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Wake Up and Smell the Mulch

snowmageddon-300x300It is April, and we have apparently survived a very tough winter. Actually, it was just a winter, with noticeable snow and cold temperatures—nothing unusual, except that in Rhode Island, we sometimes get no winter at all. So a normal winter provides ample reason to talk about “Snowmageddon, the “Snowpocalypse,” the Polar Vortex, and to wonder what ridiculous name the Weather Channel will come up with for the latest “storm” that promises to drop at least three inches of snow or the dreaded “wintry mix.”snowpocalypse My northern Vermont heritage, along with adult winters spent in Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Minnesota qualifies me to make fun of people who are unaware of what a real winter is like—Rhode Islanders generally fit the bill.

A few days ago I walked out the front door of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and was struck by a distinctive scent wafting on the breeze. Somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between a pristine pine forest and an overpowering air freshener hanging on the rear-view mirror of a car,mulch this scent had rotting organic material tones, with the tangy hint of chemicals. “I love the smell of mulch in the morning! Spring has arrived!” There are a number of interesting sights as well as smells that accompany the arrival of spring. That same day as I approached the house returning home briefly for lunch to check up on our four-legged daughters, I saw a squirrel hanging upside down by his back feet from the top of the metal shepherd’s-crook pole that holds several bird-suet cages on our side lawn, using his front paws to open the latch on one of the cages for a free lunch. Our blue spruce that the feeder is next to has apparently grown large enough that squirrel at feederan enterprising squirrel can leap to the feeder from the closest branch at risk of falling several feet to the ground. Amazing what some people will do for a taste of bird seed encased in blocks of greasy suet.

One of the perks of teaching at a Catholic college is that we get some extra days off around Easter. Easter is late this year, which is perfect because it is time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite projects of the year. I use the word “yard” loosely, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for eighteen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn. 005 (2)Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those in the know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in late March and early April (I haven’t started yet, so I’m late this year), watching lilies, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter. I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front,100_0918 as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and hydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear winter. 757854410188[1]I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. The primary purpose of the mulch for me, of course, is to get high on the aroma. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more.

19cuaresmaC3[1]Luke’s gospel tells the story of a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I have with ours.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; Holy Week Monday a couple of days ago is the day that Jesus killed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, even though it was not even the season for fig-bearing. Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]He probably was in a bad mood because he knew what was coming in a few days. I completely understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. 250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1]Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

1594489270[1]In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead. In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, Olive treewe often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree
In the house, in the house of the Lord.
I will trust in the mercies of God forever,
I will trust in the mercies of God.

I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.

To Die For

BonhoefferWhat is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over—and that means the time of religion in general. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison

The end of last week was a bear, beginning with nine hundred freshmen registering for their fall sections and seminars in the interdisciplinary program I direct on Friday; I swear that at least several hundred of them sent me an email begging for overenrollment in a full section. That was followed on Saturday by Family Day duties that kept me on campus from mid-morning until late afternoon. I was strongly tempted to skip church on Sunday morning for the first time in months, but I thought “its Palm Sunday so I should go, Jeanne’s going because she’s doing the chalice on the altar,” my Protestant guilt kicked in and off to church I went. At least it was going to be the first Sunday service in weeks in which I had nothing to do but sit in the pew—no seminar to lead, no scripture to read, and no organ to play. h19_18559141I would try to enjoy the dramatic reading of the Passion narrative that is always part of the Palm Sunday service before returning home to finish our taxes. What fun.

As I walked in the back, our rector and my good friend Marsue was looking dramatic in her chasuble, appropriately red for Palm Sunday, as she waited to process with the servers, readers, and choir. Motioning me over, she whispered “do you want to read?” “Not really,” I thought as I looked to see what roles for the upcoming Passion reading were still available. Just about all of them, as it turned out, including the role of Jesus. “I’ll be Jesus,” I sighed. “I’ve never gotten to read his part.”

“I’ll be Jesus.” That’s really what it boils down to for those of us who have signed on to the project of trying to live out a serious Christian faith commitment. Holy Week is a time that many try to virtually “walk in the steps of Jesus” liturgically in the various special services during the week. But to actually be God in the world, to be the vehicle through which the divine makes contact with our human reality—that’s nuts. No wonder we are so creative in finding ways to make the demands of the life of faith more manageable. But my own attempts to avoid the challenges of what I claim to take seriously have been most recently exposed by the prison letters of twentieth-century Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

imagesCAK5RWXSIn the months between his imprisonment and his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer wrote dozens of letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, letters in which he explored and pressed the boundaries of his Christian faith, a faith for which he would eventually die, in ways that have challenged and shocked readers ever since. Facing imminent death has a tendency to focus one’s attention and to clearly reveal what is important and what isn’t. As Bonhoeffer asks, “What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it?” These letters are causing me to think about and look at the Holy Week narrative very differently.

Underlying the liturgies and activities between Palm Sunday and Easter is a shocking story in which “God lets the divine self be pushed out of the world onto the cross.” God is apparently either unwilling or unable to engage with the suffering and pain of the world other than to become part of it. If the dramatic events of Jesus’ final days are models for our lives in a suffering and distressed world, it is clear that “Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” I remember a rather dramatic solo that my aunt used to sing in the church of my youth almost every year at some point leading up to Good Friday that includes the line “he could have called ten thousand angels, but he died alone for you and me.” If we take all of the accretions of dogma and doctrine out of the picture, the story of Jesus’ last days is a disaster—as I read last Sunday morning during the Passion narrative as Matthew presents it, the final words Jesus gasps from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Precisely the question Bonhoeffer must have been asking from his prison cell.

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“Jesus the Homeless” statue, Davidson N.C.

I’ll be wrestling with some of this here this week; at the moment, I’m focused on the following from one of Bonhoeffer’s last letters:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself . . . but to be a person—not a type of person, but the person that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

How to do that? That is the question.

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The Best Story Ever

Originally posted on Free-lance Christianity:

Every year during Holy Week, even the most tepid Christian, for at least for a week or so, tracks the story that recounts the last days of Jesus, from the joyous donkey-ride on Palm Sunday through the betrayal and agony of a few days later to a cold and silent tomb. “But it’s just a story,” the skeptics say, no different than the myths and legends of Greek mythology or the tales of King Arthur, similar to the way in which those who wish to dismiss Darwin say that his theory of natural selection is “just a theory.” four h[1] But sometimes a theory is more than just an educated guess, and sometimes a story is more than an entertaining piece of fiction. This is one of those times.

Judging from the New York Times best seller list, the past ten or fifteen years have been good ones for atheists. Thanks to…

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The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. One of them would be judged by many to be so extreme as to be ludicrous, but I actually believe it is absolutely true: It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I wrote about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas a couple of posts ago—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world. St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I am teaching in an interdisciplinary course this semester that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! Actually we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had this semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.

Loose Him, and Let Him Go

Originally posted on Free-lance Christianity:

During my childhood, we did not go to movies—that was something, along with a bunch of other things, that good Baptists didn’t do. But we did watch television— MV5BMTkyODYyNzE0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTc1OTM2MQ@@._V1_SX214_[1] except on Sundays. So my brother and I occasionally saw movies on television, after careful censoring by my parents. We always looked forward to the weeks leading up to Easter with great anticipation—not because it was Lent followed by Holy Week (I never even heard of Lent until I was an adult), but because that was when the networks might be showing Hollywood epic treatments of stories either from or related to the Bible: “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “Quo Vadis,” “The Robe,” and others. Particularly favored was king-of-kings-movie-poster-1961-1020206924[1] “King of Kings,” a full-blown life-of-Jesus movie. These movies, despite their questionable accuracy by King James Version standards, were guaranteed to be approved by the parental censors. My mother, brother, and I popped popcorn…

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Aquinas statue

The Big Guy and Me

There’s nothing more stressful than lunch with all of the members of a twenty-plus member department when it is a central part of an on-campus interview. Two decades ago, that’s where I found myself. Everyone was friendly and no one was trying to be intimidating, Q and Abut I knew that the supposedly “informal” conversation going on, entirely composed of “Q and A” with the Q being them and the A being me, might possibly be what caused any number of these philosophers to vote “yes” or “no” on my candidacy in a few weeks. One woman asked “who do you consider to be the five greatest philosophers in the Western tradition?” I quickly provided the answer that my graduate student colleagues and I had agreed upon a few years earlier over several beers: “Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant.” “Would you be willing to replace Hume with Aquinas?” an older gentleman in white sitting to my right asked.fat aquinas “No,” I replied while thinking to myself “I wouldn’t even put Aquinas in my top ten.”

I am amazed that I got the job. Because at Providence College, Aquinas is treated by some as a virtual fourth member of the Trinity (perhaps a fifth member, since Mary occasionally  sneaks in as number four). This is the only college in the country that is run by the Dominican Friars (there are several run by Dominican sisters), Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar and was designated as the official philosopher of the Catholic Church by Pope Somebody-or-other at some point in time, there are dorms, classroom buildings, chapels, seminar rooms and probably even bathrooms named after him on campus. Our beautiful new center for the humanities is graced with a prominent statue of a seated Thomas in a small grotto to the left of the front entrance. He is holding a book, left hand raised invitingly toward the observer, and looking pleasantly corpulent. really fat aquinasI call him “the big guy,” because Thomas Aquinas was a big guy. His classmates at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century called him “The Dumb Ox,” not because he was stupid (presumably), but because he didn’t say much and was much larger in stature and girth than anyone else. Sort of like having an offensive lineman in class, if we had a football team here.

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, there is an aging monk whose solitary claim to fame is that he was the one who figured out how to get Aquinas’ body out of his cell in one of the monastery towers when he died. EcoAs the story went, Tom had gotten so fat that he could not be carried down the winding stairs out of the tower (apparently he’d been having his meals delivered for a while); the enterprising monk in question figured out how to lower the very large corpse safely out of the window several stories to the ground using ropes and the labor of several fellow monastics.

As a philosopher, I’ve never been a particular fan of Aquinas’ work, largely because I’ve never been a fan of things medieval. Too obsessed with God (sort of like someone else I know), too stylized, too formal, too buried under layers of ossified tradition and dogma. Catherine of SienaBut on my campus, one cannot walk very far without bumping into one of Thomas’ groupies. Aquinasians and Tom-o-philes abound—they call themselves “Thomists.” Saint Catherine of Siena Hall houses the theology department on the second floor and the philosophy department on the first; I would guess that at least half of the fifty plus scholars housed in this building would describe themselves as Thomists of some sort. One of them just down the hall from my office calls himself a “Thomist with a twist.” The President of the college is a Thomist philosopher. I suspect the people who work at the new Dunkin’ Donuts on campus are Thomists. fat-squirrelThe hundreds of squirrels on campus are Thomists They are everywhere.

Over twenty years of unavoidably breathing Thomistic air, I’ve come to realize that my general problem with the big guy is not the big guy himself—it’s what people have done with him over the past seven hundred and fifty years or so. Thomas wrote a ton of stuff—he must have done little other than write and eat—and something in his vast body of work can always be applied to whatever question is being raised or topic is being discussed. From same sex marriage, abortion, and disputes about politics to Red Sox vs. Yankees or boxers vs. briefs debates, the big guy’s opinion invariably shows up. St-Thomas-Aquinas1When “Aquinas says that . . .” is introduced into the discussion in appropriately hushed and reverent tones, it is intended to be a conversation stopper. The authority on everything has spoken.

I suspect that if Tom were transported seven hundred and fifty years from his time to ours, he would be alternately shocked and bemused that he has become such an established and unquestioned authority in some circles. Because in his day he was a radical, an out-of-the-box thinker who was in trouble with various authorities for most of his adult life. His thought is infused with the energy of Aristotle, whose work in the thirteenth-century was just beginning to be introduced into philosophy and theology after centuries of being virtually unknown to European scholars. Christian ideas and frameworks of thought energized by Aristotle were beginning to challenge long-standing doctrinal positions rooted in very different Platonic notions. Aristotelians such as Aquinas were perceived as troublemakers in a world in which such troublemakers often ended up burning at the stake. That such a creative rabble rouser turned into the fourth member of the Trinity is remarkable—and, in my estimation, unfortunate since putting “Saint” in front of anyone’s name tends to turn that person into something other than the flesh-and-blood human being he or she actually was.

mascotStudents on campus learn early on that dropping Aquinas’ name randomly into class discussions is a reliable way to please the professor, particularly if the professor is wearing a white dress. This is why I have made a point of letting students know about my own love-hate relationship with the big guy. If he even shows up in my class, that is. My ethics classes are probably some of the few ethics classes ever taught on my campus in which the big guy does not show up. I even point this out to my students on the first day, suggesting that since they are required in their core curriculum to take two philosophy courses and two theology courses, as well as a four semester required Development of Western Civilization that spends close to a full semester in the medieval world, they probably will bump into the big guy at some point (more likely at several dozen points) in their career at the college.

There is one way, however, in which I use Aquinas regularly in class—as an example of how to organize one’s thoughts about any open question whatsoever. summa-theologicaAquinas wrote thousands of pages on just about every important philosophical or theological topic imaginable, and he organized his thinking and writing by adopting the same systematic approach to every topic. Aquinas’ writing is organized into Articles; each Article is an important question to be discussed, then answered. No matter what the question is—Whether the existence of God is self-evident? Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists? Whether the New York Yankees are truly the evil empire? Whether it is permissible to serve meat at the Providence College Dunkin’ Donuts on Fridays during Lent?—Aquinas approaches it in the same way.

Objections—He begins with the best arguments he can find, supported by noted and respected sources, in favor of the position that he will ultimately disagree with. In other words, Aquinas gives the opposition the first shot, often with arguments better than the opposition itself has ever presented.

On the contrary . . . Here Aquinas presents the first statement of the position he will support (contrary to the position supported in the Objections). The “On the contrary” statement is always in the words of some source other than Aquinas, often a Church father, often Scripture itself, sometimes “The Philosopher” (Aristotle), but never Aquinas himself.

353px-Meeting_of_doctors_at_the_university_of_ParisI answer that . . . This is the main body of the article, in which the big guy makes his own argument in support of the position stated in “On the contrary . . .”

Replies to objections—To finish the Article, Aquinas returns to the original Objections and responds to them individually, essentially with the attitude “That’s a good idea, but here’s why mine is better.”

Aquinas’s method and strategy is a reflection of the stylized and formal disputatio method of education in medieval universities, but it is directly applicable to now. The other day when assigning the main paper of the semester in a class, I took a few minutes with the students to outline Aquinas’ method, then suggested that they write their papers method“in the style of Aquinas.” No matter what position you are taking, no matter how strongly you hold that position, give the other side a fair hearing first. Your paper will not be stronger or more convincing by ignoring the other side or by reducing it to an easily dismissed straw man. Only by showing that the other side has strong arguments, then demonstrating why yours are better, will you have taken true ownership of the position you are taking. Imagine how different political discourse would be, how more intelligent conversations in person and on line would be if everyone were required to follow the model of Aquinas. Not bad for an Italian monk with an eating disorder from the thirteenth century who didn’t even make it to age fifty. His official nickname is “The Angelic Doctor.” Those must be seriously big wings.

Pleasure and Joy in the Work

PerlmanLast Saturday, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured guest on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite NPR show. He was a fascinating interview, full of stories about the world of being a recognized genius in the midst of mere mortals and the world of classical music. Guest host Michael Pesca asked Perlman “which would be better—the second-best violinist playing the best violin in the world, or the second-best violin being played by the best violinist in the world?” “The second one,” Perlman answered immediately, illustrating with a story from the life of another violin virtuoso: A woman once approached MenuhinYehudi Menuhin after one of his concerts and said “your violin was beautiful tonight.” Menuhin held his Stradivarius to his ear and said “That’s funny . . . I don’t hear anything!”

I remember something one of my teaching models and mentors in my early years as an assistant professor once revealed that he told his advisees when they sought his input about which courses to take the next semester. “Go for the jockey, not the horse.imagesCAXUPZEMA mediocre horse ridden by a great jockey will do better in a race than Secretariat ridden by a mediocre jockey. Something taught by the best professor on campus will always be better than the greatest syllabus in the universe taught by a less stellar professor. Arrogant? Probably. But absolutely true. Over the years I have often said that students will choose “challenging but interesting” over “boring but easy” every time. I have seen enough counterexamples over the years to know that this is not a self-evident truth, but it is better than that—a time-tested hypothesis.

I have cultivated my teaching craft for more than two decades now, all the time making it known to anyone who would listen that I have the greatest job in the world, that I actually consider teaching to be a vocation rather than a job, and that I consider myself to be inordinately privileged to be able to make a decent living doing what I was born to do, something that, happy-april-fool39s-day-image1if I were independently wealthy, I would do for free. I pulled off my most effective April Fool’s Day stunt ever this week when I posted on Facebook that “Despite my frequent claims to the contrary, I have decided that my job really sucks.” People who don’t know me very well immediately commiserated with “I know, it’s that kind of day, isn’t it?” and “I know it’s a thankless job, but if it helps you’re doing great!” A colleague from my department came up to me at lunch the next day and said, with appropriate EeyoreEeyore-like visage, “Vance, I’m really sorry.” I think he was disappointed when he found out that it was a joke. Those in my closer circle of friends and colleagues knew, however, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was a prank. “You had me going for a second—Happy April Fool’s Day!” was their typical response. Because they knew that if I ever came to the point that I said “my job really sucks!” and meant it, I would no longer be me. Simple as that.

This sort of narrative breeds and exudes confidence, so much so that I’ve learned over the years that I often need to tone my enthusiasm for teaching down, lest I be misinterpreted as someone who has a superiority complex and never experiences the insecurities, mistakes, and failures that are necessary parts of a teacher’s life. Trust me, I’ve had more of these than I could possibly remember—the “it isn’t working” moment of alarm happens as frequently now as it ever has. But now it exhilarates rather than frightens me—I have fun with the moments that, in earlier years, might have paralyzed me in front of a class.

A couple of days ago, I introduced a bunch of freshmen to the Scientific Revolution in the interdisciplinary humanities program I direct and teach in. The class immediately brought to mind a class with the same material roughly a year ago with a different pair of colleagues, a class which almost became the sort of nightmare that all teachers fear. I came to class expecting to rely on what I modestly considered to be a fabulous PowerPoint show. And the computer wouldn’t work. What in earlier years would have caused the sweating of bullets instead spawned a few jokes, then a living illustration of the heavenly bodies moving in circles, epicycles, and eccentrics created by my assigning different students the roles of the various planets circling and interweaving with each other, all with the purpose of showing how a beautiful theory can become so complicated over time under the pressure of new and continuing data as to collapse under its own weight. EpicyclesMy guess is that the students will remember what we did far longer than if they had seen it on a screen. One of my colleagues asked “How did you come up with that idea?” My answer, as always, was “I don’t know—it just seemed that it might work.”

The process of transformation from scared-to-death graduate student to comfortable-in-my-skin professor has been a long one with many landmarks along the way. One of the first was my favorite movie, “Dead Poets Society,” which was released in 1989, the very year that I was thrown, as a completely inexperienced and totally frightened graduate student into my own classroom for the first time. It has become trendy recently to trash this movie in various ways,

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,

but I don’t read such critiques. This movie was seminal for me, showed up at the right place at the right time in my life and continues to inspire my teaching energies. imagesDozens of scenes could illustrate; one will suffice. As the dynamic young teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, gradually inspires his students to think for themselves, his young charges start taking their new-found freedom and running with it in unpredictable ways, as teenage young men are apt to do. One of these young men suggests at a school assembly that God wants girls to attend their all-boys school; the sheer outrageousness of the idea as well as the impromptu and disrespectful manner of his expressing it almost gets the student expelled.

The young man expects that Mr. Keating will admire his daring and creativity, but he soon finds out otherwise. “You being expelled from school is not daring, it’s stupid. You’ll miss some golden opportunities,” says Mr. Keating. “Like what?” “Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.” I want my classes to be like that, I thought. I want to teach classes that will make students glad they came to my school. It’s one thing to see it in a movie, though; WFGit’s another thing to find the path that might lead, over a career, in that direction.

Three years later, at a silent retreat, I stumbled across the work of Simone Weil, who in Waiting for God expressed the energy and passion at the heart of the learning process so well, it became and remains my “teaching philosophy.”

Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. 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. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; at this early point in my career it was becoming clear that all my teaching really amounts to is the desire to pass this infection on to others. All I want to do is to help others find the joy in learning that has sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. IsaiahSimone gave me the words to express what I’d intuited all along, that for me, teaching is a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

Last year I was assigned to be lector on Palm Sunday at our church, something I had forgotten until I walked into the service. Completely unprepared, I read from Isaiah that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” My best days are the ones when I don’t forget this.