitude to be with God. Three times in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel he seeks to be in solitary places with the God he calls Father. Gethsemane, however, for the first time, reveals a new pressure. He appears to be at odds with the purpose the Father is guiding him towards.

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast and kneeled down and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.(Luke 23.41-42)

What he most longs for is in opposition to what is being imposed upon him by God from which it is clear the only way out is that he must die. This may puzzle us, simply because, we understand from all the gospels that Jesus is preparing himself and his disciples for the inevitability of his condemnation to death. We must allow, however, there to be a difference between the vision of an inevitable future and that future become present.

Does Jesus fear death? Perhaps, being human, he has to know that fear in particularly terrible form:

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. (ibid. 22.44)

But the story of Gethsemane moves from distress and agony to resolution. Through soul-wrenching prayer he has accepted what God has required of him; he stirs the sleeping disciples, for now, he is ready to face his captors.

Has Jesus, however, had for the first time to glimpse aloneness?- the possibility, not only of being apart from the rest of humanity, but also separate from the beloved Father? Perhaps the early stages of Gethsemane show what will become much more so on the Cross, leading to the cry: Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani? or My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15.34).

Here Jesus’ plight on the Cross, a sufficiently barbarically cruel punishment in itself, is increased beyond measure by the sense that he is abandoned, the God who has always been faithful to him seems no longer present to him; or, at least his purposes seem unfathomable. What he is suffering seems beyond any sense of purpose.

What are we to make of this? Does Jesus’ life end in defeat after all? True,in Luke, he is recorded as later saying:

Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” and having said this he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23.46)

and in John “It is finished”. (19.30).

But in Mark the agonised question is made the final utterance. And is this not something sceptics, like Albert Camus, have latched on to? Jesus’ ministry ends in defeat. He has been proved wrong.

Step back! Consider Auschwitz, holocaust, genocide, slavery -ships. Think of the children Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov speaks of suffering unspeakable cruelty. How we might ask, can Christians dare to preach a gospel of hope knowing of such examples of people suffering abandonment and torture? The message should be strangled in our throats before it could be uttered, unless we have faith that the Crucifixion and the forsaken Jesus were not the end of the story.

For hope can only be uttered because Jesus knew what the crushing sense of abandonment really means. Ultimately without that cry on the Cross Jesus could not be the saviour of all the abandoned and tortured because, for them, there are levels of pain that he might not be seen in his own life to reach.

A small group of disciples, many of them women, watched him on the Cross. For them, Calvary, would be a scene of defeat-a great enterprise ending in disaster. But if that were the case these words would never have been recorded in print. There would be no good news , no gospel. The disciples, by whose witness the words of Jesus’ ultimate loneliness were transmitted to the world were those who, miraculously supercharged with purpose, were able, following the Resurrection, to say, “Look abandonment and death does not end it all. We are not in the end alone and abandoned. Christ is risen! God is, after all, faithful”.

But Christians cannot sound naive or unrealistic in their preaching and spreading of the good news because they know so many are suffering that ultimate loneliness and to them we can speak in knowledge of the Saviour abandoned as well as the Saviour risen.

EASTER POEMS

The Crucifixion

“String him up,” some repoman shouted, (repossessor)

He’s a weirdo” “In the bin, in the bin”,

Yelled another and grabbed some thorns,

Sharp as needles, twisting them round

A fresh-cut-thorn branch. He made

A wreath and forced it down on his head,

The pain piercing his flesh. “Morning vicar”,

This comedian said and darted twigs

At him, aiming at his eyes. With three

Nails, he nailed him naked to the cross,

Lifted bitter drink to his lips, telling

Him drink and stop dropping off, hang

On a bit longer. “Now if he’s really something,”

He said, “He’ll get himself out of this one.

If you’re Christ, and if Christ is God’s

Son, come on down off that cross.

We’ll believe it then, you’ve got a life

On a string, you’re nevergoing to be

A goner”

“That’s it”

Christ said,

“That’s it”.

His senses

Began to fade

Pale and piteous

Like a prisoner

In death, the Lord

Of life and light

Closed his eyes, day

Shrank back, appalled,

And the sun darkened.

The Temple wall

Shattered and split

The solid rocks

Of earth ruptured,

It was dark

As thickest night,

Earth convulsed,

Quaked like a live thing.

The noise brought

Dead men clambering up

From the coffined depths

Who told why the tempest raged so long.

One corpse said

“There is in darkness

Here a bitter fight

Life and Death

Destroy each other, None can know

For sure who wins

Till Sunday

As the sun rises”,

And with these words

Sank back in earth.

From Piers Plowman by William Langland 1330?-1400?

translated by Ronald Tamplin. (from “The Lion Christian Poetry Collection” compiled by Mary Batchelor Lion Publishing 1995)

This translation combines a vivid recent colloquial language with the freshness of Langland’s great medieval poem ( contemporary with Chaucer). Tamplin gives us a sense of Langland’s realism in the frank brutal savagely comic talk going on round the crucifixion spectacle. The cosmic consequences of the death is based on some less familiar details to be found in Matthew’s gospel, much more readily grasped by the common people in the medieval period.

“And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom ;and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves opened: and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came of the graves after the resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many”.

I’d be delighted if this extact encouraged readers to look at Langland’s work which has become too much neglected in recent years. Langland was a contemporary of Chaucer who uses Middle English rather than Chaucer’s “southren”. It is in unrhymed alliterative form based on Old Germanic (as was Beowulf in Old English).

Try reading aloud to get the sound of the alliterative verse. Individual words can be checked from the above translation- although this will not always be exact. The two Latin phrases quoted from the Bible are in Latin (” “It is finished” and “Indeed this was the Son of God”).

The passage from Langland starts from “His senses Began to fade” in the translation. Enjoy having a go and getting a feel of our ancient tongue and its poetry!

Consummatum est, quod Crist,and comsede for to swoune,
Pitousliche and pale as a prison that deieth;
The lord of lif and of light tho leide hise eighen togideres.
The day for drede withdrough and derk bicam the sonne.
The wal waggede and cleef, and al the world quaved,
Dede men for that dene come out of depe graves,
And tolde why that tempeste so long tyme durede. 
"For a bitter bataille" the dede bodie seide;
" Lif and Deeth in this derknesse, hir oon fordooth hir boother.
Shal no wight wite witterly who shal have the maistrie
Er Sonday aboute sonne risyng- and sank with that til erthe
Some saide he was Goddes sone, that so faire deyde:
Vere filius Dei erat iste
And some seide he was a wicche- "Good is that we assaye
Wher he be deed or noght deed, doun er he be taken."   

FOR PALM SUNDAY : THE DONKEY

          
Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorns, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil's walking parody 
  On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth 
  Of ancient crooked will,
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
  I keep my secret still.

Fools for I also had my hour 
  One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears
  And palms before my feet.

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

I love the way this poetic monologue gives a sense of the astonishing oddity of the donkey. The picture is humorous, self- mocking without ever being self-abusive. There is an inner self-worth that is to be justified by the finale.

The first stanza offers a fantasising version of an evolving creation with its outlandish projection of a world in which “fishes flew and forests walked”. The alliteration underlies the playful amusement of the picture The comic strangeness anticipates the weird creature presented in the second stanza.

It is worth noting , however, that the spiritual significance of the climax of the poem is suggested as early as the first stanza with the line “And figs grow upon thorns”which will remind all Biblically- literate readers of Christ’s saying (Matthew 7:16) “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” The witty suggestion of Chesterton is that there was a nascent stage of creation where this confusion was possible and it was from that kind of state the donkey emerged.

The comic strangeness of the creature develops in the second and third stanzas. “Sickening cry” is followed by the excellent phrase “errant wings”. “Tattered outlaw of the earth” reminds us we might expect to see a handsome horse but rarely a smart-looking donkey. “Outlaw” confirms its oddity. But the third stanza moves to the reaction to the “outlaw” of public condemnation. “Scourge” and “deride” point to the unfolding connection with the passion story-to the One who, made an “outlaw,” was also scourged and derided. The poem as it moves towards “the secret” is revealing the donkey as a victim- primarily a victim of public scorn and this is preparing for the paralleling of the creature with Christ, the victim of the Easter story with which the donkey is to be connected. But if the victim triumphs, if Christ triumphs through the Resurrection, then his chosen creature has the confidence to tell its story as one of vindication. Because of Christ the one who was rejected is no longer incongruous:

Fools for I also had my hour 
   One far , fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears 
  And palms before my feet.

  

On a first reading we await that revelatory final line for the full meaning of the poem to come home to us. It is only then we realise the significance the poem has been so skilfully leading us towards. The donkey owes its sense of worth to being an important participant in a drama of universal human significance.

The poem leaves us with a very interesting question to which the Easter story proffers a possible answer: “If I am made a victim, in what might my sense of self -worth consist?”

“WIST YE NOT…”

Language is not natural but a young child’s love of language, of words, of rhymes, of rhythms seems to be part of who they are, as essential to their development as learning to eat, to walk, or to explore. They absorb the words spoken to them and seek to repeat those words. They are taught nursery rhymes and told fairy stories. This love of rhythm or desire to explore words is not something that children should be weaned away from, as babies from the breast, to be replaced by sturdier more prosaic studies it is something that should be fostered through all levels of schooling.

“Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business” said the twelve year old Jesus to his bemused parents when they lost him and rediscovered him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the clerics there. When I first heard the word “Wist”, no doubt read out from the pulpit, I was puzzled and fascinated. What could this word mean? I loved the sound of the word. It caught my attention, made me wonder.

“Wist” is of course, now I can put it in more learned words is the past participle of the verb “to wit”. It is an ancient word deep rooted in Anglo-Saxon. “To wit” was the verb to know; from “witan” (cognate with German wusste, past tense “wissen” to know”). So I learn from an etymological dictionary .

It has been a disastrous error of both churches and schools to say “We must simplify the language of possibly difficult texts so that they are within the easy understanding of all children, especially the less bright”. Good language read with feeling will attract children even when they do not understand particular words. From the context, given age-careful choice of reading, they will grasp enough of the meaning and will find pleasure in seeking to feel their way into what the word might mean.

The important thing that teachers should instil into children is a love of language and from that a readiness to follow unfamiliar language because the sound of it awakens something in them, that makes them keen to follow. There are many stories of gifted teachers able to teach supposed limited learners Shakespeare with amazing success.

I will always be grateful that I emerged from school with a varied knowledge of Shakespeare plays and some acquaintance with the major English poets. I also was fortunate as a church-going youngster of hearing the Authorised Version of the Bible read every week.

Making the word alive for children does not mean keeping close to the language that is familiar to them and relevant to their lives but leading them into places they would otherwise not know about .

So love your language, find what is deepest in it and pass the love on to the children in your care!

NEW YEAR: LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD.

As we move from one year to another I wish all followers and occasional readers a happy New Year, secure from the worst that might assail us. I wish to thank you also for your support, as readers from around the world from a variety of cultures. I am delighted you have found in this blog something to interest and refresh you and I am encouraged by that support to keep on plying you with posts on a variety of topics to do with literature , religion and culture and how they have worked together.

I thought a short review of what I am seeking to do with this blog might be helpful. Although I have no set programme I do have a sense of thematic development in which there will be some kind of unified considerations of themes and preoccupations that I have developed over a lifetime of reading. (I happen to be reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. just now. My wife asked me if I had read it before. “Yes about sixty years ago”, I had to reply” -so you will see what I mean by “lifetime”!).

However much it may look like it from time to time, my blogging is not a sort of desultory wandering, like a butterfly lighting on one flower and then another. At the same time I do not seek to make it too organised. Suddenly, for instance, with Christmas coming I dropped Coleridge’s Rime for the time being and took on Christmas carols. This took me to folk music and folk culture and its development, a completely unexpected turn. Yet it is in line, with my interest in culture as an organic growth within a particular society and the degree to which the full range of its cultural expression hangs together.

At the heart of earlier blogs was an interest in Romanticism as a word, a concept and a manifestation and what it means, how it changed things, and what it means for us, living today. In the early days a starting point was Wuthering Heights and its relation to the Romantic novel. Then on to pre-Romanticism, Jane Austen and the picturesque. The direction was towards Romanticism as a movement, expressing the creative human spirit. It was a surprise development however-and I mean a surprise for me as this was not planned- that Coleridge, suddenly, became so central His quotation linking poetic creativity with the kind of creativity manifested by the Creator God as pictured by Genesis 1 inspired me to consider many connections between Bible stories, and great poetry. How do we read the story of God encouraging Adam to name the animals? How have great poets used their imaginations to conceive of God? The focus on the myths of Genesis widened to include Plato’s cave. The series bringing together the Tower of Babel myth, Plato’s Cave and Coleridge’s Rime was an example of this. All this is not meant as a curious byway of study. As the two posts bringing the Tower of Babel and Plato’s cave up-to date all my posts are directed in some way to thinking about where we stand now in our present world.

Large statements of the present day world are not, however, my intention. My feeling and hope is there is a place for the kind of explorations I am engaged in: seeking to bring together religious faith, poetic creativity, cultural expression- what is most living from the past- as a a way of recharging our thinking as to what we can bring our confused world from what we have inherited.

“THE EYE IS THE LAMP OF THE BODY”: PLATO AND JESUS ON TRUE SEEING.

Both Plato and Jesus demonstrate the need to see clearly. Following the last post on Plato’s Cave here is a poem based on one of the miracles of Jesus.

        THE SIGHTING
           John 9

Out of the shame of spittle,
by the scratch of dirt,
he made an annointing.

Oh, it was an agony- the gravel 
in the eye, the rude slime, the brittle
clay caked on the lid.

But with the hurt
light came leaping, in the shock and shine, 
abstracts took flesh and flew;

winged words like view and space,
shape and shade and green and sky,
bird and horizon and sun,

turned real in a man's eyes.
Thus was truth given a face 
and dark dispelled and healing done.

(Luci Shaw "The Sighting"The Lion Book of Christian Poetry 1981) 

The miracle is descibed in John’s Gospel thus:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a blind man , which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master,who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work. As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle and he annointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And said unto him, Go,wash in the pool of Siloam (which is by interpretation, Sent). He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. (John 9 1-7 KJV).

The prisoners in Plato’s cave are not blind but they do not see clearly. In the gospel passage Jesus, in declaring himself the “light of the world”, is, as the sun in the Plato story. He is also the redemptive force that heals. In the poem the healed man is able by the light of healing to give meaning to words that had remained meaningless or abstract to him. Things were made real. “This was truth given a face”.

The Plato allegory follows stages of enlightenment. Because of lack of true knowledge the prisoners cannot see properly. In the shadows of the cave they do not see the world as it is and by their “education” they are misled in understanding what reality is. They can readily be indoctrinated with a false view of what things are like. When the prisoners escape, the possibility of true education is opened to them. At first their seeing is confused. The sun dazzles. Curiously, in the Gospels, there is another Jesus healing of a blind man that works like this. In Mark 8:24-25 when Jesus puts spittle on his eyes he reports “I see men like trees walkng” Only when Jesus “put again his hands on his eyes, and made him look up” was he restored and he “he saw every man clearly”. True seeing, distinguishing what is there, clearly take time.

Ultimately, if he goes far enough, the escaped prisoner can see clearly. It is not just a case of identifying things. The sun shines and provides the light by which one sees. The sun is the source of light. First, the escapee sees things like trees and hills but then he realises the source of seeing is the sun. The final stage of his development of proper sight is to see the sun as the source of what he sees and understands. What is around him is good-especially when compared with the shadowy reflections in the cave, so the source that enables him to see is good. To Plato that is the ultimate intuition reflecting the nature of the Source, as the Good.

Jesus also speaks of clear sightedness. In the Sermon on the Mount he declares: “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye be unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light within you is darkness how great is that darkness!”(Gospel of St. Matthew 6. 22-23. New International Version). To Jesus God is the Father, the Shepherd , the Creator. Jesus sent from God reflects His nature and character. He heals the blind and the blind through him see the Father. The seeing is something given, a redemption, salvation.

Plato is concerned with education. The prisoners back in their cave need to be released. Only education can do that. Those who see must go back to educate those left behind. But here is a problem. Once they return to the old world, because their sight is blinded by the dark, they find it difficult to express their seeing. They might tell the prisoners what they see is a false reflection of reality. But, an artefact passing, an alert prisoner can identify the object to his fellows’ satisfaction whereas the returned educator does not offer what seem to be clarity. They may well prefer the world they have. And the returned educator may be mocked as a misty-eyed dreamer, seeing other worlds that do not exist.

We go back to Christ. Is this what he means by the “light in you is darkness”? -like that of the alert prisoner within his cave he is assured and confident in his identification but the identification is misleading because nothing is seen in the clear sight of day, in the sunlight, from the source of good. Jesus, in the St. John Ch 9 healing, refers to the Pharisees. The Pharisees objected to the healing because it was done on the Sabbath. Their knowledge of the Law has become so elaborate and complex, their rule-making so rigorous that they do not see the blindingly obvious truth that something wonderful and good has been done, someone who was blind, now sees. Jesus says in that gnomic, paradoxical, poetic way he often adopts. “For judgement I am come into the world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind“. (Gospel of St. John 9. 39). The rule-makers, the so-called teachers, like Plato’s false rhetorists, the sophists, do not encourage insight, only bewilderment.(see Note) Pharisees who are with Jesus and heard his words ask him “Are we blind also?” Jesus said unto them: “If ye were blind ye should have no sin; but now ye say, We see therefore your sin remaineth”. (ibid41) Sin is the assumption of knowledge when there is failure of true understanding. In the face of revelation of the wonderful they are in denial.

Plato seeks to lead us to true-seeing by educating the understanding to the point where we see or intuit the source of goodness. Jesus, reflecting God’s love, has the power to heal us of our blindness, so revealing to us that love.

NOTE: Plato was suspicious of the emphasis on rhetoric by many teachers of his time as he saw them encouraging sophistry. “Plato generally treats them (ie. Sophists)) as charlatans who talked purely for victory and took money for teaching the technique” ( Simon Blackburn (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy O.U.P 1996).

This is refected by our modern meaning of sophistry: “Specious or over-subtle reasoning, the use of intentionally deceptive arguments; casuistry; the use or practice of specious reasoning as a dialectic exercise”. (S.O.E.D.)

On the developments of Plato’s thought, I have found very helpful Understanding Plato David Melling. OPUS 1987)

“THE TOWER OF BABEL: AN UP-TO-DATE VERSION”

And the most powerful rulers on earth gathered together and said: let us now speak one language. For now that we know the laws of Science and the power of Technology we shall defer to neither God nor Nature. And we shall make the poor peoples of the world give up their traditional agriculture and make them grow what we want them to grow and make what we want them to make. We shall teach all peoples to worship money and we shall be guided by economic experts who inform us how to control economies to our best advantage. And within these guidelines we shall pretend to allow people freedom, equality and democracy. And we shall teach people to mock the past, to despise tradition and to regard as superstition religious beliefs. And we shall educate them to believe only in progress and we shall encourage them always to want more than they can buy and we shall devise great entertainment industries using the resources of technology to keep them permanently amused, or at least distracted, when they are not working. And people the world over will forget religion and glorify Man. So let us build a great Dome where we can celebrate the progress and lordship of Man where the people will rejoice in our great secular and materialistic society.

And the Lord came down to the city and looked at the Dome which the children of men built. And the Lord said: Behold the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.

And the Lord continued: They worship their own productions and defer neither to Nature nor to me. They have despoiled and ravaged Nature and made growing places deserts. They have proclaimed freedom and they have created docility. They have promoted democracy and get themselves elected as shap practitioners who care for the interests of their people when they have neither wisdom derived from the past nor concern for the future. They have appeared to grant equality but only when people have been taught to say “Materialism is all” .

They have advanced education but only an education designed towards the service of Mammon. This is a generation that does not know the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.

And because of this, Nature will rebel because it can no longer sustain Man in his greed and arrogance. And becuse they do not regard the poor of the earth, those from traditional cultures and religions will resist the powerful and there will be war and rumours of war and there will be terror and rumours of terror. And there will be anarchy and to deal with anarchy more dictatorial rule and in reaction to dictatorial rule there will be rebellion and then to repress rebellion there will be more cruel dictatorships and Man and his works will be confounded.

Then came the Son unto the Father as he watched the building of the Dome and said: All that thou sayest is just and yet there is still Our Church and there are still those who sing the old songs and dance the old dances and learn from poetry, who read the Scriptures and glorify Thee and seek to advance Thy Kingdom. Before thou completely condemn Man give those who love and tend and nurture that which is good within their traditions yet another opportunity to recreate the Garden Thou designed for humanity where different traditions and cultures and languages might flourish on the good soil Thou hast laid for them ; then these may yet grow to honour Thee as the creative source of all that is good.

And the Lord said: What thou sayest is still my desire.

NOTE

Picture: Millenium_Dome_zakgollop