Monthly Archives: August 2013

Rubá’í of the Day


This wheel of heaven, which makes us all afraid,
I liken to a lamp’s revolving shade,
The sun the candlestick, the earth the shade,
And men the trembling forms thereon portrayed.

Rachmaninoff for the Weekend

Rubá’í of the Day


When Khayyam quittance at Death’s hand receives,
And sheds his outworn life, as trees their leaves,
Full gladly will he sift this world away,
‘Ere dustmen sift his ashes in their sieves.

Rubá’í of the Day


‘Tis well to drink, and leave anxiety
For what is past, and what is yet to be;
Our prisoned spirits, lent us for a day,
A while from season’s bondage shall go free!

Rubá’í of the Day


O City Mufti, you go more astray
Than I do, though to wine I do give way;
I drink the blood of grapes, you that of men:
Which of us is the more bloodthirsty, pray?

Rubá’í of the Day


Your course annoys me, O ye wheeling skies!
Unloose me from your chain of tyrannies!
If none but fools your favors may enjoy,
Then favor me—I am not very wise!

Rubá’í of the Day


Allah, our Lord, is merciful, though just;
Sinner! despair not, but His mercy trust!
For though to-day you perish in your sins,
To-morrow He’ll absolve your crumbling dust.

Stories Like Ours

Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters —whether historical or entirely imaginary— are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.

–St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 3, Chapter II; courtesy of here; my emphasis.

Does anyone else pray for fictional characters?

Or perhaps we’re fictional characters?

Last time we established that we’re at least like fictional characters, whether we actually are or not.  We are, as it were, characters in God’s novel.  Thus, the relationship of a human author to fictional characters in his writings is at least a useful (if imperfect) metaphor for God’s relationship to us.  We don’t want to take it too far, but it’s a useful heuristic.

Well, using this heuristic, the world can look an awful lot like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  I think it is possible to make an argument justifying the evil and nastiness in the word, as I’ve summed up here.  That’s not quite what I’m interested in looking at right now.  Rather I’m interested in this question:  What obligations (if any) does an author have to his (or His) characters?

One simple answer is given in Jeremiah 18:1-10 and in several other passages referencing it:  God is the potter, we are the pots, and He can do any damn thing He wants to the pots, who have no right to complain, period.  In our analogy, He owes the characters in the story nothing, and can write them as He pleases, and they have no right to complain.  I have to be honest here and say that I have a deep loathing for these passages, but they tend to be the go-to quotes used to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it.  In the strict sense, this is true–God is omnipotent and sovereign–but I reject this in the crudely literal and simplistic sense in which it’s generally used, that is, that we should accept whatever God dishes out passively and not even think about getting upset about it or questioning God’s goodness.  The problem I have with this is that I like happy endings.

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Story of Our Lives

I’m still looking at universalism, but this is a slight sidetrack to the last few posts.  I’ll be indexing this under “Religious Miscellany” instead of “Universalism:  What the Hell?”; but it is germane to universalism, as I’ll point out later.  Also, what was originally supposed to be one post has metastasized to over a thousand words before I’ve even got to the main point I wanted to make, so I’m breaking it in two.  Alas, such is the blogging life….

Stories and narratives are among the most distinctively human activities.  We are, as far as we know, the only beings that tell stories; and if any other animals are intelligent, then they probably tell their own stories in their own ways.  We might almost as well call ourselves not Homo sapiens–“man the thinker”–but Homo narrans, “man the storyteller”.

J. R. R. Tolkien famously proposed that any time we make art, our creativity and our artistic creations are  a reflection of God, the Great Creator of the cosmos and of us.  He called this “sub-creation” and considered it very important.  We are made in God’s image, and as such everything we are and everything we do is a reflection, finite and dim though it is, of His perfection.  Our intelligence is a reflection of His intelligence, our love a reflection of His love, and so on.  The greatest act of God was the creation of the universe, bringing something out of nothing.  We, of course, cannot do that; but we can use our abilities and the materials we have at hand to make beautiful things, to produce art, to use our imagination and creativity.  Since creation is God’s highest act, our sub-creation is the way we can most closely imitate God, most clearly reveal His image in us, in Tolkien’s view.

In fact, Tokien took it a bit further than that.  He believed that insofar as our sub-creation was a reflection of God’s creation, it was, in a subsidiary sense, at least, real.  Now Tokien did not, of course, believe that the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had actually happened.  He didn’t think anthropologists should study the genetic differences among men, elves, and dwarves; nor did he think that someday archaeologists might dig up the ruins of Minas Tirith.  Rather, he thought that his works (and any literature of value), through the fictional narrative, could reveal things about ourselves and the world that could not be conveyed merely by nonfiction or exhortation.  In this connection, it is important to point out that he said, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.”  The value of fiction, in Tolkien’s view, is not that it teaches us simplistic lessons in the manner of an Aesop fable, but that it gives a way of looking at the world from a fresh and multifaceted perspective.

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Quote for the Week


  • What do I know about God and the purpose of life?
    I know that this world exists.
    That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field.
    That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning.
    This meaning does not lie in it but outside of it.
    That life is the world.
    That my will penetrates the world.
    That my will is good or evil.
    Therefore that good and evil are somehow connected with the meaning of the world.
    The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God.
    And connect with this the comparison of God to a father.
    To pray is to think about the meaning of life.

    • Ludwig Wittgenstein, Journal entry (11 June 1916), p. 72e and 73e; courtesy of Wikiquote