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.

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Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost tomorrow is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a church or religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

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When a Coincidence is More than a Coincidence

In his lovely little book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner suggests that what we often dismiss as “coincidence” might instead, for those inclined to pause for a moment, provide evidence of something going on behind the scenes. The friend you have been out of touch with unexpectedly calls or emails just as you were thinking about her for the first time in weeks. One of your favorite authors references a text from the Jewish scriptures on page two of her new book that just arrived in the mail from Amazon, the very same text you noted as your favorite verse from the Bible in an after-church seminar the day before. “Weird,” you think—then dismiss it as a coincidence. Don’t do that, Buechner advises. Better, at least on occasion, “to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know.”

In my family, we call such unexplained coincidences “Big Bird moments,” in honor of my wife Jeanne’s brilliant decision to refer to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird” when trying to talk about things sacred with the seven- and five-year-old stepsons she inherited when she decided that I was worth taking a chance on three decades ago. I had one of these “coincidences” a couple of weeks ago, one that reminded me that, to use another favorite passage of mine from literature, “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”big bird Although most Big Bird moments are tinged with positive and affirming energy, my most recent such “coincidence” was a sobering reminder that I should always be careful of what I am saying. Someone is listening.

After twenty-five years of teaching, my internal memory file titled “Memorable Students” is getting rather full. I have pictures of some of these students in my office, I am reminded of others when I write a reference letter for a current student and see the names of memorable students from the past as I save the Word document in a master folder full of subfolders labelled with the last names of students for whom I’ve written such letters over the years. “I wonder what she’s doing now?” I wonder. “He’s probably running his own company by now.” But there are some students who stick in my memory for no good reason other than that, like an annoying tune you hear in a television ad or an unwanted guest, they refuse to leave once they’ve gained access. Walter was one of those students (his name has been changed to protect the completely innocent).

I regularly teach in a large, interdisciplinary and team-taught course required of all freshmen and sophomores at my college; Walter was in my seminar group for both semesters of his freshman year five years ago. He was at or close to the bottom of the seminar group by every measurable standard—he didn’t participate much, wrote poorly, and bombed the midterm and final exams, skin of your teethmanaging to scrape out a passing grade both semesters by the skin of his teeth. I wanted Walter to do well, because he clearly (at least in my “expert” opinion) was out of place at our college. I also resonated with him because he was the sort of kid who undoubtedly was picked on unmercifully in primary and secondary school—skinny, painfully introverted, socially inept, a loner. I knew whereof I spoke, since I was this kid in school myself.

Walter showed up in one of my classes the next year as a sophomore, this time in a colloquium that I was teaching for the first time with a colleague from the history department (we just finished teaching this colloquium together for the third time this past semester). I was, admittedly, relieved when I saw that Walter was in my colleague’s seminar group rather than mine. “I dealt with him for two semesters last year,” I thought. “Now it’s someone else’s turn.” The capstone evaluation in this course is a half-hour oral exam with my colleague and me. We provide students prior to the exam with four questions to help them prepare, letting them choose which question to begin the conversation with on the understanding that we may touch base with some of the others as well. Students are allowed to bring notes and texts with them to the oral exam, and they always do—evidence of hours of rereading and study. oral examToward the end of the week, it was time for Walter’s oral. He entered the room with no books and no notes; when we asked him which question he wanted to begin the conversation with, he admitted that he hadn’t really looked at any of the questions. And that was the high point of the oral—it went downhill from there. Walter whiffed at every softball my colleague and I tossed him; every answer he did attempt was built around a mumbled “I don’t know,” or “I don’t really remember that.” It was the most awkward half-hour I’ve ever spent with a student. “At least it wasn’t a Walter” became a code phrase between my colleague and me for “it could have been a lot worse.” And except for an occasional glimpse from across the arena at a hockey game, that was the last I ever saw of Walter.

Fast forward three years to our colloquium oral exams that ended just a week ago. The room in which we were holding the orals was across from the faculty break room; my colleague and I would frequently refill our coffee cups and stretch our legs there in the ten minutes between each exam. During one break, a colleague from the English department was in the break room and asked how the orals were going. We both agreed that, overall, this set of orals was the best of the three iterations of the course over the past four years. Even those students who struggled a bit with nerves and introversion were prepared and did well. “And none of them have been a Walter,” my colleague said. In response to our English colleague’s quizzical look, I took the opportunity to describe in some animated detail over the next couple of minutes the disaster that had been Walter’s oral. It was the Platonic form of academic awfulness. If you looked up “bad oral exams” in the dictionary, the definition would be a description of Walter’s oral. NOOOWe all had a good laugh—what professor doesn’t have their “worst ever” examples of every kind of assignment?—and my colleague and I headed across the hall for the next oral exam.

Just as Walter came walking around the corner. I kid you not. It was a WTF, spit-your-coffee-out-all-over-the-wall sort of moment. I had not seen Walter in three years, and there he was seconds after I completed an over-the-top exercise in throwing him under the bus. You can’t make this shit up. My colleague and I, pretending that nothing unusual had happened, invited our next student in for her exam and proceeded in a “nothing to see here” manner. It wasn’t until the next day, in the privacy of his office, that my colleague said “Vance, what are the chances that . . .”—and we both collapsed into embarrassed laughter before he finished his question. I’m certain that Walter did not hear any of our conversation in the break room the day before—I’m not sure he even recognized me, and I have no idea of why the hell he was walking down the hall at just that moment.

But I actually think I do know why he was walking down the hall at just that moment. AYou're a losers I’ve thought about this event over the past several days, I’ve realized that Walter had become a placeholder in my imagination for the category “Loser” that I regularly criticize Donald Trump for using. Without knowing a single thing about Walter other than that he struggled academically in my classes, I had turned him into my internal definition of failure. In his discussion of “coincidence,” Frederick Buechner writes

Who can say what it is that’s going on, but I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.”

I agree. But the whisper from the wings that I heard a bit over a week ago was more like “Morgan, stop being a jackass. Never forget the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t be a jerk.”dont be a jerk

Behind the Scenes

In his lovely little book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner suggests that what we often dismiss as “coincidence” might instead, for those inclined to pause for a moment, provide evidence of something going on behind the scenes. The friend you have been out of touch with unexpectedly calls or emails just as you were thinking about her for the first time in weeks. One of your favorite authors references a text from the Jewish scriptures on page two of her new book that just arrived in the mail from Amazon, the very same text you noted as your favorite verse from the Bible in an after-church seminar the day before. “Weird,” you think—then dismiss it as a coincidence. Don’t do that, Buechner advises. Better, at least on occasion, “to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know.”

In my family, we call such unexplained coincidences “Big Bird moments,” in honor of my wife Jeanne’s brilliant decision to refer to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird” when trying to talk about things sacred with the seven- and five-year-old stepsons she inherited when she decided that I was worth taking a chance on three decades ago. I had one of these “coincidences” a couple of weeks ago, one that reminded me that, to use another favorite passage of mine from literature, “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”big bird Although most Big Bird moments are tinged with positive and affirming energy, my most recent such “coincidence” was a sobering reminder that I should always be careful of what I am saying. Someone is listening.

After twenty-five years of teaching, my internal memory file titled “Memorable Students” is getting rather full. I have pictures of some of these students in my office, I am reminded of others when I write a reference letter for a current student and see the names of memorable students from the past as I save the Word document in a master folder full of subfolders labelled with the last names of students for whom I’ve written such letters over the years. “I wonder what she’s doing now?” I wonder. “He’s probably running his own company by now.” But there are some students who stick in my memory for no good reason other than that, like an annoying tune you hear in a television ad or an unwanted guest, they refuse to leave once they’ve gained access. Walter was one of those students (his name has been changed to protect the completely innocent).

I regularly teach in a large, interdisciplinary and team-taught course required of all freshmen and sophomores at my college; Walter was in my seminar group for both semesters of his freshman year five years ago. He was at or close to the bottom of the seminar group by every measurable standard—he didn’t participate much, wrote poorly, and bombed the midterm and final exams, skin of your teethmanaging to scrape out a passing grade both semesters by the skin of his teeth. I wanted Walter to do well, because he clearly (at least in my “expert” opinion) was out of place at our college. I also resonated with him because he was the sort of kid who undoubtedly was picked on unmercifully in primary and secondary school—skinny, painfully introverted, socially inept, a loner. I knew whereof I spoke, since I was this kid in school myself.

Walter showed up in one of my classes the next year as a sophomore, this time in a colloquium that I was teaching for the first time with a colleague from the history department (we just finished teaching this colloquium together for the third time this past semester). I was, admittedly, relieved when I saw that Walter was in my colleague’s seminar group rather than mine. “I dealt with him for two semesters last year,” I thought. “Now it’s someone else’s turn.” The capstone evaluation in this course is a half-hour oral exam with my colleague and me. We provide students prior to the exam with four questions to help them prepare, letting them choose which question to begin the conversation with on the understanding that we may touch base with some of the others as well. Students are allowed to bring notes and texts with them to the oral exam, and they always do—evidence of hours of rereading and study. oral examToward the end of the week, it was time for Wesley’s oral. He entered the room with no books and no notes; when we asked him which question he wanted to begin the conversation with, he admitted that he hadn’t really looked at any of the questions. And that was the high point of the oral—it went downhill from there. Walter whiffed at every softball my colleague and I tossed him; every answer he did attempt was built around a mumbled “I don’t know,” or “I don’t really remember that.” It was the most awkward half-hour I’ve ever spent with a student. “At least it’s not a Walter” became a code phrase between my colleague and me for “it could be a lot worse.” And except for an occasional glimpse from across the arena at a hockey game, that was the last I ever saw of Walter.

Fast forward three years to our colloquium oral exams that ended just a week ago. The room in which we were holding the orals was across from the faculty break room; my colleague and I would frequently refill our coffee cups and stretch our legs there in the ten minutes between each exam. During one break, a colleague from the English department was in the break room and asked how the orals were going. We both agreed that, overall, this set of orals was the best of the three iterations of the course over the past four years. Even those students who struggled a bit with nerves and introversion were prepared and did well. “And none of them have been a Walter,” my colleague said. In response to our English colleague’s quizzical look, I took the opportunity to describe in some animated detail over the next couple of minutes the disaster that had been Walter’s oral. It was the Platonic form of academic awfulness. If you looked up “bad oral exams” in the dictionary, the definition would be a description of Walter’s oral. NOOOWe all had a good laugh—what professor doesn’t have their “worst ever” examples of every kind of assignment?—and my colleague and I headed across the hall for the next oral exam.

Just as Walter came walking around the corner. I kid you not. It was a WTF, spit-your-coffee-out-all-over-the-wall sort of moment. I had not seen Walter in three years, and there he was seconds after I completed an over-the-top exercise in throwing him under the bus. You can’t make this shit up. My colleague and I, pretending that nothing unusual had happened, invited our next student in for her exam and proceeded in a “nothing to see here” manner. It wasn’t until the next day, in the privacy of his office, that my colleague said “Vance, what are the chances that . . .”—and we both collapsed into embarrassed laughter before he finished his question. I’m certain that Walter did not hear any of our conversation in the break room the day before—I’m not sure he even recognized me, and I have no idea of why the hell he was walking down the hall at just that moment.

But I actually think I do know why he was walking down the hall at just that moment. AYou're a losers I’ve thought about this event over the past several days, I’ve realized that Walter had become a placeholder in my imagination for the category “Loser” that I regularly criticize Donald Trump for using. Without knowing a single thing about Walter other than that he struggled academically in my classes, I had turned him into my internal definition of failure. In his discussion of “coincidence,” Frederick Buechner writes

Who can say what it is that’s going on, but I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.”

I agree. But the whisper from the wings that I heard a bit over a week ago was more like “Morgan, stop being a jackass. Never forget the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t be a jerk.”dont be a jerk

How to know the will of God

On the recommendation of one of my colleagues, I recently read Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein. It’s hard to resist for a philosophy professor, since Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most important, yet enigmatic and difficult, philosophers of the 20th century. The Wittgensteins were fabulously wealthy, one of the most successful families in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ludwigludwig_wittgenstein[1] was the youngest of nine children; one died in her youth, and the three oldest sons committed suicide. The other remaining son, older brother Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm during World War I, after which he crafted a highly successful concert career playing pieces written by the great composers of the day for the left hand only. Ludwig, Pautumblr_m35rh09mU21qb8ogko1_500[1]l, and their three remaining sisters all suffered from various psychological ailments and considered suicide at various times in their lives. The Wittgensteins were both outrageously successful and spectacularly dysfunctional.

Although considered by almost everyone other than his family who knew him to be a genius, Ludwig had a very difficult time deciding what to do with his life. Talented in engineering and mathematics, he showed great promise in the burgeoning field of aeronautics while at Cambridge University in 1911 at the age of 22. Yet his heart wasn’t in it, and Ludwig attached himself to Bertrand Russell, the most famous philosopher of his day in the English-speaking world, wondering whether philosophy might turn out to be his true passion. Despite Ludwig’s abrasive and neurotic personality, Russell humored him to the point that one day Wittgenstein asked Russell: tumblr_lyzv9vekTr1qcu0j0o1_500[1]“Will you please tell me if I am a complete idiot or not?” Russell replied, “My dear fellow, I don’t know, why are you asking me?” “Because,” Wittgenstein said, “if I am a complete idiot I shall become an aeronaut; but if not I shall become a philosopher.”

Ludwig finds himself in a predicament that all of us face at times. A choice, often an important one, must be made and we need help making it. Do I play it safe or take a risk? Do I continue on a familiar path or take “the road less traveled”? Do I end a relationship or hang in there for a while longer? In such cases we often look to someone other than ourselves for direction. Ludwig was lucky—he actually got some help. Russell told him to write something on a philosophical topic over vacation; based on what he wrote, Russell would provide his advice. Russell reports in his memoirs that after reading what Ludwig produced for one minute, “I said to him, ‘No you must not become an aeronaut.’” And he didn’t. Instead, Wittgenstein became a philosopher whose originality and influence vastly surpassed Russell’s and who set a standard in philosophy that has influenced the discipline ever since.

Given that Bertrand Russell was a dedicated and virulent atheist, it seems odd to ask Why can’t God be more like Russell? But think about it—Ludwig asked Bertrand for assistance, Russell gave it, Wittgenstein followed it—problem solved. But God doesn’t operate that way.sviatui-apostol-matii[1] A case point shows up early in the book of Acts with the case of Matthias. Who, you say? It’s a fascinating and illuminating story. Jesus chose twelve disciples, of course, but one of them turned out to be a disastrously bad choice. So early in the book of Acts, between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, the problem of replacing Judas arises—it’s apparently not cool to just have eleven disciples, although I’m not sure why, it being a prime number and all. The qualifications necessary to be the new disciple number twelve are clear. Peter says that it needs to be someone “who has accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” starting with the baptism of John all the way through seeing the risen Christ. Apparently there were dozens of good candidates; the two finalists are Justus and Matthias. Then the disciples do what might be expected—they pray for the Lord to reveal which of these two equally qualified candidates is to be the new disciple twelve.

Now if I were God, I’d honor this hard work and proper request with an appropriate answer. Justus or Matthias would get a halo, or start glowing and levitating, or a dove would descend from heaven while a voice would say “This is my beloved new disciple.” But what do the disciples do?election of Matthias icon[1] “And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias.” “Casting lots” is the biblical equivalent of rolling a pair of dice or flipping a coin. So this is like the beginning of a football game. “Call heads or tails in the air, Justus.” “Heads!” “It’s tails—Justus, thanks for playing; Matthias, you’re the new disciple. Here’s your ‘I’m A Disciple and You’re Not’ T-shirt and bumper sticker—Andrew and Bartholomew will teach you the secret handshake.” The new disciple is chosen by a flip of a coin, and everyone accepts it as the will of God. Neither Justus nor Matthias is mentioned again in Acts or anywhere else in the Bible. Weird.

But maybe not. It’s typically human to want “signs and wonders,” to look for unmistakable answers to the most important questions. But such answers are not generally available in the normal, human run of things. There are many occasions in scripture where big time miraculous answers and solutions are given in difficult predicaments—crazy Gideon with his fleeces, for instance—but the preponderance of relevant texts say something like what Moses tells the children of Israel in Deuteronomy.word is near[1] The will of God “is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea . . . but the word is very near you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” God has given us everything we need to address the problems in front of us. Trust what you have been given, do your homework, look at the options, then choose. And flip a coin if you have to. What’s the worst that could happen? 220px-William_James_b1842c[1]One of my favorite philosophers, William James, recommends a certain lightheartedness when making even the most important choices, a lightheartedness that I also detect in the Matthias story. “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than excessive nervousness on their behalf.” Jesus was human too, and according to Matthew his last words to us were “I am with you always.” Finding God’s will is a matter of believing that these words are true.lo_i_am_with_you_always_postcard-r315abba365ce42479f6e62065309ebf0_vgbaq_8byvr_512[1]

Trump at Liberty University

But understand this, that in the last days terrible times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. II Timothy 3:1-5

Hardly the description of a person one would expect to be giving the commencement address at the largest evangelical Christian university in the world. football stadiumAnd yet there was Donald Trump—who could arguably use the Apostle Paul’s words on his resume as a self-description—a bit over a week ago on  Mother’ Day eve, speaking to the graduates at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, VA creation of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, who established the school as Liberty Baptist College almost fifty years ago. The university now has over 15,000 residential undergraduate and more than 100,000 online students. The reaction of the more than 50,000 people in attendance at the commencement held in the university’s football stadium when the President walked on stage sounded like the Beatles had just arrived. They cheered when, in his summary of Trump’s accomplishments in his first four months as President, Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. praised Trump for bombing “those in the Middle East who were persecuting Christians” (even though the expressed reason for the bombing was Syrian president Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own citizens). trump and falwell 2If anyone in the crowd disagreed with Falwell when he said that “I do not believe that any President in our lifetimes has done so much that has benefitted the Christian community in such a short time span than Donald Trump,” they kept their mouths shut.

In some ways, the President’s address was boilerplate Trump—he seldom went more than three sentences without mentioning himself, remained committed to a sixth-grade vocabulary (using his favorite adjectives “amazing” seven times and “great” twenty-seven times), spent the middle third of his talk praising Liberty’s beefed up football program, and more than once mispronounced the name of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh (calling him “Hesper”), who was the President of the University of Notre Dame for thirty-five years. His usual obsession with size was on display as he marveled at the size of the crowd, the number of graduating seniors seated on the field, that Liberty is bigger than Notre Dame, and the size of his upset victory last November. It was also a boilerplate commencement speech, complete with invitations for the graduates to applaud their thanks to their parents, appeals to patriotism, the perfunctory thanks to those in the military for their sacrifice and service, conanphrases such as “the greatest adventure of your life” and “demand the best from yourself,” stories of people overcoming obstacles to achieve success, and no warnings about the fact that the lives the graduates were undoubtedly imagining for themselves going forward almost certainly will not turn out as they expect. In many ways, the President’s address was exactly like ninety-nine percent of all commencement addresses—completely forgettable.

But woven into Trump’s rambling remarks were regular references to something that has been a conservative Christian theme for some time—the perception that Christians are under attack. This was not Trump’s first visit to Liberty University. When speaking at the university’s convocation in January 2016, then candidate Trump was clearly still searching for his sea legs trying to speak the language of the conservative Christian. He referred to his favorite Bible verse in “Two Corinthians,” for instance; critics suggested that someone might have wanted to tell him that the proper reference is two corinthians“Second Corinthians” in preparation for speaking before a crowd of Bible-toting evangelicals. Trump’s commencement address showed that the President can learn a few new tricks—his speech was filled with the code words and phrases that evangelical Christians recognize as marking one of their own. Predicting that the graduates would be “warriors for truth . . . for our country, and for your family,” Trump frequently challenged the graduates to be “true champions,” suggesting that Liberty University’s creed is “to be, really, champions for Christ” (the banner behind the podium said “Liberty University: Training Champions for Christ since 1971”). Over and over the President challenged the graduates to embrace the role of “Outsider,” an odd role to assign to evangelical Christians, since the latest Pew Research data reveals that 25.4% of Americans are evangelical Protestant Christian, the single largest religious group in the nation. Trump promised the graduates that as long as he is president, “no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart.religious freedom We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and to follow his teachings”—as if the thousands of evangelical Christians in the audience were regularly being denied any of those things.

Evangelical Christians voted for Trump in November in massive numbers, as responsible for his electoral college victory as any other single demographic. There were undoubtedly many reasons why they voted for a man who has regularly and publicly said and done things that are a disgrace and affront to even the most basic Christian principles throughout his adult life; one of these reasons is that Trump’s packaging of reality in an aggressively “Us vs. Them,” “Winners and Losers” framework fits the evangelical’s natural disposition to imagine faith as something to be defended and protected against all manner of perceived threats. I am very familiar with this version of Christianity—it is the one in which I was raised. I learned at a very early age that Christians are involved in a cosmic war between the forces of good and those of darkness—we talked a lot about “spiritual warfare.”christian warrior

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

Fast and Slow

My college’s commencement is this coming Sunday; Pentecost is two weeks after that. How might they tie together?

When my sons were young, one of the most important distinctions in their estimation, when food was the issue, was “is it fast or slow food?” In other words, how much of my important schedule is this eating event going to take up? Fast food—McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Burger King if going out; fish sticks, hot dogs, sandwiches if staying in—was obviously preferred. Slow food—any place where you have to sit down and wait if going out; anything involving more than five minutes of preparation time and that you would not be consuming in front of the television if eating in—was acceptable only if given sufficient warning. Going out to a slow food restaurant required preparation, including which coloring books to bring, psychological calming techniques, a consideration of the expected guest list, and so on.

The first slow food event that Jeanne and the boys ever attended together—Thanksgiving dinner 1987 with my parents and me at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming—was such a slow food event that Jeanne finally walked into the kitchen to find out why the hell the food was taking so long. My sons were impressed that any human being would have the nerve to do such a thing. They were not the only persons impressed that night, though. Jeanne still speaks on occasion about how remarkable it was that these two kids, eight and six, managed to keep themselves occupied without fidgeting or complaint for a much longer period of time than any human being should be required to wait for food. That’s only because they knew how to prepare.

A few years ago, in his greeting to the thousands of people gathered for Providence College commencement at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, the President of the college gave one last reading assignment to the graduating seniors. “You must read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,” Father Shanley said. In this book,  Kahneman distinguishes between two types of thinking that all of us come equipped with as human beings. Fast thinking, on the one hand, is the intuitive, almost unconscious way that we tend to make quick, snap judgments about events, people, choices, and even our life paths. Relying on emotion, memory, and hard-wired rules of thumb, much of our daily existence runs on fast thinking autopilot. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is much more deliberate, conscious, attentive, self-aware, and, well, slower. One of the book reviewers on Amazon.com’s site for this book writes that “The human mind is a hilariously muddled compromise between these incompatible modes of thought.”

Most of us rely on fast thinking most of the time, even though we know that such thinking is often inaccurate and shot through with bias and prejudice. The question is, Why do we do it? At least on the surface, the answer clearly is “It’s easier.” Slow thinking laboriously checks the facts against the appearances, critically evaluates information, but is extraordinarily lazy and easily distracted. Our slow thinking self is more than happy to turn things over to fast thinking simply because it conserves time and effort. Why take the time to consider the relevant details and nuances of a political candidate’s positions when it is so much quicker and easier to label her as a “conservative,” a “liberal,” a “socialist,” or a “tea-partier” and move on? Why expend the effort to actually get to know this new colleague or neighbor when it is much simpler to label him as “one of them” and go to lunch?

When the stakes are higher, when one’s spiritual health and growth are the issue, the fast and slow distinction becomes far more than an interesting topic of conversation. Is the Christian life more like fast or slow food? Is it more like McDonald’s or the Capital Grille? The Christian narrative is full of fast food events–Pentecost, Christmas, Easter–instant gratification events at the heart of belief that are so filling and satisfying that one could imagine that this is the exclusive food that fuels the life of faith. Each of us has had our own fast food, Big Bird moments, times when the veil between the mundane human and glorious divine is pierced, even for a moment, in some unforgettable way. What more does one need?

Plenty. Will Pentecost be enough to sustain those who experienced it when, weeks or months later, they are alone in chains waiting for torture or execution? Will your most spectacular Big Bird moment from the past be enough to get you through the stress of parenting, the tragedy of loss, a divorce, a lost job, an illness, or simply the daily grind? If slow food is analogous to delayed gratification, then much—probably most—of the life of faith is slow food. Waiting, attending, struggling, just being, all the time wondering if you are ever going to get food again. That conversion experience, that healing, that moment that you vibrated with the presence of God are all distant memories. And one cannot eat memories.

Our fast thinking selves, applied to the spiritual life, decide that an occasional trip to the McDonald’s of faith is good enough. A few milestones, both doctrinal and personal, become the sole sustenance of faith, bolstered by some quick and easy rules of thumb and prescribed ways of behaving. Go to church, say your prayers, maybe read your Bible on occasion. Our slow thinking selves are willing to concede that this has to be enough, because what else is there?

The answer lies in some of the food analogies that Jesus uses in the Gospels. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “He who believes in me shall never hunger.”  “Whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again,” he tells the Samaritan woman at the well. The message of Pentecost completes the Incarnation story—God, in the form of the Holy Spirit is in us. The source of life, the food we need, is not in the fast food of events, of churches, nor is it in the slow food of waiting interminably for something to happen. It is in the regular, daily supply of nourishment that is in us “a well of water, springing up into everlasting life.”

Many of the hymns related to the Holy Spirit—“Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers,” “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”–all appear to be petitions for God to show up, to pay attention. But Big Bird hasn’t gone anywhere—she is in us all the time. These texts call us to attentiveness, to remembrance, to awareness that we have been provided with all the food we need. It’s just a matter of consuming it, because it is never used up.

Several years ago, during my first visit to Paris for a conference, I walked the city as much as time would allow. And for once I saw first-hand that a common stereotype is true. Parisians really do walk down the street holding a cell phone to one ear while carrying a baguette under their arm. Tearing off and eating a piece while walking down the sidewalk is as habitual to them as breathing. Maybe that’s how the life of faith should be. We don’t have to go shopping for the bread of life at either a fast or slow food establishment. It’s with us all the time. Take a bite. It’s really good.

This is what you are afraid of

In an early, first-season episode of The West Wing (the best television show ever), presidential speech writer Sam Seaborn is attracted to Mallory, a fifth-grade teacher who happens to be the daughter of White House chief of staff Leo McGarry. Sam_and_MallorySam has managed to offend Mallory unintentionally, and wants to let her know what he really thinks about teachers.

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

From your words to God’s ears, Sam. If teachers ruled the world . . .

I have taught for close to a quarter-century as a non-Catholic at a college run by the Dominican Catholic order. I’ve raised eyebrows on occasion with my students by telling them that I consider teaching to be a vocation, a calling, in much the same way that the Dominicans walking around campus in their white robes believe themselves “called” to be priests. I did not know that I was born to be a teacher until I became one—I’m one of those immensely fortunate people who, if independently wealthy, would do what they do for a living for nothing (don’t tell payroll at my college). Of vocatiBuechneron, Frederick Buechner writes that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The classroom is where the divine is most likely, against all odds, to occasionally enter the world through the very flawed and cracked vehicle called “me.” Sometimes it actually happens.

I spent the last two weeks running half-hour oral final exams with sixty-four of my students from three of my classes. These oral exams are time consuming, exhausting, and a complete joy. Many of my colleagues, as well as most of my non-academic friends and acquaintances, think I’m insane to inflict such torture on myself when I could do the more traditional thing and have my students write their final an a two-hour blue book event. But I learn more about what each student has learned, what they don’t know, and what they will take from the class from a thirty minute conversation than I ever could in any amount of writing under pressure. The orals this past week were for the students in a colloquium that I taught this semester for the third time with a close friend and colleague from the history department. The colloquium was “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” The conversations were revealing, sometimes touching, and often wandered in unexpected and interesting directions.

One of the last oral exams of the week was with a student whose performance throughout the semester had been solid—steady seminar participation (despite obvious introversion), regular commitment to weekly intellectual notebook entries, a strong formal paper, and perfect attendance. otherThis student is part of a demographic that is viewed by many people with mistrust, suspicion, often even with fear. This demographic is, for some, the very definition of the scary “Other.” At the end of the half hour, the student handed my colleague and me each a small envelope with our name on it. Both of us have been teaching for many years and are used to occasionally receiving thank you notes from students at the end of the semester. The envelope was kind of thick—“Maybe there’s money in it!” I said. I read the folded note inside the card at lunch. With only a few edits to remove identifying characteristics, here’s what I read.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you so much for teaching this course. I am very grateful that I was able to be a part of your class because it truly changed my outlook on life, and my life in general. Before enrolling in this course, I wanted to take a class that would be meaningful especially in a changing political climate filled with hate. I told myself that I wanted to learn how it was possible to still have hope in such a horrible time. That’s what I told myself, but really I wanted to know why people were filled with so much hate, hate for me. . . . I want you to know the impact that you each had on my life. Thank you for teaching the rest of my peers how I am often excluded from people’s moral communities, bringing me into your moral community, and acknowledging that I am human too.

This course, although it showed what length hate can go to, taught us how much more powerful love is. That love conquers all, that there will always be people willing to help, people who love, and people who care. People like yourselves, who advocate for people like myself. Before this class, I was faithless because I always struggled to believe in a God and Christianity. But I must admit, you taught me to have faith, something that I had never known before. A unique faith, but one which has made the most sense to me. A faith rooted in love and justice and one that is rooted in the message of Jesus Christ. You taught me that suffering is a part of life, but that suffering has an end. There is no suffering which I cannot bear. You taught me that an afflicted person will always have a part of their personhood that can never be taken away from them. You taught me not to hate those who hate me. You taught me to see beyond good and evil. In all this I realized that hate is inevitable and even the people with the best intentions can be blinded by it. However, in reality people are good at heart. You most importantly taught me tools to resist hate and help others who fall victim. I will always remember this class. Thank you for being more than professors, you were truly healers.

And that, my friends, is why I am a teacher.