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Commentary: Indonesia’s New Year’s message to China over Natunas dispute: A game changer?

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By Romel Regalado Bagares

A statement issued on  New Year’s Day by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs against alleged Chinese encroachments over the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Natunas may prove to be a diplomatic and legal game changer in the increasingly volatile South China Sea.

For the very first time, a third party Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) member- state invoked the landmark 2016 arbitral ruling in the South China Sea case filed by the Philippines three years earlier against Chinese expansionist moves in the region.

Indonesia’s broadside came following alleged incursions by Chinese coastguard vessels in the Natuna Sea, which lie nearly 1,100 kilometers south of the Spratlys in the South China Sea.  It features an archipelago of 271 islands and resource-rich waters.

China claims the Natunas is subject to its jurisdiction  under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea  (UNCLOS) as…

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Written by Romel

January 6, 2020 at 1:48 am

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In Memoriam: Gilbert Yap Tan (1956-2019), the Bookworm of Gensan

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By Romel Regalado Bagares

It was fitting that  Gilbert Yap Tan’s last posts on Facebook were about  books – he owned hundreds and hundreds of them, from decades of collecting on sundry topics – as a writer, college professor and former journalist may be expected to. One from two weeks ago shows photos of books he had stacked all over his small  apartment in jumbled heaps, after yet another earthquake hit the city he loved, General Santos.  He was ok, he said, but expressed exasperation that he had to rearrange the books for the umpteenth time because of the constant rumbling of the not-so terra firma.

His collection is eclectic: from local and foreign graphic novels, to American potboilers, books on  Sen. Manny Pacquaio (whom he had interviewed and profiled for a local magazine), the late President Corazon Aquino, all manner of Rizaliana and Filipiniana, to the books by well-known American and other foreign poets and writers, to  business and social science titles. He chronicled this book collection in part in his blog “The Bookworm of Gensan,” on Blogspot.  His other blog on the same platform, “KnowRead/KnoWrite”,  he devoted to reading and writing. He had put up the two blogs to promote literacy, reading, and campus journalism.

Towers of books for company

“Yesterday, after the quake, some books fell on the path to my main door. Inside my home, some more book towers were toppled. It was a painstaking task of picking one book at a time to put the book towers back in place,” he said in a post he wrote on December 16.

Responding to suggestions from well-meaning friends that he donate his books so he would have more space in his apartment, he wrote back:“Now let me make this very clear:  I’ve lived with books almost all of my life. To suggest to me that I donate them bec ause I need the space is like me telling you to give away your lifetime partner because you need space. Tama ba yun?”  All that he was asking for is a little more time with his books before he parted with them, he said.

He had  actually planned to build  for his books a container van library on a spot in his small property at the city’s Morales Subdivision early this year, and open it to the community. The rising costs of building materials however, put the matter on hold.

And he provided that if his plans for the container van library fell through, the books will all go to the city’s public library. In fact, in 2015, he had already made an initial donation to the public library, consisting of 174 books from just his  journalism collection – a huge number of that kind, by any measure.

The US-based poet Rowena Torrevillas,  former director-in-residence of the famous Silliman University National Writers’ Workshop (SUNNW) founded by her late parents Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, wrote in response to his December 16 post: “Good for you, Gilbert. Bravo. I myself will always prize and honor the printed page over the books-on-screens. ( have an essay on this thought that I can send you digitally, if you’d like.)”


Gilbert in a Star Wars shirt after watching Episode IX  just a day  before he passed away in the company of friends

A writing fellow

Gilbert was a proud member of Batch ’89 of the SUNNW as a fellow for fiction. The list of fellows for that year is now a veritable who’s who of the contemporary Filipino journalism and literary firmament –Cynthia Lopez Dee, Danilo Francisco Reyes, Felino Garcia Jr., Jose Wendell Capili, Lakambini Sitoy, Luna Sicat-Cleto, Maria Jovita Zarate, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, Nenita Lachica, Ramon Boloron, Rex JMA Fernandez, Romulo Baquiran Jr., Timothy Wells, and VE Carmelo Nadera Jr.

Unrealized dream

Alas, he never did realize his dream.

Five days later, in the early evening of December 21 – but mercifully, while in the company of friends –  he suffered a  heart attack and was pronounced dead by doctors at the hospital. He saw Episode IX: The Rise of the Skywalker at the mall  the day before. He was wearing a Star Wars shirt when he passed on. He was only 63 years old. A life-long bachelor, he thrived in the company of his many friends, his immediate family, his godchildren, and his many nephews and nieces.

It was apparently his second heart attack; his first happened a couple of months earlier, which led to a short spell of depression, evident in his Facebook posts after his hospital stay.

He had also suffered a stroke in 2014, which led to his decision to finally stop decades of smoking. One can say  the decision to quit may very well have given him a longer lease on life than would otherwise have been possible.

But he clearly understood what that medical history meant. He prepared himself for it, first, by making the necessary arrangements so that his loved ones will not have to worry too much when the time came for him to go, and second, by telling  confidantes how to tidy things up when he is gone.

Weeks before, he sent  Dr. Alfie Custodio pictures of  him all smiles in the crematorium where he wanted to be cremated, and of the columbarium  where he wanted his ashes to be interred, when the inevitable happened. “I recoiled with horror when I saw the pictures,” said Dr. Custodio, a business professor at the Notre Dame Dadiangas University, where Gilbert earned his MBA.

One of the pictures was of the urn he would like his ashes to be carried in. He had already paid for all the funeral arrangements. Dr. Custodio  had been his student at MSU. He  had  also coached her in  high school for the National Schools Press Conference.  In graduate school, their roles were reversed. But by then they had  already become fast friends. Even so, Gilbert continued to be her writing mentor, who egged her no end to send her efforts at writing poetry to  workshops. ”I didn’t think he should have even given thought to it – we had an eye on future projects to work together on,” she said.


Gilbert at his MBA graduation, with his erstwhile student-turned-grad school professor, Dr.  Custodio

It was Dr. Custodio who  presided over Gilbert’s hooding ceremony when he finally graduated from graduate school  in 2016,  or a long 35 years after he entered it. Gilbert had also designated her as his “legacy contact” for his Facebook account, and she helped arrange the memorial services for Gilbert after his remains were cremated on December 23.

A high school awakening

Gilbert’s  late parents used to run a grocery store right across the city’s Freedom Park. It was named after him because he was then the only child.  At the age of 3, he could already read, taught by his grandmother and two aunts, who were all teachers.  “Lola subscribed yearly to Reader’s Digest and when the monthly issue was delivered by the postman, she would call me to sit by her side. She would point out to me the words she was reading,” he recalled in a blogpost. “My aunts would do the same when their turns came to read it. (Years later, she would give me a Reader’s Digest book on health and medicine for my high school graduation. She knew I wanted to become a medical doctor.)”

But he considered his sophomore English class under Mr. Roger Rebucan at the Notre Dame Dadiangas High School Boys’ Department as his intellectual awakening to the possibilities of the written word. “As our English teacher, he taught us a language that resonates with dynamism when used as a tool for self-expression. He was as sports-minded as he was an avid reader,” he wrote of his English teacher in an essay that won the “My Favorite Book” writing contest of the Philippine Star in 2005.  “Being not much of the sporty type due to my myopic eyes, I would read library books while keeping watch over the school bags and uniforms of those classmates who played in the field. I would often see Mr. Rebucan reading in between ballgames he was officiating, in the canteen while taking his snacks, in the faculty room when he had finished checking our papers, and in the parade grounds while waiting for the civic-military parade to start. I was drawn to him because we shared something in common – reading.”

An education in words under Martial Law

He was a high school junior  when Martial Law was declared by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In September this year, writing of his high school batch’s 50th year reunion, he recalled those days when parents spoke to their children about Martial Law’s unspoken evils in whispers, and a time “when paranoia became the order of the day.”

“Some batchmates, enrolled in a judo-karate club, talked about the janitor who suddenly disappeared,” he wrote in an essay for Rappler. The  fate of the janitor who did a disappearing act may well have been  his second introduction to the pleasures  and perils of the written word. The janitor, later identified as the award-winning poet, essayist and dramatist Emmanuel Lacaba, had left a comfortable perch in the academe in Manila, going underground in Mindanao to  fight the Marcos dictatorship. He was captured and summarily executed by the military  in 1976 in Davao del Norte.  Lacaba was also a Silliman writing fellow, Batch ’69.

Gilbert went on to write:

“Yes, we were ‘lucky’ to have been teenagers during the early years of Martial Law, and as we went to college, we saw the horrors and evils of the New Society and the military abuses. We have relatives, friends, and schoolmates who were caught and killed in the crossfire between the military and the rebels, became victims of abuse and torture, and disappeared without a trace. Martial Law indeed left an indelible mark in our lives as its survivors.”

Gilbert would only spend a year in college at the University of the Philippines Diliman because his family could not afford to keep him there.  He went back to Gensan and continued his college education at the Notre Dame Dadiangas College (now a university).

There, as a college sophomore, he became editor-in-chief of the campus publication, The Vox. He recalled that before the publication would see print, the Media Board in Davao City would go over each edition with a fine-toothed comb – his first brush with censorship under Martial Law. The experience would transform him into a fierce defender of press freedom and free expression.

Literary travel/travail

Gilbert was the first  General Santos City-born writer to have made it as a fellow in the 58-year history of the SUNWW, known as the most prestigious and the most exacting in the country. Indeed, in the long years when General Santos City was still a literary backwater, he soldiered on for that gentle madness of the finely-tuned word.

In those pre-social media, and very analog days, that meant travelling four hours by bus to Davao City on weekends, to see the eminent poet and fictionist Tita Lacambra-Ayala (otherwise known as the mother of famous singers Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander).  “She took me under her wing, egging me to drink several glasses of rum-coke while she read my stories,” he reminisced in a blog entry. “Half-drunk, I would listen as she critiqued my work. She would also regale me with her literary exploits. She would bring me to exhibits, poetry readings, meetings with the local literati like Lydia Ingle and Wenzel Bautista. I would help her out by selling sets of her Roadmap Series featuring the works of fictionists, poets and painters.”

The Ayala apartment along Quirino Avenue in what is now Duterte country “became my literary sanctuary,” he wrote.  “Joey and the rest of the brood went in and out of the house, planting a kiss on her cheek each time and surprising me with their calling her by her first name. Quite an unconventional set-up.”  It was there where a young Gilbert would also hobnob with the Davao literati, who gravitated around Ms. Ayala to seek her wise counsel on the state of the arts in the city.

These weekend mini-writing workshops Ms. Ayala would immortalize in a poem entitled “Counter-Point in Double Poem,” which she expressly dedicated to Gilbert. In this poem, she pays tribute to Gilbert’s literary travel and travail in these words: “some buses are longer/ than the bridges/and cannot/ make a turn –/ the roads are bordered/ with newtonian faults/where farther to/consider/ the edge of things?/ you are in their/continuous center/evolving platitudes/ wise and angry/ against this ravage of / violent/ abstractions…” The poem became part of an anthology of her  poems, “Camels and Shapes of Darkness in the Time of Olives,”  published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1998.

She passed away in January this year, at age 88.

In 1988, Gilbert’s story “Crimson Crescents” won first prize for April and the grand prize of the year in the Mr. & Ms. magazine love story contest for that year. I hazard to say that his literary achievements  paved the way for the current crop of young writers from the Southern Mindanao region now making their mark in the national literary scene.

As far as I know, Gilbert  also worked as a stringer for Manila-based newspapers in the early 80s. I recall that as a high school student in the mid-80s, I would look forward to his pieces for the Malaya newspaper, for which he submitted not just regular reportage but also extended bon mots on drivel journalists sometimes wrote in their practice of writing history in a hurry.

But it was teaching that consumed most of his professional life – first, at his college alma matter, and later on and until his early retirement last year, at the Mindanao State University campus in the city.

A writer’s generosity

Gilbert was generous with his talents. For three decades, he was a fixture in campus journalism conferences as a mentor to generations of campus journalists.  I was one of  hundreds of direct beneficiaries of his accumulated wisdom. I owe in part my eight year-stint as a newspaper reporter to a  1987 seminar at the Notre Dame Dadiangas College-High School Department that I had attended.

In retirement, he continued to contribute to campus journalism by serving as a seminar lecturer and regional secondary schools press conferences judge. Until his death, he was adviser of Panganduman, the city-based chapter of SOX Writers, an umbrella organization of writers in Southern Mindanao and neighboring areas. Under his tutelage, Panganduman organized  writing seminars featuring prominent national writers – a first for the province of South Cotabato, in many ways.

He relished no end the current flowering of many writer’  groups and events in the city and  neighboring towns, which he could only dream of in his younger years.

And he celebrated the founding a few years ago of the online Cotabato Literary Journal  by a younger (and already award-winning)  crop of writers as a watershed moment. The monthly journal, as its website says, “is a repository of the best works that writers from Cotabato Region have produced and a showcase as well of their best new works.”

The name hearkens to  the American colonial days, when what is now an area straddled by the provinces of South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat, was called under only one name – the Empire Province of Cotabato. The journal would publish in its pages two of his pieces: an essay about a familiar haunting he had experienced one Christmas,  years after the death of his beloved mother, and his award-winning short story.

Oddly enough, the December 2019 edition of the journal carried contributions on the theme of “Narratives of Illness,” and  one of the issue editors, Isulan City-based prize-winning writer Jude Ortega, writes:

Gilbert Tan and Noel Pingoy, two of my fellow writers in the region, both had a stroke this decade, and they talked about the ordeal that they had gone through while we were having lunch one time. With prompt medical attention, their lives and bodies didn’t change much after the stroke—they just no longer had dreams anymore, which many people would find positive instead of negative—but the conversation was wedged in my subconscious.

Pingoy, the other issue editor who also happens to be a medical doctor, is a resident in the hospital where Gilbert was taken after his fatal heart attack. He arrived at the ER just after Gilbert was pronounced DOA by the young resident-on-duty.

In his introduction to the 40th issue of the journal, he writes of how Gilbert struggled with post-stroke recovery by writing about it constantly on social media. “He would often write about his stroke as if it were a metaphorical wound that needed incessant tending,” he says, adding that Gilbert, borrowing the first lines from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tide, considered his stroke  a “geography” – or even his “anchorage,” and his “port of call.” “That would define, to my mind, his daily battles and little victories in the years preceding his untimely death.”

He ends his essay with these words:

I had the good fortune of sitting beside Sir Gilbert at a local coffee shop three nights before his fatal heart attack. He greeted me with his customary warmth in between giving sagacious advice to, I assumed, his former students. I remarked that he particularly looked serene and content. He just smiled back. I will always carry that memory with me like a wound that cannot be healed. It has become in my appreciation of—and gratitude for—his life and death, a personal geography.’


 An unfinished project


GIlbert among friends, just hours before his fatal stroke

An unfinished project of Gilbert’s was a book on campus journalism he had been working on for some time. I remember him telling me about it over coffee at a mall during one Christmas holidays. I would try to prod him to finish the manuscript every now and then. A few entries in his reading and writing blog appear to refer to it.  I hope someone would  find the manuscript, and put the finishing touches to it  in his honor –   for the benefit of future campus journalists in Southern Mindanao and beyond.


A self-portrait from 2016, in the company of some of his books

Two books in my personal  library were Christmas gifts from him, given during my Christmas visits to our hometown – the first,  a critic’s take on W.H. Auden’s poetry, and second, essays on old age by the poet Donald Hall.  The second came in the middle of my own personal grief. That second gift is now doubly memorable, as he gave it to me just a few days after my father died on December 21, 2014, at the age of 81.

As I write this, I take out the book from its perch on my bookshelf, and, thinking of  their deaths on the same date but in different years, I wonder how any “ceremony of losses” Hall writes about in his book – including the faltering of one’s sight in old age, or brushes with  mortality – could really prepare those of us left behind for such sudden departures, for such unexpected griefs.

*photographs appearing in this tribute were provided by Dr. Custodio.

Gilbert is survived by his parents Napoleon Sr., (+) and Emelita (+), siblings Nellie, Willie, Napolito (+), Napoleon Jr., and Katherine, and nephews and nieces Keanu, Ken, Kerwin, Nerissa Joy, Nathalie Joan, Neya Jayne, Nena Julie, Neri Jesah, Nap, Claire, Judelyn, Jona, Maden, and Joseph Paulo.

Written by Romel

December 31, 2019 at 6:28 am

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Extended Call for Papers: AsianSIL 7th Biennial Conference 2019, Quezon City Philippines

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7th AsianSIL Biennial Conference
22 to 23 August 2019 (Quezon City, Philippines)


Theme of the Conference: Rethinking International Law: Finding Common Solutions to Contemporary Civilizational Issues from an Asian Perspective

Undeniably, the Asian region now plays a bigger role in the shaping of international law, as it continues to grow in economic, cultural and political importance. With more than half of the world’s population living in the region – not to mention that it plays host to ten of the largest nations on earth – Asian economies push the demands of development into unchartered territory in the so-called Asian century with a dynamism all their own.

And yet the past is always relevant to our common future/s. While international law may have had a murky beginning in Asia – closely intertwined as it has been with the colonial project – there is no question that Asian societies have embraced it, even for purposes distinct and separate from its original impulses. As a platform for cooperation in many areas, it has proven its usefulness, the contentious aspects notwithstanding.

Contemporary developments in international relations, shifts in global, regional and national politics, as well as large-scale environmental and economic issues, now compel a reexamination of the foundational roots of international law, especially as these raise civilizational issues.

For example, the horrific spectre raised by a new breed of radical terrorists has raised a common issue to humanity and challenges exceptionalist notions of culture-based norms and rights on what it means to be human and to be a rights-bearer.

East and West, North and South, the question of human dignity has become front and center in the raging debate on the meaning and continuing relevance of human rights; this in fact, should take us back to the discussions on the ontological or civilizational sources from which the drafters of the UN Charter drew in their difficult and gargantuan work. To be sure, Asia has its own smoldering human rights and humanitarian hotspots, which further complicate the direction of development its varied societies want to harness for their future.

And what of the UN in relation to Asia, the most diverse of regions in the world? As a leading, if dominant feature of the international legal order, the UN and the different corollary international legal institutions it has spawned have demonstrated both vertical and horizontal features that have a bearing on an Asian embrace of international law.

In the global issue of environmental degradation – on many levels a real civilizational threat – Asia has moved forward, with China choosing to work with the European Union in implementing the Paris Protocol in the face of American retreat. And environmental problems are no abstract problem in many Asian societies.

The hegemony of Western-style business and investments also now finds stiff competition in Chinese-led international banking and investments, and the new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) proposed by China continues to make inroads in areas traditionally occupied by state sovereignty and extant regional economic arrangements.

Uncertainties in the contemporary times may mean disabling perplexities. But it may also be embraced as a necessary search for common solutions to the common problems faced by diverse cultures and societies, by way of rethinking what international law had stood for from the beginning and how it may be made relevant to contemporary challenges.

Click here for further details

The 7th Biennial Conference and its Junior Scholars Conference is co-hosted by the Philippine Society of International, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the University of the Philippines College of Law/UP Law Center.

Written by Romel

December 21, 2018 at 1:50 am

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Theology going “public”

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This is PART THREE of excerpts from a commencement address I gave in March at a seminary. Click here for PART ONE and here for PART TWO. in the academic sense is necessarily public, in that as a scientific practice it engages the totally of our existence from the angle of faith, whether it concerns the inner practices or the external expressions of being a Christian in the world. Theology in the second sense is public, because our creedal confessions address not only the church but also the world. Theology in the first sense, considering the third and second senses of the world, cannot but be public.

Hence, my discomfiture with the current academic fashion to speak of a “public” theology, as if theology is by nature private, and that it must somehow step out of its comfortable confines to confront public issues of the day. I understand there is a certain heuristic to talking of a public theology when discussing how theology may speak on concerns that intersect with the public sphere, the common good, or public justice. But to begin with, the Christian narrative of Creation, Fall and Redemption is cosmic in character.

The very definition of the Gospel we derive from this narrative, in the words of Herman Bavinck who speaks of God the Father reclaiming creation that is His own through Jesus Christ, the true King, and with the Holy Spirit, to establish his Kingdom that will never end. The theological articulation of this grand narrative necessarily will have public, if, cosmic implications.

No, we do not want a public theology for the sheer sake of being relevant. In addressing the currents of the day, it must be a theology faithful to that grand narrative – yes, against all defeatist postmodern claims – beginning with the Book of Genesis and ending with the Book of Revelations; in other words, it must be founded on the Alpha and the Omega of our faith, Jesus the Christ, as revealed in Scriptures.

The best test of relevance for me is how well our academic theologizing serves the needs of the Church as it serves Christ in the world. More often than not, fashionable theologies do not do that; instead, they only serve to undermine the very purpose for which the Church exists – as a witness for Christ, as a bearer of the Gospel for the whole world. Relevance for relevance’s sake more often than not commits the Church to a pattern of life that destroys its witness and robs it of spiritual power – “having a form of Godliness but denying its power”( 2 Tim. 3:5, NIV) But certainly our theology, if it must follow the confession that Christ is Lord of all, has political implications.

Indeed, the weight of our Christian confession breaks through history and shapes its direction. Christ, the true Lord, is Risen as the True Sovereign and one day, every pretender to power, every ruler who has set himself up with the power to decide over life and death, every corrupt and immoral leader, will be exposed and judged by the One who comes to claim the world as His own, rightful, kingdom.

This all ties up with our confession, as the book of the Psalms says, that “[t]he earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1, NIV). In the language of the Nicene’s Creed, God is the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” All authority in heaven and on earth, in the sheer diversity of the institutions and responsibilities established to exercise such authority, comes from Him and are now given to the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19; Phil. 2:1-11).

We understand the call to justice to be normative; that is, justice is rooted in God’s creational design and the normative obligations that come with nurturing institutions, societal structures, personal and social relationships, for human flourishing. Following our biblical and confessional commitments, social and political institutions are never mere human constructions.

We recognize them to be our God-given responsibility, to be developed as offices exercised according to a particular God-ordained telos unique to each institution and relation. By this confessional commitment, we know that state and statecraft cannot be an all-embracing reality, absorbing to itself every other institution and relation. Yet, since the 19th century, the idea of the state has been dominated by political theories that elevated the state over every other institution and relation in society. This, to me, is contrary to the biblical witness.

If justice – and statecraft (the art and science of just governing) – is a biblically normative calling, neither can we abide by the idea of government that is instrumentalist or absolutist. The first tendency treats statecraft as no more than a pursuit of ends by whatever means necessary. The second transforms state and statecraft into no more than an exercise of naked, unbridled power.

But they are really related. The absolutist is almost always instrumentalist (that, is he will do everything to achieve his purposes, no matter what the cost, and without recognizing legal limits), because he can, with all the means and power at his disposal.

If statecraft is biblically normative, we cannot abide by a leader who claims he alone has the discretion to say who is a friend and who is the enemy, what is law and what is not, when there is a state of emergency and when there is a normal state of political affairs, or worse, who is human and who is not. Thus, when we hear leaders say that in order to uphold the law, it becomes necessary to break it, we should immediately jump on our feet and raise a howl of protest.

The bloody drug war launched by President Duterte, which has already claimed thousands of lives since it was launched in July last year, should give much pause to Christians serious about their confessional and biblical commitments.



Image on this post taken from

Written by Romel

June 14, 2018 at 3:22 am

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Theology among the disciplines in a Republic under Scripture

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This is PART TWO of excepts from a commencement speech I gave at a seminary last March. For Part 1, on The Three Senses of Theology, click here.

Now, let me go back to the question posed by our discussion of Thomas Aquinas: is theology indeed the Queen of the Sciences? If not, should we make it such? In the Western tradition, theology was a crucial part of the university, beginning with the ancient universities in Paris, in Salamanca or in Oxford, which were also started as crucial pillars of religious communities of what was then a united Christendom.

Over time, theology lost its pride of place in the onslaught of secularization. That in part also explains  the anomaly one finds today in many faculties of theology in Europe and North America full of theologians who don’t believe what they write about God: theology has become unmoored from its church foundations, losing its intimate connections with the daily life of the church in prayer, word, Eucharist, baptism, celebration.

For example, in the last 10 years or so, a movement in theological faculties has arisen, called Radical Orthodoxy (which I mentioned earlier), championed by the theologian John Milbank. Milbank critiques traditional accounts of secularization that posits it as an independent development from the wrap of Christian culture of the Middle Ages. In fact, he argues that shifts in theological thought, beginning with Duns Scotus and William of Occam, led as well to disciplinary shifts, leading to the birth of secularized social sciences. So Milbank and his followers wanted to recover theology as primus inter pares among the disciplines.

Indeed, Milbank’s revisionist account proffers radical implications on how we look, among other things, at theology and societal institutions and communities. On the first point, Radical Orthodoxy seeks to re-install theology as the Queen of the Sciences.

Indeed, Milbank argues that theology, inasmuch as it concerns itself with esse as such, with the ground of all being, and all in relation to such ground and source, it cannot be anything but be pre-eminent over all other disciplines. In fact, he goes as far as saying that ceding ground to other disciplines is idolatry, considering that such disciplines, in the first place, were born as a result of theology’s descent into hell. He says theology must now reassert its voice in giving an account of every sphere of creation so that theology is not side-lined by other disciplines but that other disciplines orient themselves in relation to itself as the “Queen of the Sciences for all the inhabitants of the altera civitas.”

So Milbank rejects all disciplinary boundaries and summons theology as the Queen sovereign of all disciplines, in this wise:

Theology has no proper finite territory of its own, and yet is able to speak of God, its specific concern, by way of all other subjects and sciences. So when one is speaking of “theology and economics” one is just directly concerned with the possibility of their being a mediated word of God, as when one is speaking of “theology and Church history” or “theology and the gospels.

As it were, he would have us with a theological economics, a theological political science, or a theological sociology. As a practical and logical outworking of theology as the only truthful account of reality, Radical Orthodoxy rejects the societal differentiation occasioned by modernity, such differentiation, being, in Milbank’s book, the result of a theological heterodoxy (here, let us bear in mind Milbank’s thesis that shifts in theology also led to the birth of heretical social scientific disciplines).

Indeed, subsequent works both by Milbank and his many disciples surface the centrality of the church as a community, as the new polis. I agree with the broader turns – especially his attack on claims to neutrality and objectivity of secularized special scientific disciplines – taken by Milbank’s Radical Orthodox project but reject his other argument – clearly implied in the book – that we should all now return the place of the Queen of the Sciences to theology, as it was in the time of Thomas Aquinas.

My principal concern here is the second point. While Radical Orthodoxy may have somewhat gone out of fashion in the academe, it is still useful to use its propositions as counter-point to what I believe should be the proper place of theology in the third sense (that is, academic theology) among the disciplines. In fact, in the Reformed tradition, it is a commonplace to speak of God’s word addressing every sphere of creaturely life. As the great Dutch theologian, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper had said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of creation over which Christ does not cry, ‘Mine’!”

But as the political philosopher Jonathan Chaplin asks, who has authority to interpret the word of God for, say, society and politics? His response:

The first answer of the Reformed tradition is, rightly, the whole people of God, not primarily academic theologians. Yet among the people of God are of course, academic theologians, as well as Christian scholars in all other disciplines, all of whom are equally subject to biblical revelation. Where the Reformed tradition may differ with Radical Orthodoxy is in denying that this subordination is authoritatively mediated to disciplines like social theory by a royal discipline called theology.

Christian sociologists will need to draw on the expertise of theologians for their understanding of the Christian narrative in general and specific biblical themes such as creation, anthropology, sin, history, community, eschatology and so on. But a theologian will also need to draw on the work of Christian sociologists for their Christian understanding of social processes, structures, and norms.

Thus, Chaplin explains, “for the Reformed tradition, the sciences are a republic, not a monarchy” but a “republic under Scripture.”

Chaplin here follows Dooyeweerd’s view that theology is but one special theoretical discipline among many. He understands that for Dooyeweerd, each of these disciplines must be shaped and directed by a biblically formed Christian philosophy. In his summation and integrative essay to the volume in which Chaplin’s essay appears, Jim Olthuis, who edited it along with Smith, says:

Other problems emerge…when theology is enthroned as queen of the sciences. The impression is created that any and every kind of Christian attempt at theorizing is ipso facto theology. Indeed, Milbank claims that any and all efforts by Christians to provide countertheory belong to theology and are, in fact, ecclesiology. I cannot help but wonder about what appears to be a hegemonic move. Is theology the only science that can legitimately be called Christian? Is there no room, in addition to theology, or Christian theories of economics, political science, history, physics, biology, sociology, linguistics, aesthetics, psychology, and so on, each with its own field of study?…one is left wondering if there are any parameters distinguishing the various sciences from a Christian perspective. Would a Christian university simply have no hegemonic faculty, with all the other disciplines as branches or subsidiaries of theology?

Thus, what we must not do is to subsume all Christian knowledge under the term “theology.”


The image found in this post is taken from here.

Written by Romel

May 31, 2018 at 2:05 am

The Three Senses of Theology

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PART ONE: Excerpts from a seminary commencement speech I gave in March this year:

In his short English-language introduction to his four-volume magnum opus, The New Critique of Theoretical Thought, the late Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweed writes that the Greek philosophers of old were the exact opposite in the extreme sense, disdaining doxa (popular opinion) while holding that true knowledge is philosophic in character. Thus, for them true theological knowledge cannot stoop to the level of faith, denying the possibility of divine revelation. So from the very beginning, there has always been a fraught relationship between theology and philosophy, as Dooyeweerd describes it in his book In The Twilight of Western Thought.

I think what Dooyeweerd, who has championed an integral, biblically directed philosophical prolegomena to all Christian theology, has written about the relationship between philosophy and theology is very relevant to our discussion today. All too often, our failure to understand the historical roots of that problematic relationship has led to much confusion, if not equivocation, in the way we understand “Christian knowledge.” It is important, first of all, what we mean when we speak of theology.

Church Fathers, especially Augustine, rejected the Greek proposition that philosophy, as an independent source of knowledge, can well hold on its own without theology, and in fact, can be an independent source of truth. For them, pagan-inspired philosophy, being full of errors and superstitions, cannot be trusted.

Philosophy can only be the servant of theology – with its own principle of knowledge, namely Scripture – and at the careful control and tending of the latter.

Augustine most of all held to this conviction. And yet, Dooyeweerd explains that it was still the influence of Greek philosophy in Christian theology that however led Augustine to think that theoretical Christian theology is true knowledge of God and true self-knowledge. So for Augustine, theology is true philosophy.

In Aquinas, by Dooyeweerd’s account, Christian philosophy ceased to be identified with theology, as Augustine wanted. Instead, philosophy as an autonomous science is assumed, including a philosophical or natural theology that refers to the natural light of reason alone.

Aristotlean metaphysics from which it is drawn, though now outside the control of Scripture, is accommodated into Christian theology. Thomism assumed that the natural truths of philosophy cannot contradict the supernatural truths of the Christian theology as expressed in doctrines, which are assumed to be supernatural, since they are drawn from divine revelation, and for that matter, are higher than the truths of philosophy.

Thus it is in Aquinas’ Thomism where we got the notion of theology as the Queen of the Sciences, of theology as elevated over all other forms of knowledge. It is also in Aquinas where Christian theology, in the sense of the academic and scientific practice, became identified with sacra doctrina (the doctrine of the Church) and sacra scriptura (the Holy Scriptures).

Three senses and True knowledge of God and of ourselves

How is this so? To understand why, we must acquaint ourselves with the three senses of theology that Dooyeweerd speaks of. The Christian philosopher speaks of the first sense of theology as true knowledge given in regeneration (the central religious orientation of the heart to the true God); Theology in the second sense is that of the church’s confession of faith as expressed in the creeds (a non-theoretical expression); Theology in the third sense is that of theology as an academic or scientific discipline (a field of theoretical study or a special science). So when we speak of the first sense of theology, we speak of the most basic root orientation and direction of all our temporal existence drawn from the word-revelation of the Holy Spirit, which ought to inform the two other senses of theology. Meanwhile, theology in the third academic and scientific sense then springs from a general theoretical view of reality as its presupposition (a philosophical root), whether implicit or expressed.

In Dooyeweerd’s view, academic Christian theology “refers to a theoretical explanation of the articles of faith in their scientific confrontation with the texts of Holy Writ and with heretical views.” In this sense,” he continues,” Christian theology is bound to theoretical human thought which cannot claim the infallibility of God’s Word.” When we say then that every Christian ought to be a “theologian”, it is fundamentally a reference to the first sense, to the fact that we are all religious beings, whose hearts are either oriented to the true God or to something in the created order that in our apostasy, we turn into a god.

We are homo adorans, beings created to worship, in the totality of who and what we are (as opposed to say, the Thomist-Aristotlean construction of the human that stresses on the intellect, hence, on rationality, as its defining characteristic). It is only this sense where we can say that every Christian is a theologian. Stated in another way, true knowledge of God and of ourselves is a true spiritual miracle, being no less than the very gift of God by faith, and not the work of scientific or systematic (i.e., “dogmatic”) theology (theology in the third sense). In true evangelical fashion, we say that we must be born again – like Nicodemus – to truly know God and who we are before him (John 3:1-21).

When the Dutch philosopher speaks of a “radical starting point” for Christian thought, Dooyeweerd really means that point of being “reborn” through the working of the Spirit as the foundation of theoretical thought. True Christian theology (the first sense of theology) is not/cannot be reached through the extensive, academic study of the things of God, or in Aquinas’s term, through the workings of natural reason – of autonomous theoretical thought, that is – or of sacra doctrina itself, apart from regeneration in the Holy Spirit. For human effort through a scientific or systematic investigation of the character of God (theology in the third sense) cannot unlock the mystery of the birth (creation), death (fall) and resurrection (redemption) of Jesus Christ. Only faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit will do for fallen humanity.

Because to do so, in Dooyewerd’s idea, is to make it an autonomous project, the way a certain Aristotelian Thomism would make of natural reason, in the absence of a Reformed doctrine of the total depravity of fallen humanity. The transcendental theoretical critique of theology is precisely this: without Spirit-imparted faith, correct doctrine is nothing but lifeless words.

A person may well have mastered Calvin’s systematic theology and yet remain ignorant of the saving faith the New Testament speaks of. For academic purposes, she may be well versed in the intricacies of the Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion and yet in her heart, remain in the dark about the personal and spiritual implications of the great Genevan theologue’s (or for that matter, of Martin Luther’s) insight that a person is justified by faith, and not by works. Only the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration can impart true knowledge of God in the heart of a person. But not everyone is a theologian in the third sense (a professional or academic theologian).

This then is the paradox of any academic theology (or any theology in the third sense), even one that is by nature orthodox: it may accurately describe all the truths that Scripture teaches and yet may at the same time serve as stumbling block to true knowledge of God and of ourselves. Theology in the second sense of its creedal form may draw from the third sense in a reciprocal relation. That is, academic theology, carried out by believing or confessing theologians, informs and shapes creedal Christianity (theology in the second sense) and deepens our religious commitments (theology in the first sense).

Thus, in our being theologians in the first sense, we draw from theology in the second and third senses in a constant interplay. We need theology in the third sense, yes, to deepen and enrich theology in the first and second senses. But without theology in the first sense, theology in the third sense is vain striving. To explain further, theology in the first sense, anchored on our being homo adorans, is the knowledge of God and of ourselves that happens when we hear and share from the Scriptures, opened in our hearts by the Spirit, and arising from our obedience to Christ in doing the truth. In other words, this is the deepened faith that grips our whole being when we follow Christ in all that we are.

This is why it can happen – as it has indeed happened – that, many a naïve reader of the Bible, by simply being an active part of the church of Jesus Christ, is able to acquire the correct and fruitful use of Scripture, experiencing its profound truths in their everyday life, even without the hermeneutical and theological sophistication of professionals in the field. In the language of the Book of Hebrews that was our Scripture text earlier, they “have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (v. 4-5) and have chosen to be faithful with their Lord and Savior rather than fall away.

This sort of drinking the deep truths of Scripture is not a theoretical endeavor after the manner of academic theologians; this is actually experiencing and living out the truths of Scripture in faith as Christians living together in a community of believers. This is embracing the “Deeper Life” – pursuing together the Lordship of Christ no matter what – in the highs and lows of life, through disappointments, pains, tears, illnesses, and defeats, towards the higher plane of Christian maturity that no amount of academic theorizing can ever accomplish. And yet, even all this, is still the working of God’s grace in the heart of Christians.

Contrast this to many theologians with PhDs from the world’s top universities who somehow manage to dish out absurdities, half-truths and distortions for most of their professional lives, ruining the lives of many in and out of church, and living lives that are unconnected to what they claim is the very subject of their life’s work, namely, God! Nevertheless, the distinction Dooyeweerd makes between and among these three senses of theology may also explain why someone whose heart is totally committed to God may still be working within a theological tradition rooted in unbiblical ultimate commitments.

In fact, Dooyeweerd warns us of the dangers of conflating the Scripture with dogmatic theology (as in the Thomistic sense of theology as sacra doctrina et sacra sciptura):

For dogmatic theology is a very dangerous science. Its elevation to a necessary mediator between God’s Word and the believer amounts to idolatry and testifies to a fundamental misconception concerning its real character and position. If our salvation be dependent on theological dogmatics and exegesis, we are lost. For both of them are a human work, liable to all kinds of error, disagreement in opinion, and heresy.

The philosopher-theologian James K.A. Smith, in his book engaging the Cambridge Radical Orthodox theologians, asks the following questions, drawing from this Dooyeweerdian insight on theology as an academic discipline:

Is Christian faith to be equated with Christian theology? Is Christian revelation to be equated with theology? Is Christian confession theological in a scientific sense? How are we to do justice to the ‘sense of the faithful’ if Christian faith is collapsed with Christian theology? Must every Christian be a scientist in this respect?

Smith’s questions posed in 2004 and Dooyeweerd’s before him, are ever relevant.



The image used in this post was taken from here.

Written by Romel

May 28, 2018 at 11:44 pm

Remembering Milosz on Marx’s 200th

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rescued from my defunct blog ( 9/1/2004):

czesaw-miosz-prezentacja-1-638One Eastern European poet whose work I fancy a lot has just died. In his memory, I am posting an obituary which appeared in the New York Times. Milosz is also a great essayist and in my small library I have a copy of his most recent book, an anthology of his essays, where the running theme is that of the recovery of faith at a time when the great ideologies of his youth have all died :



Czeslaw Milosz, Poet and Nobelist Who Wrote of Modern Cruelties, Dies    

August 15, 2004 By RAYMOND H. ANDERSON

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish émigré writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, in part for a powerful pre-mortem dissection of Communism, in part for tragic, ironic poetry that set a standard for the world, died Saturday at his home in Krakow, his assistant, Agnieszka Kosinska, told The Associated Press. He was 93

An artist of extraordinary intellectual energy, Mr. Milosz was also an essayist, literary translator and scholar of the first rank.

Many of his fellow poets were in awe of his skills. When another Nobel poet and exile from totalitarianism, the Russian Joseph Brodsky, presented Mr. Milosz with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978, he said, ”I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Milosz in one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.”

Mr. Milosz was often described as a poet of memory and a poet of witness.

Terrence Des Pres, writing in The Nation, said of him: ”In exile from a world which no longer exists, a witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.”

In 1951, he was in Paris, on duty there as a Polish cultural attaché following elite assignments in the United States at the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington. An urbane man fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French, Mr. Milosz had established close associations with leading left-wing intellectuals in Paris.
These diplomatic contacts were important to the Warsaw authorities, but Mr. Milosz, a skeptic about Marxist rule, was tipped off that he faced arrest and trial in the Stalinist purges then under way if he returned to Poland. So he denounced the Moscow-dominated system that was tightening its grip on his homeland and took political asylum in France.

Formulating a New ‘New Faith’

In his youth, Mr. Milosz had been drawn to some of the idealized aspects of Marxism but he rejected dictatorship. In large measure, he defected, he explained later, because of damage he saw inflicted on spiritual values and intellect by Communist dogma, which he scorned as the ”New Faith.” For Mr. Milosz, faith was something else, as he made clear in a 1985 poem under that title:

Faith is in you whenever you look

At a dewdrop or a floating leaf

And know that they are because they have to be.

Even if you close your eyes and dream up things

The world will remain as it has always been

And the leaf will be carried by the waters of the river.

Mr. Milosz detested Socialist Realism, the Soviet-contrived literary doctrine that distorted truth into propaganda to promote the political and ideological goals of the Communist Party.

Two years after defecting, Czeslaw Milosz, (pronounced CHESS-wahf MEE-wosh) published ”The Captive Mind,” a searing analysis of Stalinist tactics and their numbing effect on intellectuals. ”The Captive Mind” was translated and published in many countries, becoming itself a historical document.

In it, Mr. Milosz wrote:

”The philosophy of history emanating from Moscow is not just an abstract theory; it is a material force that uses guns, tanks, planes and all the machines of war and oppression. All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New Faith.

”At the same time, Stalinism attacks him from within, saying his opposition is caused by his ‘class consciousness,’ just as psychoanalysts accuse their foes of wanting to preserve their complexes.”

”Still,” he added, prophetically, ”it is not hard to imagine the day when millions of obedient followers of the New Faith may suddenly turn against it.”

”The Captive Mind” was among a powerful group of books in the early 1950’s that condemned Communist ideology and foreshadowed the downfall of Communist power. A similar book was ”The New Class” by Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav dissident, which deplored self-aggrandizement and moral rot in the Communist leadership.

After his defection, Mr. Milosz explained in a speech: ”I have rejected the New Faith because the practice of the lie is one of its principal commandments, and Socialist Realism is nothing more than a different name for a lie.”

In the same year ”The Captive Mind” appeared, Mr. Milosz also published ”The Seizure of Power,” a fictionalized scrutiny of the relationship between Communism and intellectuals.

By 1960, Mr. Milosz had tired of his life amid leftist intellectual squabbling in France. Years later he would speak with acerbity of those in Western Europe who continued to regard the Soviet Union as the hope of the future, particularly those ”French intellectuals who considered that only a man who was insane could abandon his position of a writer in a people’s democracy in order to choose the capitalistic, decadent West.” He accepted a professorship in the Slavic Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

He became an American citizen and lived in the Berkeley hills in a modest house with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay. He celebrated that vista in his poetry (”Views From San Francisco Bay” in 1972), but he also spoke of the alien remoteness of the California landscape.

Mr. Milosz, with his bushy eyebrows, herringbone tweed jacket, wry humor and brilliant lectures was soon a popular figure on campus, especially in his seminars and lectures on Dostoyevsky. He continued to write verse, translated literary masterpieces into Polish and compiled a large volume, ”History of Polish Literature,” published in 1969.

The hardships and dangers in Mr. Milosz’s life, first under Nazi military terror and then under Communist oppression, followed by long years as an émigré in the West, clearly marked his writing.

”In both an outward and inward sense he is an exile writer, a stranger for whom physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical — or even religious — spiritual exile applying to humanity in general,” the Nobel Committee observed in 1980. ”The world that Milosz depicts in his poetry, prose and essays is the world in which man lives after having been driven out of Paradise.”

A Multilingual Boyhood

Czeslaw Milosz was born June 30, 1911, to a Polish-speaking family in Szetejnie, Lithuania, which together with Poland, Latvia and Estonia was part of the Russian empire at the time. The complex, multiethnic Baltic region was inhabited by communities of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Russians and others, all speaking their separate languages and living their own cultures.

His family was not rich but it was distinguished and intellectual. He was only 3 when World War I broke out, and his father, a civil engineer, served in the czar’s army, while his family was kept on the run from advancing German armies.

From his childhood on, Mr. Milosz had a rich inner life, reading widely. He also had a challenging array of talents, interests and skills. As a schoolboy, he was fascinated by the scientific world of animals.

But in the end, he enrolled in law school at the University of Vilnius, graduating at the age of 23. He worked several years in radio, and sometimes remarked in interviews that he felt guilty for having abandoned science.

Mr. Milosz traced the distinctive imagery of his poetry to his boyhood experiences in the rural countryside of Lithuania; his childhood is evoked in an autobiographical novel published in the United States as ”The Issa Valley” (1981) and in ”Native Realm,” an autobiography. In one of his essays he wrote: ”If I were asked to say where my poetry comes from I would say that its roots are in my childhood in Christmas carols, in the liturgy of Marian and vesper offices, and in the Bible.”

The author Eva Hoffman, a native of Poland, said of him: ”He has never been a provincial artist. His writing may bear the marks of his particular Lithuanian-Polish past, but the material of his own life is filtered through a fully cultivated intelligence and probed to those depths at which individual experience becomes universal.”

He attended high school in the city of Vilnius, which by then had been transferred from Lithuania to Poland, and later restored to Lithuania, and published his first poem at the age of 15, He studied Latin for seven years in school, and in his Nobel acceptance speech credited that underlying linguistic discipline and classroom translations of poems with helping him to develop his mastery. He also learned Hebrew and Greek well enough to later translate the Bible into Polish.

Poetic Vision Born of War

At the age of 22, while attending law school, Mr. Milosz published his first experimental verse, ”Poem on Time Frozen.” Favorable reaction helped him win a state scholarship to study literature in Paris after he was awarded a law degree in 1934. A relative there, Oscar Milosz, who worked in the Lithuanian legation and wrote poetry in French, helped broaden his world outlook and shape his poetic style.

He returned to Vilnius after the publication of a second book of poems called ”Three Winters” but was fired from his job at a local Polish radio station for being too liberal. Mr. Milosz was working in Warsaw for Polish Radio when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939.

During the Nazi occupation, he worked in the Warsaw University Library, wrote for the anti-Nazi underground, heard the screams and gunfire in 1943 as Germans killed or captured the remaining Jews in the walled Ghetto and witnessed the razing of nearly all Warsaw after the uprising in 1944.

One of his most moving poems, ”A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” (1943), described the assault on the Jews:

Bees build around red liver,

Ants around black bone.

It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,

It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel,

silver, foam

Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls,


Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls

Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,

Ants build around white bone.

Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,

Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.

The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the


Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,

With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,

With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.

He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,

He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,

The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.

Bees build around a red trace.

Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.

He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch

Who has sat much in the light of candles

Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,

Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?

My broken body will deliver me to his sight

And he will count me among the helpers of death:

The uncircumcised.

After the war, a collection of poems called ”Rescue,” which showed the influence of T.S. Eliot, established him among Poland’s pre-eminent writers. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party he was accepted into the diplomatic corps in 1946 and began the journey that ended with his defection in 1951 in Paris.

Mr. Milosz chose throughout his life to compose his poetry in the complex but rich Polish language, even after he mastered French and English. Poetry can be true, he said, only if created in one’s mother tongue.

As his work won increasing attention and respect, Mr. Milosz developed close ties to many leading world intellectuals, writers, and political and religious leaders, especially to Pope John Paul II, his countryman and leader of his faith.

When he consulted on his plan to break with Communism, it was with no less a figure than Albert Einstein, who advised him during a talk at Princeton University that he should go home to Poland, not defect to the West to join the sad fate of exiles.

‘A Poet Remembers’

Mr. Milosz also knew Lech Walesa, the electrician who led the anti-Communist Solidarity movement and went on to become president of Poland. Lines from a verse by Mr. Milosz were put on a memorial in Gdansk to honor Mr. Walesa’s fellow shipyard workers who were shot by the police in the early 1970’s:

”You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure: for a poet remembers.”

When Communism was smashed in Poland, Mr. Milosz returned to what he called ”the country of my first immigration.” Arriving in Warsaw after an absence of three decades, he received a hero’s welcome. Mr. Milosz was regarded as one of the world’s literary immortals. When he chose, he walked and talked with the great men of his time, but he remained humble.

He also had a remarkable memory and could readily recall the names of his early teachers, companions and friends, and he remembered in vivid detail the first books he read, his adventures and mishaps. He demonstrated that acute memory in his 1968 book ”Native Realm, A Search for Self-Definition,” a compelling and mildly ironic account of his life, work and thoughts in the illuminating context of Baltic and family history.

Mr. Milosz enjoyed pleasures of the body as well as of the mind, as he acknowledged in his 1985 poem, ”A Confession,” translated by himself and Robert Hass:

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also, well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man? Many others

Were justly called, and trustworthy.

Who would have trusted me? For they saw

How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,

And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.

Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,

Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,

And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,

I know what was left for smaller men like me:

A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud.

A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

At times, Mr. Milosz fell into melancholy, but he firmly fended off any would-be therapists. His early poetry was in what was called the ”Catastrophist” school of the 1930’s, which foresaw the annihilation of the principal values of modern culture and a devastating war. His wartime ordeals tended in ways to bear out the forebodings.

Mr. Milosz was a man of quiet manner but strong opinions and he expressed them, sometimes to the distress of his admirers. For example, in a PEN congress talk he reminded his fellow writers, ”Innumerable millions of human beings were killed in this century in the name of utopia — either progressive or reactionary, and always there were writers who provided convincing justifications for massacre.”

Reacting to the atrocities in the struggle between Christians and Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990’s, Mr. Milosz blamed intellectuals more than politicians and generals.

”These people who had liberated themselves from Marxist doctrine very quickly became nationalists,” he said in 1996. ”And we see what happens now in Yugoslavia. In my opinion, intellectuals are responsible for the horrors in Bosnia, for they initiated the new nationalist tendencies there.”

Mr. Milosz was married twice. His first wife, Janina Dluska, shared his ordeals in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation and went into exile with him. She died in 1986. They had two sons, Anthony and John Peter, who survive him. In 1992, Mr. Milosz married Carol Thigpen, a historian. Ms. Thigpen died in 2003, The Associated Press said.

After Mr. Milosz was awarded the Nobel, many of his books were translated into English and published in the United States. Ecco Press gathered a half-century of his work in ”The Collected Poems 1931-1987.” In it is a 1986 poem called ”And Yet the Books,” which contained these lines:

I imagine the earth when I am no more:

Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,

Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.

Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,

Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Spiritual Voice in a Ruined World

These selections are from ”Czeslaw Milosz: The Collected Poems, 1931-1987,” The Ecco Press, New York. 1988.


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder. Vilnius, 1936

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee


On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover,

A fisherman mends a glimmering net.

Happy porpoises jump in the sea,

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing,

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, would be a prophet

Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

There will be no other end of the world,

There will be no other end of the world. Warsaw, 1944

Translated by Anthony Milosz


Before Mary Magdalene, albescent in the dusk,

A skull. The candle flickers. Which of her lovers

Is this dried-up bone, she does not try to guess.

She remains like that, for an age or two

In meditation, while sand in the hourglass

Has fallen asleep — because once she saw,

And felt on her shoulder the touch of His hand,

Then, at daybreak, when she exclaimed: ”Rabboni!”

I gather dreams of the skull for I am it,

Impetuous, enamored, suffering in the gardens

Under a dark window, uncertain whether it’s mine

And for no one else, the secret of her pleasure.

Raptures, solemn oaths. She does not quite remember.

And only that moment persists, unrevoked,

When she was almost on the other side.

Berkeley, 1985, Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass




Written by Romel

May 4, 2018 at 4:33 pm

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