I’m a Christian, But I Won’t Be Saying “Merry Christmas”

A few days ago, reports that Roy Moore, Alabama Republican candidate for the United States Senate, initiated several sexual encounters with teenage girls, including one who was fourteen, when he was in his thirties were published in the Washington Post. Political sides were taken immediately, of course—we’ve unfortunately come to accept and expect it in our fraught and fractured political times. But one defense of Moore’s alleged behavior particularly caught the attention of many, including me. Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler said “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

No, I’d say that what’s just a little bit unusual is for someone to use the relationship between Mary and Joseph as a justification for alleged child molestation. On the list of “Things Christians Should Get Upset About,” Mr. Ziegler’s comments should be at the top of the list. To be sure, Christians of all sorts, types, shapes, and sizes filled the airwaves and social media with such outrage, while other Christians found nothing particularly wrong with either Brown’s alleged actions or Ziegler’s justification.

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But this will pass, as all things seem to do within a couple of days. Still, there are some things that certain Christians seem to get upset about regularly, an annual outrage that’s just about to fire up for the next six weeks or so. It’s the outrage concerning the War on Christmas allegedly being waged by all sorts of non-Christians in this country, a war whose continuing battlefields include the apparent prohibition against saying “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season. This prohibition is incited by politically correct liberals, the mainstream media, atheists, persons of faith who are not Christians, and anyone who enjoys persecuting American Christians, apparently the most oppressed majority in human history.

So even though it’s only the middle of November and I, as much as anyone, hate discussing Christmas when my favorite holiday—Thanksgiving—is still almost two weeks away, let me put my cards on the table as clearly as possible. I am a Christian, and I will not be saying “Merry Christmas” this holiday season. On principle.

When President Trump was a mere candidate for the highest office in the land, he promised that if he were elected President, everyone would be saying “Merry Christmas” once again, in stores, on streets, in dens of liberal iniquity where only “Happy Holidays” has been allowed for years . . . and he’s still promising it. A bit over a month ago, he gave a speech at the “Values Voter Summit,” a conservative Christian political action group whose support he enjoyed during the 2016 Presidential campaign and apparently still enjoys. In his typical rambling, stream-of-consciousness style, he threw out chunks of red meat to those assembled—sort of like the rolls of paper towels that he pitched into the crowd when he visited hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence — four times . . .

I pledged that, in a Trump administration, our nation’s religious heritage would be cherished, protected, and defended like you have never seen before.  That’s what’s happening.  That’s what’s happening.  You see it every day.  You’re reading it . . .

We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  [An aside: I think he learned this from Elvis]

And above all else, we know this:  In America, we don’t worship government — we worship God.  (Applause.)  Inspired by that conviction, we are returning moral clarity to our view of the world and the many grave challenges we face.

And something I’ve said so much during the last two years, but I’ll say it again as we approach the end of the year.  You know, we’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore.  (Laughter.)  They don’t use the word “Christmas” because it’s not politically correct.  You go to department stores, and they’ll say, “Happy New Year” and they’ll say other things.  And it will be red, they’ll have it painted, but they don’t say it.  Well, guess what?  We’re saying “Merry Christmas” again.  

This last promise was met with a standing ovation worthy of a 60s Beatles performance, complete with sign-waving, screaming, and probably some swooning. I have to give the President credit—he knows how to choose his red meat.

I’ve lived for more than sixty years and unless my memory is failing more than I think it is, this “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” business was not a “thing” in my early years. I would remember if it had been. I was raised in the most Christian of all possible atmospheres, taught about the evils of godless secularism and its insidious ways of infecting our culture from my earliest days in Sunday School, and learned to be vigilantly on guard against even the slightest affront to Jesus (since he apparently has very thin skin). But no one ever taught me that saying “Happy Holidays” is a direct attack on all that is good, Christian, and American. That’s probably a good thing, because over the past few years I’ve paid attention to which phrase seems most natural to me when greeting or saying farewell to people this time of year—and “Happy Holidays” wins by a large margin. Let me count the reasons why.

The most obvious reason to say “Happy Holidays,” of course, is simply that there are many more holidays going on during the holiday season than Christmas; several of these holidays are either secular or central to religious traditions other than Christianity. Saying “Happy Holidays” is simply inclusive and polite.

But as a Christian, I have better reasons not to say “Merry Christmas,” reasons that reflect my refusal to align myself with a surface level Christianity that is light-years distant from my own faith. As noted earlier, the “Merry Christmas” debate is part of the false narrative that Christians are under attack in this country—despite no supporting evidence. If your faith is threatened or undermined by the failure of others to say “Merry Christmas,” may I respectfully submit that your faith is extraordinarily fragile.

Note that in his comments, Trump places the offending failure to say “Merry Christmas” in a department store—capitalism and buying frenzies are Americans’ favorite holiday liturgies. And Christians happily buy into the narrative, as if hearing your favorite phrase is the sum total of what Christmas means to a person of Christian faith. Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly, Jesus didn’t come up very often at the Values Voter Summit, except tangentially, in Trump’s pledge that everyone will once again say “Merry Christmas” at our shopping centers—where we revere the one born in a manger by lining up for holiday sales.

In addition to blasphemies like Jim Ziegler’s defense of Roy Moord, what sorts of things should Christians really be upset by at Christmas? We might start by remembering that the Holy Family was a refugee family, impoverished, homeless, in need of help. Sort of like the families that this “Christian” country’s President—the thrice-married and multiply-accused sexual predator embraced enthusiastically by many “Christians”—is seeking to bar from emigrating to our great land unless they can prove their worthiness with an appropriate achievement score. Mary, Joseph, and their newborn infant child would have flunked that test. That upsets me—failing to hear enough “Merry Christmases” does not.

Christianity is difficult and challenging, because it supposed to be. It is contrary to our crudest instincts and runs counter to our basest inclinations. Marilynne Robinson points out that “Christian ethics go steadfastly against the grain of what we consider human nature. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not.” In response to the current tendency of many American Christians to go tribal in their litmus tests for who is Christian enough, she continues “However sound our credentials seem, we have it on good authority that the prostitutes and sinners might well enter heaven before us.” That’s fine, because such folks will probably be a great deal more fun to hang out with for eternity than people whose Christian faith is strengthened by how many times they hear “Merry Christmas” at the mall as they worship the divine infant while running up their credit card bills. Happy holidays to all!

Ordinary Miracles

Every year, between Pentecost and the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the lectionary takes us through week after week of “Ordinary Time,” a seemingly endless stretch of Sundays in green during which there are few special celebrations, no Advent or Lenten introspection and expectation, no thrilling Christmas, Easter or Pentecost celebratory remembrances, just a bunch of green week after week after week. A friend of mine once claimed that Ordinary Time is her favorite part of the liturgical year. I told her she was nuts.

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But I’ve learned over time to appreciate Ordinary Time. Each year, for instance, the gospel readings during Ordinary Time take us through one gospel writer’s version of Jesus’ adult ministry–this year it has been John, but my favorite is Mark. I like Mark’s style–he’s brief, direct, and to the point. One week, Jesus calms a stormy sea with a simple “Peace, be still.” Another week he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Another Sunday, he not only heals people and casts out demons, but he also empowers his disciples to do so.

As Simone Weil wrote, “the stories of miracles complicate everything.” And they do. Ever since my youth I have asked “What are we supposed to do with such stories, especially since we don’t see people raised from the dead or storms dispersed by a voice command today? Did these things really happen? If so, why don’t they happen now?”

The religion I was raised in explained some of this by dispensational theology, meaning that the dispensation of miracles, for some unexplained reason, ended with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Now that we have the Holy Spirit and the Bible, apparently miracles are old hat. I don’t buy it. But a stroll through the gospels raises the complications of miracles for me in a new way.

While riding in the car not long ago, Jeanne and I talked briefly about what it must have been like to be with Jesus and witness the miracles. How could anyone who observed such events have been as confused and often unbelieving as the disciples apparently were? Were the miracles daily events? Or does it just seem that way because the gospel writers are only hitting the high points, Jesus in miracle-working mode?

Maybe the gospel versions of Jesus’ ministry are like a ninety-second trailer for a movie. The trailer makes the movie seem like a “mus see,” but when you see it you find out that the only funny, dramatic, or poignant parts are the moments you saw in the trailer. Maybe life with Jesus during his ministry involved lots of down time with a few high points.

Just when you think you’ve got this guy figured out and have rationalized an explanation for what must have happened when he calmed the sea several weeks ago, just when you’ve decided that he’s a very interesting and charismatic guy but nothing more, then he randomly raises someone from the dead and the confusion starts all over again.

The real confusion for me, I think, if I had been a disciple comes into sharp focus as Mark’s gospel proceeds and he tells the story of the capture and beheading of John the Baptist. If there’s anyone who deserves a miracle from Jesus, it’s his relative John. John’s whole ministry was to “prepare the way” for Jesus, to connect Jesus to Old Testament prophecies, to baptize Jesus, to identify him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” then to step back.

But John has a big mouth; he runs afoul of paranoid and crazy Herod Antipas and finds himself in prison. How hard would it be for Jesus to open the prison and set John free? Jesus wouldn’t even have to be there—he could have done it from a remote site, sort of like a first century wireless connection. But Jesus doesn’t work that miracle or any other, and John’s head is soon presented to Salome on a platter.

The randomness of the miracles must have struck Jesus’s followers then as powerfully as their apparent absence strikes us now. Miracles were no more predictable or formulaic in Jesus’s day than they are now. I suspect this is one of the reasons Jesus frequently used to tell those who received or observed miracles not to tell anyone (a directive that was usually disobeyed immediately). Following Jesus in the flesh would not have clarified the miracles confusion any more than following Jesus now. So the question remains—what to do about the miracles (or absence of them)?

A recent rereading of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead reminded me of a much healtheir and less stressful space concerning miracles, a space that I’ve begun learning to occasionally occupy over the past few years. In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Rev. Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy.

Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.” Toward the end of the novel, Ames writes:

It has seemed to me sometimes as thought the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance–for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than we think. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

Good question. It takes a lot more courage to embrace this world with all of its imperfections and disappointments as a spectacular and continuing divine miracle than to step back and bemoan the fact that it seldom is the miracle we would have performed if it were up to us. It isn’t up to us—the power and glory of our created, sacred world is far above our pay scale.

Every week at my Episcopal church during the prayers of the people, the leader says “We thank you for all the blessings of this life. This week we are especially grateful for (individuals share personal thanksgivings).” It is always striking how few of us share our personal thanksgivings. Often at that point of the prayers, I often flash back over the week just past and conclude quickly that “nothing special happened.” That’s the attitude of someone who is unaware or chooses to be ignorant of the fact that everything is a blessing, that it’s all a miracle.

If I started expressing my thanks for everything that is truly miraculous—Jeanne, my sons, my dachshund Frieda, my love of my work, the beauty of autumn weather, and so on—I’d be filling in the blanks for several minutes. Some Sunday I’d like to be surprised at that point in the prayers as the congregation fills in the blanks for at least a full minute with our personal thanksgivings. As Rev. Ames writes, “Confusing as this world is, it is remarkable to consider what does abide in it.”

Do I Really Hate Donald Trump?

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “the human being is always something under construction.” I am frequently reminded of just how true this is, even for someone who has been under construction for more than six decades. My most recent reminder happened two days ago.

As I watched the fifth episode of Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War” on PBS, I was also scrolling down my Facebook wall to see if there was anything interesting there (I don’t mind multitasking on occasion). A friend had posted a picture of a highway billboard that was just too good not to share on my own page:

Hate Trump

I limited my commentary on the picture to three words: “Got that right.” And the likes, emoticons, and comments started pouring in.

Some welcomed the opportunity to pile on:

  • We’re all allowed to hate privileged, moronic bigots.
  • I rarely hate, but I hate Donald Trump. If he was just pathetic that would be one thing, but he’s exploiting everything and everybody, destroying every characteristic of sound government and humanity. I refuse to believe he’s just being manipulated.

Others gently chided me for being judgmental and unkind, as in the following exchange with a former colleague at the college:

  • Him: “Hate” is an interesting word. One may be odious without being hated. The hater reveals more of her/himself than of the hated. There are many “pathetic” people though one wonders why they might be “hated” as opposed to being sympathized with.
  • Me: I’m not proud of being a hater when it comes to Trump. But I am one. I bothers me because he is perhaps the first person I’ve said that about since Ronald Reagan when I was much younger and stupider.
  • Him: My greatest culture hero, Jonathan Swift, an Anglican Dean, was a great hater, but he hardly picked on the pathetic.
  • Me: Saying I hate Trump is hardly picking on him. Nor is his being pathetic a reason to pity him when he occupies the most powerful position in the world.

Don’t get me wrong—I aware that it is politically incorrect for liberal, progressive, peace-loving, tree-hugging folks such as I to admit to hating anyone—as another friend lightheartedly reminded me:

  • Him: You should not hate anyone! I am appalled!!
  • Me: I’m a human being—so sue me!
  • Him: No need to sue you, I have plenty of money, and besides I still love you and your family!

Then, of course, there’s always the killjoy who just has to play the Christian card (I hate it when someone does that).

  • Her: Frankly, that’s just plain wrong. As Christians, we’re not supposed to hate anyone, but to love and pray for everyone, even our worst enemies. Seriously, people have forgiven people personally murdering their family or torturing them; Christ forgive his own killers on the cross. I do think as Christians we can learn to see Christ in the likes of Donald Trump. Otherwise, we’re failing miserably. And no, it doesn’t have to do with politics. I did not vote for the man, but I do pray for him and recognize our shared humanity.
  • Me: Congratulations on being a better Christian than I am.

My snarky response aside, I knew this one was coming. I take my faith seriously and am fully aware that coming out as a “hater”—even of someone like Donald Trump—“outs” me as a hypocrite, a weak Christian, or both. Guilty as charged.

  • Her: I don’t think it’s a matter of being “better”; it’s just a process we all should be striving towards in our imitation of Christ. I know people who alternately act the same way about Hillary Clinton and those on her side of the political fence . . . Our faith is supposed to be stronger than our politics in such matters. We are supposed to love unconditionally, especially those who we naturally find repugnant or distasteful. If we can’t do it with politicians (and mind, I personally don’t like either Trump or Clinton), how will we ever handle people who seriously hurt us or those we love on a personal level? Even if we don’t feel it, it can be a movement of the will to embrace something higher than ourselves.
  • Me: I do strive for it and am very aware of the challenges of living out my faith rather than just talking or writing about it. My faith is “supposed to be stronger” in such matters–I agree. I’m also willing to be honest about my regular failure to live up to that, as well as about the times I think I’ve lived it out well for a day.
  • Her: That’s well and good, but the sign above can come off as something of a “positive” statement, to make Trump seem like the sole “unlovable” dehumanized being, and getting people to sympathize with that. In that way, it’s toxic.
  • Me: Give me a break. I’m really not particularly interested in twisting something that is pretty clear in its meaning–whether or not you happen to agree with it–into its complete opposite. Have a good one.

Mercifully, she didn’t respond, my suggestion that she is a better Christian than I am having been completely confirmed.

My primary reason for sharing the picture of the billboard was that I thought it was funny (and still do). But the subsequent exchanges do raise an important question—why am I a hater when it comes to Donald Trump? Why am I willing to admit it in public and double-down on it when someone points out that being a hater is incompatible with many of the most important things I believe? A couple of strategies come to mind.

I could take the sanctimonious route that I learned as a kid and say “what I really mean is that I hate the sin but love the sinner.” It’s not so much Donald that I hate, in other words, as the things he does and stands for. But that strategy is a cop-out. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and any number of others have stood for and do stand for things that I hate, but I don’t hate the person. In Donald’s case, it seems personal. Even when he accidentally does something I agree with—like siding with the Democrats once or twice—I still hate him. In his case, I hate both the sin and the sinner.

Or I could take a different sanctimonious route and say that this isn’t “hate”—it’s “righteous indignation.” That’s how we used to get Jesus off the hook for losing it in the temple and throwing the moneychangers out. Certainly Jesus didn’t “hate” them—or did he? Actually, Jesus is reported to have said some pretty hateful things about a number of people, many of whom I’m sure were just doing their jobs and what they were convinced was the right thing. Anyways, what I feel concerning Donald Trump doesn’t strike me as “righteous indignation.” It strikes me as hate. And to make it even worse, I don’t feel a shred of guilt about it.

Those who know me well and/or read this blog regularly know that I am not a hater by nature. That’s how I know that this is truly hatred—I experience the feeling so seldom that there is no mistaking it when it shows up. There’s no other way to explain my rising blood pressure and the pain deep in my gut every time I hear or see him on television or radio. I don’t like carrying hatred around. Hating someone is exhausting—it wastes psychological and emotional resources that are better used elsewhere.

So I could try to be a better Christian, as my Facebook conversation partner suggests. I should love and forgive everybody—that’s what Jesus did. “Christ forgive his own killers on the cross,” I was reminded in that conversation.

The problem is, I’m not Jesus. I’m me. I’m a flawed, imperfect human being who is committed to trying to live according to principles that are impossible to live by. As I talked about this and more with Jeanne (who also hates Donald Trump) at lunch today, she reminded me of something that I occasionally almost forget in my forays into more and more progressive and liberal Christianity—no one can live according to the principles and requirements of the Gospels. No one can live the Christian life. It’s impossible.

The good news is that the whole point of the Christian faith, of following Jesus, is that it can’t be done by simply trying hard, even with the best of intentions. Call it what you will—human nature, original sin, natural weakness—but we all need help. And help is available—that’s the good news, the gospel, that Jesus delivered on a regular basis and that is still operative now. I am indeed something under construction, and sometimes what needs fixing or improvement has to be handed over to someone with both intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be human and the tools to keep working on daily imperfections. My hatred of Donald Trump happens to be a particularly stubborn example—and until someone does something about it, I’m okay with that.

Ten Years On

Ten years ago this summer, I attended a writers conference for the first time in my life–I signed up at Jeanne’s urging (and against my better judgment). My workshop was “Literary Essay”; each of the fifteen members wrote daily 500 word essays, which were submitted to colleagues for critique and (hopefully) helpful evaluation. My essays tended to praise the virtues of my dog and the Boston Red Sox, while frequently expressing struggles with faith, God, religion, and my own very human inadequacies. Little did I know that this first foray into short essay writing was the beginning of a multi-faceted process that would change my life.

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On the final day of the ten-day workshop, each participant capped her or his experience with a two-minute public reading of something they had written during the workshop. It was a bit intimidating–I was used to speaking in front of large groups of people (200+ in this instance), but had never brought such a personal, intimate piece of writing to the attention of so many without lots of editing. Here’s what I shared with the group:

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

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I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

The editor of a small magazine heard my essay and approached me later that day, asking if I would be willing to let her publish it–it became my first non-academic publication ever. Two years after the workshop I experienced a life-transforming sabbatical where I began writing exploratory essays in the mode of my first forays at the workshop. Five years later, exactly five years ago today, “Hail Frieda, Full of Grace” was the first of now more than 800 posts as I ventured into the strange and wonderful world of blogging.

I have written about a number of interconnected themes on “Freelance Christianity” over the past half-decade, none of them more important than the one I first shared ten years ago with my fellow workshop participants. Is there somewhere in the universe a transcendent grace and love that welcomes me with open arms and asks only for my response? My continuing answer is “Yes”–but the details are still something I’m working on.

Frieda and I are both ten years older–she carries her now thirteen-year-old self with the same extroversion, personality, and grace that I celebrated in my original essay. She’s 13 rather than 10.5 pounds. She has almost as much white hair as I do. She’s still my muse, my constant companion, and I still hope that she outlives me (since I don’t want to deal with what I’ll be like if she doesn’t).

old frieda

Ten years on, I realize that I am a very different person than I was at that workshop, different in ways I could never have predicted. I’m grateful for the essays, for Frieda, for Jeanne, for change, and especially for my increasingly stronger conviction that there’s a lot more going on in me and around me than I could ever imagine. I thank those who have shared this journey with me in many different ways, and invite you to join me going forward.

What People of Faith Have in Common with Atheists

The more I realize why my faith is important to me, the more I realize that these matters of importance don’t primarily rely on my believing anything particular about God, God’s nature, or what happens after I die. For many, coming to this conclusion would require a significant shift in what faith even means.

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About half way through the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.ray-and-terry

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.

Sometimes what we claim to want and what we really want are two entirely different things. Often our expressed desires for lofty sounding goals and achievements are, in reality, a cry for at least some sort of guidance on how to make it through our days and weeks with a modicum of our integrity and character intact. None of us comes into the world knowing how to live a good human life—all of us need as much help as possible. Last semester I worked with my General Ethics students on an article with the attention-getting title “Does It Matter Whether God Exists?” that begins with a provocative quote from John Gray, an atheist philosopher:

In many religions—polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions—belief is of little or no importance. Rather, practice—ritual, meditation, a way of life—is what counts . . . It’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths . . . what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

Careful there, dude—the “religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths” who you are stereotyping are the people I grew up with. But Gary Gutting, the author of the article who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, observes that a religious person need not respond to someone like Gray defensively or with outrage.

It all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, then a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need.

Gutting’s comment reminds me of something I once heard a Jewish colleague say: “Judaism is the only monotheistic religion that one can be part of and also be an atheist.” What, I asked my predominantly Catholic juniors and seniors, could my colleague have meant by that? Although such a comment was outside the normal frame of reference for many of them, they realized that, despite typical preconceptions and assumptions, there might be reasons for placing oneself in a religious tradition that have nothing to do with God. Judaism, for instance, is a way of life for my colleague, providing the traditions, practices, moral guidance, and community support that every human being seeks, at least occasionally, as we construct frameworks of meaning and purpose around our lives.

There are also many groups of Christians for whom the Christian faith is about how to live a good and flourishing human life now; the texts and traditions of Christianity undoubtedly provide a great deal of guidance concerning how to do just that. And, as the atheist quoted at the beginning of Gary Gutting’s article provocatively points out, what one believes or does not believe concerning God need not be important for such people.

I can imagine, for instance, an atheist finding a great deal of direct guidance for how to live a good human life from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel without feeling obligated to sign on the dotted line concerning anything about God’s existence and nature. Such guidance, of course, can be found in all sorts of place, both religious and non-religious; one’s choice of which framework to adopt will depend largely on one’s history, personality, commitments both social and political, and simply where one finds oneself most at home.

But many persons of faith want a lot more from their religion than just daily guidance for how to live a life. Gutting continues:

But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death. If our hope is for salvation in this sense—and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, if depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

I have noted frequently on this blog my observation over the years that, for the majority of my students, the primary benefits of being a religious believer are “comfort” and “security about what happens after I die.” That’s certainly the religious world I was raised in. The people I grew up with were obsessed with “being saved,” a salvation that had a lot more to do with what happens after I die than anything that might be applicable to how to live my life today and tomorrow.

As I look back five decades and more on that world, I realize that even then I was far more interested in how the religion imposed on me applied to my daily life rather than what sort of mansion I would occupy when in heaven and what sort of harp I would be playing. Truth be told, heaven sounded pretty boring to me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend eternity there. I was much more interested in whether being a Christian could help me avoid bullies, find a girlfriend, and grow up to be at least a marginally well-adjusted adult.

These days I find myself thinking about atheism a lot, not because I’m thinking of becoming one (I tried that once—it didn’t take), but because the more I realize why my faith is important to me, the more I realize that these matters of importance don’t primarily rely on my believing anything particular about God, God’s nature, or what happens after I die. I don’t know what will happen after I die, and I spend a remarkably small amount of my time thinking about it, even though the amount of days I have left on earth are far fewer than the ones I’ve already lived.

Don’t get me wrong—I believe that God exists, that God is intimately interested in relationship with human beings, and that this requires something important of me. But I also believe that the values and moral commitments that are closely related to my belief in God are available to persons who are of a different faith than mine or of no faith at all. If what people of faith want out of their religion is only available to people who sign on to the very specific beliefs concerning God and more that define their religion, there is little hope for dialogue with those who do not share those specific beliefs. But if, first and foremost, what I want out of my religion is guidance for how to live a good human life now, then I am looking for the very same sort of guidance that billions of other human beings seek. That gives us a lot to talk about—regardless of what we believe concerning God.

Step to the Right: Practicing Right Brain Faith in a Left Brain World

At age thirty-seven, Harvard trained brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor woke up one morning with a splitting headache. As she tried to get ready for work, her mind began to deteriorate over the course of four hours to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Jill Bolte TaylorTaylor later learned that she had suffered a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Her story of her eight-year-long recovery, described in her book My Stroke of Insight, provides a fascinating glimpse into how our brain creates our consciousness, our self-awareness, and our moral sensibilities. Her story also opens the door to possibilities and options for persons of faith, possibilities that we might be blind to unless we, as Taylor puts it, “step to the right” and learn to embrace the inclusive and expansive energies of our right brain. I wrote about these possibilities recently for Bearings Online, the online publication of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. Enjoy!

 

Step to the Right

A Sower Went Forth to Sow . . .

I have been an active blogger for almost five years; as I suspect is true of many bloggers, I am obsessed with my blog statistics. One of the most important numbers provided by Google Analytics is my blog’s “bounce rate,” defined as “the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page without interacting with the page).” My bounce rate tends to hang around 75-80%–I don’t know if that’s good or not, since I don’t have the nerve to ask other bloggers and risk finding out that the norm is around 25%.

Such numbers confirm something that any writer knows—writing is an inefficient and non-economical process, if efficiency and economy are measured numerically. One never knows when or if something one throws out for public consumption will hit pay dirt and actually have an impact. I was comforted to be reminded by last Sunday’s gospel that I’m not the only person who spends a lot of time in an inefficient enterprise.

sower 2

The gospel reading was Jesus’ parable of the sower from Matthew. It is one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables, so familiar that it is easy to miss some of the most striking details. The sower is apparently just throwing seeds out there roughly in the direction of where fertile ground might be, but his activity is remarkably inefficient, based on the yield Jesus goes on to describe. If this sower had Google Analytic statistics to measure the success and effectiveness of his activity, I’ll bet his bounce rate (the total percentage of seeds that fell on the path, rocky ground, and among thorns) is at least as high as mine. But if, as Jesus’ interpretation later in the chapter suggests, the seed is the word of God, then this is just the typical divine strategy that we keep bumping into—“Let’s just throw a bunch of stuff out there indiscriminately and see what happens!”

God is no respecter of persons, statistics, focus groups, yield projections, bounce rates, or any other thing humans might devise as the best measures of effectiveness and efficiency. All you have to do is consider the extraordinary wastefulness of the way God chose to crank out endless varieties of living things—natural selection—to realize that Isaiah wasn’t kidding when he reports God as saying that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Not only is seed scattering hit-and-miss, it is by no means certain that those who read a text will interpret it in a manner that matches up to the author’s intention. Indeed, post-modern literary theory points out that the meaning of a text is always a function of the text and what the reader brings to it—the original intention of the author may play little to no role in the text’s meaning for the reader. Furthermore, the author’s intent should not be looked to as a standard for correct interpretation, even if we know what the original intent was. I’m actually very comfortable with this, but found out over the past week that a lot of people aren’t.

Last week I posted an essay that explored the new territory opened up if one reads “light” as a noun (as in “source of illumination”) rather than as an adjective (as in “not heavy”) in Jesus’ claim that “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The Burden of Light

Several Facebook commenters warned against wandering from the literal meaning of a text, even if that wandering leads to interesting ideas and applications. For example:

  • Him: I like it, but I would be very cautious about advocating for collateral interpretations, when it’s clearly not the intended meaning.
  • Me: Maybe it’s the effect of post-modernism on me, but I’m far less concerned with the “original meaning” than with how it can speak to contemporary persons. The meaning of a text is as much the function of the reader as of what is being read.

A couple of commenters went to the trouble of providing the actual Greek text in their comments (ο γαρ ζυγος μου χρηστος και το φορτιον μου ελαφρον εστιν), noting that the word ελαφρον is an adjective and means “not heavy”; the Greek word for “light,” φῶς, is not in the passage at all. The word play I was having fun with, in other words, is available only in English translation. The commenter was not pleased when I said, in essence, “I don’t care.”

  • Me: I know the Greek [I get to use it on a semi-regular basis in my professional life]. Locking oneself into the literal meaning of the original locks one into never allowing a text to become alive to new possibilities and interpretations. Remember, btw, that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, not Greek, so what is in the original written text is already a translation and an interpretation.

Someone else picked up on the “only in English” issue:

  • Him: It’s a nice word play, but what about Christians who don’t speak English?
  • Me: Then they will find new interpretations and meanings available uniquely in their own languages. I’ve encountered many of them in French translations of the Bible, for instance, that don’t play in English; there are also many word plays in the original Greek that don’t translate into English. Overall, the meaning of a text is as much about the reader as it is about the text.

And so it went. I really am not as cavalier about an author’s intention as it might sound, but I realize—as the parable of the sower points out—that once the seed is out there, what will happen is pretty much out of the sower’s control. And, despite the protestations of any number of Facebook commenters, I’m really okay with that (and so, apparently, is God). One particular person wouldn’t stop pushing back, eventually suggesting that I wouldn’t like it if it turned out that something I wrote had been as badly misinterpreted as I was misinterpreting “My burden is light.” Before I had a chance to respond, someone responded much more eloquently than I ever could have.

  • As one who writes quite a bit, I’d just say this. If anyone is moved to a new understanding by anything I’ve written, even if it wasn’t the point I was trying to bring out when I wrote it, I’m grateful. The Bible is like that. I can read a passage one day, then read the same thing a week later and have a totally different experience with the text. Words are magic.

Every day when I throw new e-seed out there, as well as on days when I throw out recycled e-seed, I am imitating a divine activity that makes no sense but somehow occasionally produces fruit in the most unexpected and unpredictable places.

A Liberal’s Worst Nightmare

One of my teaching colleagues and mentors used to love to tell the story of what happened one day after he and a colleague teamed up for a particularly impassioned lecture in the interdisciplinary course they were team-teaching. I no longer remember what he said the text or topic of the class was, but after class a usually silent back-row-sitting student came up from and said “Wow! You guys really take this stuff seriously!” Which raises the question: What would happen if we actually took the things we claim to believe and be committed to seriously enough to do something about them? Seriously enough to completely change our lives?nhs

Katie is a “good person”—doctor for the National Health Service, mother, wife, and socially aware—but is desperately unhappy with her life. Her husband David is angry and cynical; he writes a newspaper column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway” in which he pillories everything from old people who walk too slowly getting off the bus to overrated artists like Sting and The Beatles. Katie and David’s marriage is in trouble, their kids are spoiled and ungrateful, they live in an upper middle class neighborhood but know few of their neighbors, they are comfortable but are surrounded by poverty and homelessness, moral demands are flying at them from all sides. Katie is having an affair, which she blames on her overall unhappiness. She wants a divorce, which David refuses to agree to.hornby

This is the setup for Nick Hornby’s hilarious and insightful novel How to Be Good, which will be included on my General Ethics syllabus in the fall. What makes the novel particularly interesting is that within the first fifty pages, under circumstances better read about than described (you really should read the book!), David undergoes a mysterious moral transformation from a cynical and nasty piece of work to a dedicated moral and social activist. David and Katie have paid lip service to all of the appropriate liberal political and social positions ever since they met at university, but now David is sounding as if he intends to actually act on what they have always lazily claimed to believe. How is Katie to respond? How is she to cope with a husband who is suddenly attentive, pleasant, no longer angry, sharing his portion of the parenting burden without complaint . . . and who intends to turn their lives upside down? Katie is nervous, because “I can’t help but feel that all this sounds very ominous indeed.”

About a third of the way through the book, David lays it all out:

We don’t care enough. We look after ourselves and ignore the weak and the poor. We despise our politicians for doing nothing, and think that this is somehow enough to show we care, and meanwhile we live in centrally heated houses that are too big for us . . .homeless We have a spare bedroom, and a study, and meanwhile people are sleeping outside on pavements. We scrape perfectly edible food into our compost maker, and meanwhile people at the end of our road are begging for the price of a cup of tea and a bag of chips . . . We spend thirteen pounds on compact discs which we already own in a different format . . . We buy films for our children that they’ve already seen at the cinema and never watch again . . .

You get the point . . . and so does Katie. At the end of his diatribe, David sums up succinctly.

I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare . . . I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.

In short order David gives many of his children’s toys and one of the three house computers away, seeks to recruit families on their street to house homeless teenagers in their spare bedrooms, and generally disrupts house and home in an effort to walkwalk the walk. The problem is that David’s logic is unassailable. If this is what we claim to believe, then this is what we should be doing. Which monumentally frustrates Katie who, after all, has considered herself to be the “good person” in this marriage for years. “I want to destroy David’s whole save-the-world-and-love-everyone campaign, but I want to do it using his logic and philosophy and language, not the language of some moaning, spoiled, smug, couldn’t-care-less, survival-of-the-fittest whiner.”

I share many of Katie and David’s beliefs; while theirs seem to have been established primarily through education, peer pressure, and social class, I often trace most of my liberal moral and social commitments back to my professed Christian faith. Which raises disturbing to a different level, because a person of faith who actually put the fundamental tenets of the faith into daily practice would be a Christian’s worst nightmare. beatitudesI smack headlong into this every time I read or hear the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which the Sermon on the Mount came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. Throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is dwidows and orphansriven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate. Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the Ten Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. 10 commandmentsBecause of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m very grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God? Our worst nightmare.

Gun Speak

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosophers love words and language. We love to dissect them, analyze them, write insufferably boring and inscrutable articles and books about them, and talk amongst ourselves in a code that only the most inside of the insiders understand. But beneath their PhDs and pretension, philosophers are on to something. Words matter. A lot. WittgensteinAs Ludwig Wittgenstein—arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century—pointed out, our words shape our world. And if we want to change our world, we might want to consider paying close attention to our words—and changing them.

I first encountered both the difficult and liberating aspects of changing my words and language when writing my Master’s thesis thirty years ago. I grew up in a world where language was entirely skewed in the direction of maleness—pronouns, examples, collective nouns for all human beings, God—everything I thought and talked about came packaged in gender-exclusive language, as if one half of the human race wasn’t worth mentioning. The Bible that I grew up reading and memorizing was soaked through and through with patriarchal language. During the 60s many voices began pointing out both how pervasive and offensive sexist language was; I also noted that many people, including most of the people I knew, were not inclined to change their speech habits. gender inclusive 1Not because they didn’t think that feminists and others had a point, but because they were used to using sexist language and they perceived that it would be difficult to change their language default setting.

During my early adulthood I worked on changing my own speech patterns away from sexist toward inclusive; in the late eighties, as I tackled the task of writing a Master’s thesis, I decided that I would make a conscious and concerted effort to write the 100+ page document using entirely gender inclusive language. And it was very difficult to pull off. Not only did it require my becoming entirely conscious of my own sexist language habits, but the primary texts from ancient philosophy that were at the heart of my thesis were written by males who used exclusively male-oriented discourse. My new writing vocabulary and style seemed forced and stilted at times, but I attributed that to the difficulty of breaking bad habits and establishing better new ones. Over the subsequent three decades using gender-inclusive language has become so natural and habitual to me that hearing or reading sexist, male-oriented language screeches like nails on a chalkboard. gender neutral 2One of my regular classroom missions is to make students aware of how important it is to use gender-inclusive language. When some students—male and female—don’t see the moral reasons behind my mission and resist it, I sell it to them practically by assuring them that gender-inclusive language is a standard expectation in business communication. Try getting a good job without gender-inclusive language in your skill set.

Now I find myself faced with a new language challenge. The one-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, as well as the shooting of Rep. Scalise and others, has placed the issue of gun violence and control back into public conversation, something that happens for a brief period every time such an incident occurs until various forces push the conversation off the table. I am a strong advocate of significant gun control (extending far beyond prohibiting private ownership of assault rifles), do not own a gun, do not intend to ever own one, and am both incredulous and frustrated when, time after time, no real changes ever happen—even in the wake of Newtown. ammosexualI’ll leave it to my colleagues in history and sociology to explain this country’s general obsession with guns. Prompted by a brief interview that I heard on the radio a few days ago, I started paying attention to my speech, looking for ways in which words and idioms involving guns appear in my everyday communication. I was more than disturbed to find that I, a gun hater if there ever was one, say things like the following on a regular basis:

  • He was so nervous that he was sweating bullets.
  • I wish the people on that committee would stop deliberating and just pull the trigger on a decision.
  • I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, so I just took a shot in the dark.
  • Sometimes it is really important to just stick to your guns.
  • Wow, did that plan ever misfire.
  • He just needs to bite the bullet and get on with things.
  • She really jumped the gun that time.
  • It may not work, but we need to give it our best shot.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Such words and phrases are so common in ordinary conversation that many of us—including myself—are entirely unaware of how pervasive they are. “Blown away,” “Bullet points,” “Locked and loaded”—our language reflects the pervasive presence of guns in our culture and our collective psyche. And I, for one, think that this is more than just a harmless habit.words matter

How we speak matters. The words and phrases that we regularly use matter. If we’re uncomfortable with the fact that so many people get killed by guns in our culture, then it would be a good thing for us to slow down and listen to how many different expressions that we use have to do with firearms, shooting, and guns. And just as I made a deliberate project of becoming gender-inclusive in my writing and speaking several decades ago, I am beginning a new personal project—eliminating words and expressions having to do with guns, shooting, and firearms from my communication. My newest book is currently in the midst of the editing process at my publisher; I was pleased to find when I checked that in the roughly 62000-word text I do not use the word “gun” at all, and use the word “bullet” only once when I refer to the assassin’s bullet that took the life of Bobby Kennedy. I’ll need to look more carefully for some of the phrases and idioms listed above. minute manApparently my project is close to complete when it comes to my writing. But in speech I have a lot of work to do. One way to do this is to make Jeanne aware of the project and to point out every time I inadvertently use a gun-violence-related phrase. I’ll be including a section on guns and the second amendment in my upcoming General Ethics classes in the fall—that will be a good place to practice (I might start the section with consideration of this post).

I frequently wonder what I can do to turn the tide against our culture’s collective obsession with guns and the violence that invariably accompanies it. My project is something I can actually do—not easily, but with awareness and fortitude. And significant change sometimes begins with simply being aware. If enough people worked at dropping gun-related words and phrases from their vocabulary, perhaps our conversation about the Second Amendment would begin to change in fruitful ways. It’s worth a shot. Whoops! I have a lot of work to do.end gun violence

Making the Truth Laugh

One of the many enjoyable occurrences at the end of each semester is occasionally receiving thank-you notes from students. Often they come from quiet students who said little in class but eloquently mention a moment or a text from the semester that made a difference or that will stick with them. The bookshelves in my philosophy department office are lined with such cards and notes, welcome reminders that once in a while something works better than expected.

A couple of years ago I received such a note from a student in the Honors interdisciplinary class that I teach with two colleagues. The student wrote that our class was “the best college course I’ve ever taken,” a judgment tempered slightly by the fact that she was a freshman and at the time had only taken six college courses so far. Later in her note, however, she thanked the three of us for our senses of humor, writing that “I have never laughed so hard or as often in any class I have ever taken.”simone weil[1] That one I’ll cherish for a long time, because my teaching philosophy for years has been shaped by Simone Weil’s observation that “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” For this student, at least, mission accomplished.

chickenthoreau[1]When it comes to learning, laughter is serious business. Although they often do not occupy front row seats in the pantheon of philosophical greats, many of my favorite philosophers—Epictetus, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche and others—depend on various forms of humor to shape their thought. Irreverence is a particularly effective philosophical tool. A logical argument demonstrating that human capacities do not match human pretensions is not as effective as Montaigne’s126763672545178[1] “even on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own ass.” Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest master of irreverence in the philosophical Western tradition, undermines commitment to logical precision with “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!” and scoffs at piety with “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” As I told a junior faculty member after observing a skilled but humorless performance in his logic class, “philosophy is serious, but it isn’t deadly serious.”

nameoftherose[1]In Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose, laughter plays an unexpectedly central role. Set in a fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery, Eco weaves murder, heresy, liturgy, medieval medicine, sexual deviance, the Inquisition, opulence in the face of abject poverty, and political intrigues between the Emperor and two competing popes into a memorable fictional tapestry. A central thread in that tapestry is a question that sparks frequent and passionate debate: Did Christ ever laugh?protectedimage[1] This seemingly random question becomes the center of an intense debate that ultimately involves far more than academic curiosity. Jorge, the venerable and blind former librarian insists that Christ never laughed. Not only is there no record of such a thing happening, but there are also solid theological reasons for denying laughter to Jesus. “Laughter foments doubt,” Jorge argues, and doubt undermines those things about which we must be certain. Those in doubt must turn to the relevant authority—a priest, abbot, text—to remove uncertainty. 4349348690_947b4e3701[1]Laughter makes light of what is most serious and most indubitable.

William of Baskerville, the visiting Franciscan monk who becomes the medieval Sherlock Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of several murders at the abbey, counters that there is nothing in the sacred texts indicating that Jesus did not laugh, and also points out that laughter is part of human nature (and Jesus was human, after all). Furthermore, William claims, “sometimes it is right to doubt,” given that doubt and uncertainty are part of the natural human rational thought process. “Our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason must also please divine reason.” William is not given to hilarity, but has a keen eye for the ironic and incongruous throughout the novel, frequently showing that the true pursuit of truth often takes one down paths of uncertainty and irreverence. The adventure and openness of the process is far more instructive than any certainty that hypothetically lies at the end of the path.

As the novel progresses to its dramatic conclusion and the body count of dead monks increases, the depth of Jorge’s commitment to certainty and rejection of the twin demons of laughter and doubt is revealed. For decades, Jorge has been the self-appointed concealer of the only existing copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, in which Aristotle show that the value of comedy is to cause us to laugh at power, at pretension to greatness, and at human aspirations. Laughter allows us, at least temporarily, to abandon fear. In Jorge’s estimation, laughter is the enemy of authority, both temporal and spiritual, and must be snuffed out at all costs. Accordingly, he has murdered those in the abbey whom heJorge_&_William[1] suspected of knowing about and lusting after this dangerous text.

In the climactic confrontation  between Jorge and William at the novel’s denouement, as the depths of Jorge’s insane commitment to protecting certainty and truth  becomes apparent, William exposes the true nature of Jorge’s obsession. “You are the Devil. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” Jorge has shaped his life and actions according to his conviction that truth is to be protected, that it must be defended against all threats—there is a strong element of fear in his conviction that he owns the truth. He is absolutely right about one thing, though—laughter and doubt are direct threats to everything he considers holy. Laughter can bring pretensions to certainty and truth to their knees far more effectively than argumentation.imagesCAEB25EV Rather than face such a world, Jorge destroys the book, himself, and ultimately the library and entire monastery.

In the final pages of The Name of the Rose, in the midst of smoking ruins and ashes, William reflects with his young apprentice Adso on what they have seen and experienced. William refers to the dead Jorge as the “Antichrist,” an appellation that Adso does not understand.images[5]  “The Antichrist,” William explains, “can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear those who are willing to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them.” What is to be learned from the tragic and apocalyptic events at the abbey? William’s speculation is one that all seekers of truth and lovers of human beings should take to heart. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Anne LamottAnne Lamott, whose work causes me to laugh more than any author I can think of, defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is not only uniquely human, it is one of the many signs of divine love that each of us carries into the world daily. Did Jesus laugh? That depends on whether he was a human being or not. Since incarnation, humanity infused by divinity, is at the heart of the Christian faith, laughter is a fundamental expression of God in us. “Lighten up!” is a call to holiness.

diy-quote-wall-art_856-1[1]