Sunday, 31 May 2009

Come down, O Love Divine

Come down, O Love Divine,
Seek thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing.
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

As Luke tells the story, the Spirit of God fell on Jesus' disciples on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and they went out praising God in many languages, drawing a large, curious, and somewhat sceptical crowd. Peter announced that this was nothing other than the promised renewal of the nation: that Jesus, handed over to the Romans for execution but vindicated by God --- raised from death --- had now been “exalted to the right hand of God” and had commissioned them to be his witnesses. He called on those in the crowd to repent, and to be baptized into Jesus' name for the forgiveness of their sins. Three thousand people were initiated in this way; that day is traditionally understood as the beginning of the church, and has been celebrated ever since.

Lest this all be thought somewhat in-house, Peter's other great task (again, as Luke has it) was to reach beyond the Jewish community and --- in the face of his own customs and purity concerns --- to open the Christian fellowship to people from other nations. The struggle to understand what true unity of differing people meant, and exactly what God's agenda was in the matter, was a huge one for that generation, and the bulk of the occasional letters that comprise the New Testament (together with the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation) engage with the issue in some degree. The particular expression is bound up with concerns of that time and place, and the people involved, but in more abstract terms the questions are perennial: how are background, identity, and behaviour related; what are our obligations; what do we make of human difference?

The basic Christian answer is that one should be baptised into the name of Jesus Christ: but what then follows? The knotted complexity of parts of the New Testament shows that the answers may not be simple, let alone obvious. A classic example from another age is the abolition movement at the end of the eighteenth century: the realisation that slavery had to be renounced --- already implicitly understood in the first century --- tore up lives and institutions and economies over decades. We say we “change our minds” but the process of changing one's mind is messy, and by no means merely mental. Our society makes “Amazing Grace” a song of sentiment, but it was the sentiment of a man converted slowly --- slowly, in fits and starts --- from traffic in human lives.

The favourite Pentecost hymn in my tradition is Come down, O Love Divine by Bianco da Siena (d:1434), as translated by Richard F. Littledale in the 1860s, and most famously set to Ralph Vaughn Williams' tune Down Ampney. The hymn is of a more mystical bent, its perspective that of the inner life before God, compared to what one might call the community focus of the New Testament writers. Of course, the two are related, as the “Amazing Grace” example also shows. But the relationship is not simple.

(It's easy to find cheesy versions of the tune and the hymn on the web, and hard to find good ones. An embellished but dignified rendition is free as an MP3 from Selah Publishing.)

O let it freely burn,
'Til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let thy glorious light
Shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing.
True lowliness of heart
Which takes the humbler part
And o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong
With which the soul will long
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace,
'Til he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Beyond consent

Through gritted teeth, and firmly holding my nose, I would like to express some limited sympathy for Matthew Johns, who has been hung out to dry by Channel Nine (and just about everyone) after a years-old group-sex scandal was so thoroughly aired on national television this week.

His pathetic, but I suspect sincere, clinging to the mantra “but she consented”, is the point here. Well yes, maybe she did. If one thinks about the situation, this doesn't really cut it, but our society has spent a few decades pretending that consent (perhaps glossed to mean “informed consent”) provides a sufficient handle on the morality of sexual encounters. (Even some of Johns' critics, as quoted on the TV, are still trying to cut their disgust to fit the Procrustean bed of “consent”.) That pretence has helped blight this decade for the unfortunate girl in the story (one prays, not her whole life); but it has also betrayed Johns and people like him, by making it easier for them to lose moral perspective, and by indulging their boorishness.

Earlier generations of thought approached this problem via honour, an approach rich in double standards, and modern commentators have been quick and strident in their criticism. Accepting all of that criticism, one has to say that older approaches are realistic at one point --- the plain fact that “consent”, meaning what-the-woman-wants-or-says-at-the-time, is not necessarily the main question, and by no means the only question --- on which our society has been systematically stupid. Without mercy, we have pilloried our ancestors for the deficiencies in their thinking ... and yet people in future societies looking back on ours, or people in different societies looking across at us, will probably ask how we could be so blind. The cheap answer will be that we handed over our thinking in this matter to people without daughters, and to people who furthermore did not care about the moral lives of their sons. Doubtless there's more to it than that, but will anyone have enough patience with us to give a more merciful answer?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Genes, hobbits, plutonium, telescopes, a moon, and an obituary

A view of the planet Neptune, and its giant moon Triton, from a distance of 3.75 billion kilometres, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft, en route to the dwarf planet Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Image details can be found on this page at the NH website.

This image is featured in honour of Venetia Burney Phair, a retired economics and maths teacher, who died recently at the age of 90; and who, as a girl of 11, gave Pluto its name. One of the instruments on New Horizons --- designed, built, and operated by students --- was earlier named in Mrs Phair's honour.

In other space science news, the shuttle Atlantis is due to launch on Monday for the final mission to repair and service the Hubble Telescope. Because of the extra danger in missions to the Hubble, the shuttle Endeavour will be on standby as a rescue vessel, in case anything goes wrong. Some years ago, when NASA tried to rule out such missions because of the danger to the crew, it wasn't just the scientific community that objected: some of the astronauts did too ...

Other articles:

On the genetic analysis of common diseases

On “hobbits”: the black swans of palaeontology ... and their flat feet

On why the Americans are going to make more plutonium 238 (hint: not for bombs), how they will use it more efficiently when they have it, and why Stirling engines are the bees' knees