Anniversaries

My personal calendar has annually “repeating events” for birthdays, dates of death, and some other dates for people who are special to me. One such person is T. S. Eliot, and September 26 is his birthday.

            So on Monday, I was thinking about Eliot through the day. Four Quartets is, of course, the greatest poetry ever written. (We settled that years ago, back in college, back when we knew how to make decisions. We also decided that King Lear is the greatest play and The Brothers Karamazov the greatest novel. It’s good to have these things settled.) But Eliot wrote much other memorable verse. Towards the end of “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he has a couplet that speaks precisely to the weariness of age:

            I grow old . . . I grow old . . .

            I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

There’s something comic and pathetic in that: an old man’s entire aging process reduced to some rolled-up cuffs on his pants.

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            So I take note of Eliot’s birthday. But how should we refer to it? He was born in 1888, which was 128 years ago. So I’m tempted to say that this is his 128th birthday, even as earlier this year I celebrated, if that’s the word, my 60th. But, Eliot isn’t 128 years old.

            Mr. Eliot—he dead.

            I could say it’s the 128th anniversary of his birth, even as all of our birthdays that we celebrate are more accurately the anniversaries of our birth. But that’s awkward.

            Death’s awkward.

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            Susan and I were married on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels in 1978. So this Thursday, September 29, is the 38th anniversary of our marriage. But it isn’t “our” 38th anniversary. “I, Victor, take thee, Susan, . . . till death do us part.”

            I want to speak happily of the day, on the day. I want to say, this is our 38th anniversary, and it was a beautiful day in Santa Fe, September 29, 1978, a lovely fall day, an evening wedding, singing “Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels.” But I can’t say, “This is our 38th anniversary.” It isn’t ours; it isn’t mine either.

            Awkward.

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            My calendar also has dates of death. Pious tradition has it that the day a saint died is that saint’s birthday into paradise. For all who die, the time of death is their turning over to God. Often we remember people in our calendar on the day they died. C. S. Lewis, for instance, is remembered on November 22, the date on which he died in 1963. It is a transition that parallels birth: emerging from the confines and relative darkness—the “womb”—of this creation into the more immediate presence of God.

            And what then? We do not know, of “those who have gone before us in the faith,” whether they exist in a time that is parallel to ours, whether they are aware of us, whether they are at rest or in growth or being corrected or perfected in other ways. Faith knows the important point, that Jesus takes to himself all who wish to come to him. But of what that means in particular, we remain in ignorance.

            It is that ignorance that creates our awkwardness when we think of our ongoing relation to people who have died. How does his life here go on now, there, in that existence beyond death for which we hope?

            The awkwardness of this is, I think, authentic and salutary. It reminds us at once of our ongoing connection with the departed, and the mystery of that connection. It turns us, thus, back to God’s gift of hope. In the midst of things that are beyond human comprehension, this side of death, we yet have the divine gift of hope. It is an awkward gift, hope. It is also reality. 

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            Out & About. Under this heading I plan to take note of talks, classes, and preaching by yours truly, as well as things in print.

            Sunday, October 9, I will be teaching a 10:15 a.m. class on the Giving of the Law. I plan to draw attention to the complex character of law as both gift and sacrifice, making a connection backward from Moses to Abraham at the destruction of the cities of the plain. At Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney, Dallas, in Memorial Chapel.

            Sunday, October 9, at 6 p.m., I will be speaking on, and reading from, Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away. There will be a reception and book-signing as well. My remarks begin at 6:30. This will be in the education building of Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney, Dallas.

            Losing Susan was reviewed in the September 26 issue of National Review, online here (but behind a paywall): https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2016-09-26-0100/victor-lee-austin-losing-susan.

Esther: Idolatry

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As we are working through Esther in Morning Prayer, I have been reading Yoram Hazony’s fresh commentary, God and Politics in Esther (Cambridge University Press, 2016). A principal character in the story is Mordecai, the Jewish cousin of Esther who had reared her, an orphan, as his own daughter. When the king promotes Haman to preeminence over all his other counselors, the order goes out that all people should bow and prostrate themselves before him. Mordecai refuses to do so. Why?

Hazony, in his commentary, notes that Jews are forbidden to bow down before idols. Thus the text raises the question whether some sort of idolatry is going on in the king’s promotion of Haman. That is to say, it is not obviously idolatry, but Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman causes us to wonder if somehow political tyranny (which is what was going on) is idolatry.

To get at this at all requires an understanding of why idolatry is such a bad thing throughout the Old Testament, indeed, perhaps the worst thing of all. Let me sketch Hazony’s interesting argument on this.

Idolatry involves the appeasement of gods or humans supposed to be gods so that some good will come about. The evil in idolatry appears in what the appeasement required: sometimes food and wine, sometimes parties, sometimes sacrifice of produce and beasts, sometimes orgies and bestiality, and sometimes “human blood . . . the hearts extracted from living men . . . children sacrificed by their parents to the beating of drums.”

Why were such evils practiced? Because it was seen that, in exchange, people received something good. Idolatry “was actually the result of a positive human desire to ascertain the causes of suffering and ameliorate them”; it was “the first intellectual endeavor of humanity as it rose above the immediate and visible in search of effective means for treating its afflictions.” Kill a man, and the rain will come. So they did, and it did.

Yet whatever truth there was in the connection of meeting the idol’s demands and receiving its benefits, that truth was only local and particular. The idol-worshiper must close his eyes to wider considerations and stick to a “severely limited perspective.” The idol-worshiper lacks humility; he thinks “the local truth of one’s own perspective comprises truth as a whole.”

For the terrible truth of idol-worship is that it doesn’t ameliorate suffering overall but in fact makes the world much worse. The gods of such a world are always, in the end, anti-human.

Hazony says that ancient idolatry becomes, in modern currency, moral relativism, in which “human suffering is governed by local truths.” This is what Israel rejected through her prophets. They, the prophets, “insisted that the appearance of evil is governed by universal principles.”

This is why Herbert McCabe calls the Ten Commandments the great “atheist manifesto.” Hear, O Israel—there are no gods! There is, instead, one God, and one humanity, and justice is universal as it applies to all people everywhere. Hazony: “righteousness consists first of seeking the good of man—respecting his life, family, property, dignity, right to respite, right to privacy, and right to justice”—a paraphrase of the last seven of the Ten Commandments.

So, back to Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman. In the king’s tyrannical rule, people were bound to do whatever the king desired. Such tyranny can thrive only when people have moral amnesia. Mordecai refuses to bow because he remembers, for instance, that murder is evil. Idolatry is about forgetting the human good. Mordecai remembers.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."