Author Archives: vancemorgan

West of What?

ruaneThe heart of Providence College’s core curriculum is the Development of Western Civilization (DWC) program, a sixteen-credit, four-semester, interdisciplinary and team-taught series of courses required of all freshmen and sophomores regardless of major. From its origin in the 1970s, DWC (or “Civ,” as many call it) has been both a regular source of pride and occasionally of controversy, both of which have been the case recently. I have taught in the program for sixteen of the twenty-one years I have taught at the college and directed the program for the four academic years before my 2015-16 sabbatical. At the end of August on the first day of the current semester (my first day back in the classroom in fifteen months), my colleagues and I chose to spend our first ninety minutes with our new freshman students by raising the question that many of them were probably thinking but were too afraid to ask: Why study Western civilization at all?

The very existence of a program such as ours is controversial in many quarters where many wonder, in an increasingly diverse and globally connected world, whether the study of dead-white-guys“dead white guys” is anything more than a lame and outdated exercise in cheerleading for white folks. But others seek to defend the primacy of Western civilization over all others. One of my colleagues began the class with a clip from the Republican National Convention a couple of months earlier. A talking head panel was filling up air space waiting for the first speaker of the evening. After one person mentioned that the hall was filled with lots of angry white people, Iowa Congressman Steve King took offense.

King: This “old, white people’ business does get a little tired. I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about — where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Panel moderator: Than white people?

King: Than Western civilization itself. It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Unites Stated of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.

King’s comments astounded a couple of people on the panel and outraged a third—as the table exploded into shouting, the moderator wisely broke for a commercial.

The congressman’s comments reminded me of something brought to my attention a few weeks earlier. A person who gave a talk at my college over fifteen years ago remembered it in a recent column on a conservative website, recalling that some of the people present were not happy with the content of his talk.

 I am sure I noted the fact that some cultures are better than others and I might well have quoted (with enthusiastic approval if I did) William Henry’s observation, in his book In Defense of Elitism, that “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.” I am very fond of Henry’s native prosuperior-civiliztionsboscis image, not least because, like Saul Bellow’s question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”, it is so reliably productive of rage among pampered left-wing academics.

These comments could have been written or said by some of my colleagues on campus who often defend the existence of our DWC program by asking “Why wouldn’t we want to focus close-to-exclusive attention on Western Civilization? It’s the best civilization ever!”

After Congressman King’s clip from the RNC, my teaching colleagues began a conversation with our students by asking basic questions such as “What is Western Civilization?” The students seemed unsure how to answer other than to say “we are!” After a few minutes I made my first contribution. “This is going to sound like a stupid question,” I said, “but I’m sitting over here listening to all of you talk about ‘Western Civilization’ and I’m wondering: West of what? Are we talking geography here? What is Western Civilization west of?” None of us had thought to load a map onto PowerPoint, so I just asked the students to picture Europe, Asia, and Africa in their imaginations. “If we draw a dotted line from north to south to divide the East from the West, where would we draw it?”drawing-the-line

The first suggestion was that it would go through the Middle East, in a way that would perhaps include Israel in the West but perhaps the rest of the Middle East in the East. “What about Turkey?” one of us asked. They weren’t sure. Of course if the dotted line continues straight south from Israel, another question arises. “What about Africa? Is it in the West?” I asked.funny-africa “No,” just about all of the students answered, meaning that our dotted line needs to take a sharp turn left from Israel, bisecting the Mediterranean Sea so that Europe to the north stays in the West (as everyone knows it should) and Africa to the south stays non-West (as everyone knows it should). Remembering Congressman King’s inclusion of the United States in Western civilization (even though it does not make an appearance in DWC until the beginning of sophomore year), the dotted line should cross the Atlantic so that the U.S. and Canada lie on the Europe (northern) side of the line. Mexico and Central America? Iffy. South America? Not sure. It was pretty clear that the line was intended to include those most like us in the West and exclude everyone else.funny-asia

This exercise established pretty quickly that the answer to West of What? cannot be geographical. One student then helpfully suggested that “I think ‘Western’ refers to various ideas rather than geographical areas.” Asked for examples, students suggested things like democracy, human rights, capitalism, and monotheism. One of my colleagues, a theologian, jumped on that one. “Is Christianity a Western religion?’ he asked—“Of course!” was the answer (Congressman King would have been proud). “What about Judaism?” The students weren’t as sure there, even when my colleague pointed out that both Christianity and Judaism started in the same place and that Jesus was a Jew. “What about Islam?” Most of the students thought not (Donald Trump would have been proud), prompting my colleague to point out that for a number of centuries during the Middle Ages the westernmost area of Europe—Spain—was Muslim. Trying to define “Western” by religion doesn’t work much better than geographically.monotheism

Finally, one brave student said “I think that ‘Western’ for most people means pretty much the same thing as ‘White’.” And I suspect there’s a great deal of truth in that suggestion. When we study Western Civilization, we will undoubtedly end up studying predominantly dead white guys unless a concerted effort is made to engage with non-Western influences. I mentioned to the students, for instance, thg-and-iat most people don’t know that one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—philosopher in the Western tradition, Plato, was heavily influenced by thought from Persia and India. The dotted line is porous, in other words. Furthermore, one of my colleagues who is of Italian ancestry pointed out that one hundred years ago in this country, immigrants from southern European countries such as Greece and Italy were not considered by many in this country as white.

After ninety or so minutes of this, I’m sure our students left largely in confusion. And that’s a good thing. Despite the name of the course, “Western Civilization,” upon close scrutiny, turns out to be as much a reflection of our expectations and prejudices as anything else. This is good for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old young adults to understand at the outset of their forays into their college education. We live in a polarized political and social climate in which labels and categories are used as if they are as objective and set in stone as the Ten Commandments. Only when we realize that all such dividing lines are at their roots random, porous, and fluid might we seize the opportunity to do better.

The Right Niyyah

As I wait impatiently for my sabbatical that is under contract with a publisher to return from the editor, I’ve been thinking about some of my blog essays that “made the cut” in some sense to appear in revised form in my book-to-be. One of these essays is about the challenge of cultivating the right attitude with which to enter the world on a daily basis. I learned a lot about this from Rami Nashishibi when he was interviewed a year or so ago on Krista Tippett’s “On Being.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being,” a show that I frequently catch several minutes of on Sunday mornings as I drive the fifteen minutes from our house to the early show at church. A few weeks ago, her guest was Rami Nashashibi, Founder and Executive Director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, in Chicago. He’s also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology of Religion and Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.nashishibi

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

Graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he’s the leader of a globally-emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in post-9/11 America.

Not surprisingly, the conversation was wide-ranging, fascinating, and introduced me to a number of matters and issues that are well outside of my usual frame of reference. What particularly grabbed me, however, was a brief exchange toward the end of the interview, just as I was pulling into my usual parking spot at Trinity Episcopal.

Krista Tippett: I told you I was on your Twitter feed, and I love this. I think it was really recent. You wrote: “My 4-year-old discovers the spiritual power of her name as she looks over and seriously asks, ‘Daddy, do you have the right niyyah?’” What does niyyah mean?

Rami Nashashibi: So niyyah — in kind of Arabic-Muslim parlance — is spiritual intention. niyyahAnd oftentimes — it’s both the Swahili and Arabic word. And oftentimes, Muslims are always asked before they pray, before they do any act of service, before they engage in anything that has any kind of sense of worship associated with it, is it being done for the right niyyah? Is it being done for the right purpose? Are you attempting to get fame or credit? I think, yes, there was a song that had used her name in that way and the light went off in the middle of it and turned over to me on the couch and asked me that question. Honestly, I looked at her and I didn’t have an answer for her for I think a good 20 seconds. She nodded her head and she said, “No, probably not.”

And I said, “What?” We then had a conversation. I said, “Well, at least keep me in your prayers that I have.”

This four-year-old’s simple question—Do you have the right niyyah?—has stuck with me ever since. So has her response to her father’s lack of response—“No, probably not.” It’s hard enough to figure out what the right thing to do is on a daily basis; adding in that it should be done with the right intention, for the right reasons, seems like piling on.intentions and actions As a philosophy professor who has taught introductory ethics courses more times than I care to count over the past twenty-five years, I have thought about this a lot. When I ask my students “What is more important—what you do, or why you do it? Actions or intentions?” they usually split roughly down the middle.

And so do the great moral philosophers. There is the tradition of those who say that only results matter (since they can be observed and measured publicly) and intentions are irrelevant. Then there is the other tradition (spearheaded by Immanuel Kant) who say that results are irrelevant—the true measure of the moral life is internal. Were your intentions pure? Was your heart in the right place? If so, then you are morally in the clear, even if the results of your intended action go “tits up” (to quote my brother-in-law).

VgMKgyZMy students are pretty smart, and it doesn’t take very long before they realize that the “results or intentions” question is a false dichotomy. Because in truth, normal human beings care about both. If morality is just about doing the right thing, then the person who identifies the things that should be done and does them—even if for all of the wrong reasons, such as self-righteous smugness or the praise of others—is morally in the clear. But Nashashibi’s four-year-old daughter is right—we want not only the right thing to be done, but for it to be done with the right niyyah, the right intention or reason. And that sucks, because it takes things straight into the human heart. For those who profess the Christian faith, it also takes things straight into the world of grace.

The first thing I ever learned from Scripture about the human heart as a young boy was from JeremiahJeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked—who can know it?” Far less attention was paid to the Psalm that is recited in liturgical churches during the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” Straight from the Jewish scriptures is both the problem of and the solution for right intentions. As a flawed human being, I am incapable of doing things for the right reason, but help is available. Through divine grace the heart is changed and turned toward the good. Rami Nashishibi’s daughter is right when she doubts that her dad has the right niyyah, so long as that depends on his own energies and strength. But when the divine gets involved, everything changes.

The mystery of grace is exactly that—a mystery. Divine grace enters the world through flawed human beings, strangely enough, and there isn’t enough time to try to figure it out. Grace is something to be channeled, to be lived, not systematized and turned into dogma or doctrine. My bright abyssThe poet Christian Wiman writes beautifully about this. Through many years of cancer treatments, he learned to hear God, then to channel God, in the most unlikely places, the very places where divine grace apparently lives. Wiman writes that

God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is composed of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. . . . All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

The right niyyah is not the result of struggle, training, or calculation. And as the author of Deuteronomy tells us,deuteronomy

Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

All I have to do to have the right niyyah is to open my heart, open my mouth, and let it out.

To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.

Tolerance on Steroids

What happens when a perfectly good virtue gets turned into not only the most important virtue, but in many cases the only virtue? I have come face to face with this question in the signpostsearly weeks of this semester with fifty juniors and seniors in two ethics classes. I chose this past summer to organize my General Ethics course, usually a tour of several of the notable moral theories in the Western philosophical tradition (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Sartre, etc.) that are then applied to the details of human experience, by starting instead with those messy details themselves. We find ourselves in a world of competing religious, moral, and political claims shouting at each other across various divides, claims that are both incompatible with each other and resistant to compromise. How in the midst of diverse perspectives that too often lead to violence are we to find a place of stability from which to plot the way forward?

I have discovered both from early class discussion and student writing reflections what I suspected—most of my young adult students have been taught for as long as they can remember that the “go-to” virtue that must be cultivated in order to wend one’s way through the minefield of incompatible beliefs and commitmaristotleents is tolerance. It’s interesting that the granddaddy of virtue ethics, Aristotle, did not include tolerance in any of his lists of virtues—apparently such a virtue was not particularly useful in fourth century BC Athens. Tolerance is also rejected by many contemporary people as a sign of weakness, of lacking commitment to one’s beliefs, and of a willingness to compromise too quickly. But for many in our culture, particularly those who might consider themselves as “liberal” in some sense, tolerance is the proposed remedy for many of the things that ail us.

Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with tolerance as a virtue. As a matter of fact, it probably plays as regular a role in my life on a daily basis as any virtue you could name. My concern about tolerance arises from intimate facebookfamiliarity with how it often works in my own life. When I remove myself from an email list on campus because I’m sick to death of being inundated with what I consider to be the often petty concerns of my colleagues, it feels like tolerance. “Let them continue emailing about anything they want,” I think. “I just don’t want to be part of it.” When a Facebook conversation wanders into areas that I find either offensive or seriously different-strokesmisguided, my tendency is to withdraw from the conversation rather than insert my concerns. Tolerant, right? Not really.

I find in my own life, and I suspect I’m not unusual or unique in this, that “tolerance” is an umbrella term for “whatever.” “Different strokes for different folks.” “I disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” (although I almost certainly wouldn’t). In other words, one of the best safeguards against being judgmental and ethnocentric, a check against our natural human tendency to negatively judge those who believe, think, and act differently than we do simply because they are believing, thinking, and acting differently than we do, turns into a placeholder for laziness and a reticence to engage even with what one most strongly disagrees with. When writing on topics related to diversity and difference, my students regularly include phrases such as “we all just need to accept people as they are” and “the world would be a better place if everyone would simply be more tolerant of differences.” Tolerance is not only the first virtue that gets mentioned in class discussion and assignments, but is often the only virtue in play. But is tolerance suitable as the primary virtue in a moral framework or ethic? And what if there are some things that must not be tolerated?

herodotusA brief but familiar story from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus provides a useful jumping off point for asking uncomfortable questions about tolerance. In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of King Darius of Persia, a (somewhat) enlightened ruler who was fascinated by the various customs of the different groups of people from the far-flung reaches of his empire who were part of his extended court. Darius noted, for instance, that two different groups of people—the Greeks and the Callatians (a tribe of people from what is now the Indian peninsula)—had strikingly different methods of dealing with the body of a person who died in their community. The Greek practice when someone died was to burn the dead body, while the Callatian practice was to eat the dead body.

Intrigued, Darius first asked representatives of the Greek community what he would have to pay or give them, what honors he would have to bestow on them, so that the next time someone died in their community they would eat the dead body instead of burning it, as was their custom. Appalled, the Greek representatives told Darius that no amount of riches or honors could possibly convince them to do such a horrible and immoral thing. Darius also asked a similar question of the Callatians—could I convince you to burn the next dead body you have to deal with in your community rather than eating it, as is your custom? Hell no! the Callatians said, insisting that nothing could convince them to do such a disgusting and immoral thing. Herodotus’s conclusion? callatians“Custom is king.” What a person or group of people considers to be “right” or “moral” is what they are accustomed to, the practices of their family, their community, or their culture that they have been taught since their youth. Humans nature causes us not only to embrace what we are most familiar with as morally right, but also to assume that it is right for everyone.

If “custom is king” and moral values are culturally defined, then the most important attitude to cultivate, the habit most likely to put up a firewall against unwarranted projection of one’s parochial practices and values on others, is undoubtedly tolerance. As Herodotus’ story is intended to illustrate, the best answer to the question “Who is right about the best way to dispose of a dead body—the Greeks or the Callatians?” is “Both, within the parameters of their culture.” Furthermore, there is no way to step outside one’s own culturally defined moral stance and be “objective.” There is no such objective standpoint. The only proper response to differences between groups, or perhaps even between individuals, is tolerance—the habit of accepting differences without judgment.tolerance

The problem, as a student quickly pointed out in each section of my ethics course, is that tolerance as an exclusive or primary virtue is not sufficient to account for many of our strongest moral intuitions. What if, for instance, the difference is about something more serious than the difference between eating or burning a dead body? What if the difference is between a culture that practices female circumcision and our culture that does not? Is tolerance appropriate in this instance? Are we to say “wow, I’m glad I don’t live in that culture, but for them that practice is morally right”? If our intuitions say that some practices cannot be tolerated, no matter what cultures adopt them, is this because our intuitions have been shaped by our own culture or because our intuitions are resonating with a moral absolute that transcends cultural differences?moral-values

Of such questions a great General Ethics class is made. But it appears that if we raise tolerance to primary virtue status, we at the same time take any commitment to moral principles that transcend cultural differences off the table. And that may not be a price worth paying. As I told my students the other day, a moral theory that does not account for our strongest moral intuitions is like trying to cover a queen-size mattress with a twin-size fitted sheet. It covers some of what needs to be covered, but not all of it. I, for one, am not ready to tolerate a theory like that.

Disturbing the Peace

Last Friday I attended a talk on campus by civil rights lawyer and and law professor Greg Lukianoff on issues of free speech, trigger warnings, and a related host of matters on college and university matters that are regularly in the news. He is the co-author of an article in The Atlantic a bit over a year ago that raised a lot of eyebrows and generated a lot of conversation. I wrote about it in the early weeks of my sabbatical last August: 

I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace Baruch Spinoza Spinoza

One of the lead articles in the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine is “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

Co-authored by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the teaser blurb for the article in the Table of Contents says “How a new strain of political correctness on campus is damaging higher education—and may be threatening students’ mental health.” It is an interesting read. Given Donald Trump’s current more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame, concerns about political correctness are in the news, safe spacebut in this article Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing our attention to what might be called “political correctness with a twist”:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . . It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.

The authors’ argument is largely anecdotal, relying either on their own experiences or on recent anecdotal stories and essays from various campuses across the country. seismic shiftThere is a great deal of speculation about the causes of this perceived seismic psychological shift among students over the past couple of decades, although virtually no data is provided to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

In the first column of the article readers are introduced to two important terms that “have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance: Microaggression and Trigger warnings. Microaggressions “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Examples provided include asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that she or he is not a real American. Mrs. DallowayTrigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”; examples of texts deemed as needing trigger warnings on various campuses include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault). The many examples of these and related problems in the article are chosen and presented with the clear intention of “triggering” the reader into concluding “well that’s just stupid—political correctness, like a hydra, rears a new ugly head.” One of the authors’ primary concerns, repeated frequently throughout the article is that such attention to words and actions that might possibly somewhere, somehow offend someone will leave students unprepared to live and work in a world that doesn’t give a crap about what makes them feel uncomfortable.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of a doubt?

Even though I have twenty-five years of college teaching under my belt,pc my experience on college campuses is deep but narrow, given that I have taught at my current college home for twenty-one years and have shaped my teaching and professional life within the confines of its “105 acre, park-like campus.” Serious conversations about the negative power of language on students in various groups defined racially, economically, by gender or by sexual preference have been ongoing on my campus for some time now. In my own philosophy department regular, continuing, and often heated debates occur about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language in the classroom, in job candidate interviews, and in basic conversation with each other. What strikes some as obviously benign, scholarly, and insightful strikes others as ill-advised, insensitive, and downright offensive. That said, the tsunami described by Lukianoff and Haidt as drowning campuses nationwide has escaped my notice where I teach—at least in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I have included this general “trigger warning” in every syllabus for every one of my courses for at least the past fifteen years:

Ine this course we will be considering some of the most important questions a human being can ask. Perhaps the most important feature of our considerations is learning to ask these questions clearly and precisely. Only then can possible answers be considered fairly. Although I have definite positions on the questions we will be addressing, my role as professor is not to tell you what to think. My role is rather to get you to think. Expect your assumptions to be challenged and comfortable ways of thinking to be disturbed. As the great 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

During an oral final exam a couple of semesters ago a student told me that “This class really messed me up—but in a good way!” Mission accomplished.mission accomplished

The new fall semester is just three weeks old–here’s a bit of advice related to safe spaces and learning for the incoming freshmen:

  1. Free speech dictates that everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are equal. right to an opinionOne of the purposes of a liberal education is to help you become skillful at using the tools of lifetime learning; some of these tools, used properly, will help you learn how to distinguish a good argument from bullshit—even when it is your own argument. I often say that a liberally educated person earns the right to have an opinion. The process of earning that right begins with realizing that your opinion is not special just because it is yours, and without challenge and analysis it means nothing with regard to whether it is true (or even a defensible position).
  2. In the life of learning, comfort is vastly overrated. comfort zoneExpect to encounter people, ideas, situations and expectations that are both unfamiliar and well outside your comfort zone. You should be looking for these rather than trying to avoid them. If you manage to make it through your undergraduate college career without changing any opinion, belief, perspective or attitude, then your tuition dollars have been wasted.
  3. The world of adulthood into which you are making your first, tentative forays can be a tough, nasty place. The world out there is full of people, ideas, things, and events that couldn’t care less if they lie within your current comfort zone.it is what it is As my wife would say, the world is what it is. Your years in college are not so much about your landing a well-paying job after you graduate as they are about the construction of a powerful and flexible moral and psychological framework of belief and commitment, from within which you will engage with what’s “out there” on a daily basis. It is not the world’s responsibility to provide you with comfort and security. It is your task to create and maintain a moral and psychological home for yourself in that world using all of the resources available to you, resources to sustain you on a life-long journey. By the way, you’ll be making significant renovations and additions to this home your whole life. Your professors are here to assist you in the construction of that home—good luck!

A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match. Christopher Nelson

The Fruit of the Blackberry

A few years ago, Jeanne returned from a weekend with a friend in Vermont with a little plant in a box—a Vermont blackberry bush. It has been trying to take over our back yard ever since. It has also recently been the source of a fascinating, ongoing conversation that Jeanne and I have had about fruit, growth, and how to bring what is greater than us into the world.berries

Our new family member looked innocent enough, but it actually had delusions of grandeur and designs on the spaces occupied by its plant neighbors. After surviving its first winter, our new blackberry bush awakened to spring by busting out all over with new leaves, shoots that grew so quickly that I could almost hear them doing it, and random offspring (officially called “suckers”) sticking their little unwanted green heads up as far as ten feet away from the mother bush. In the middle of another, well-established plant, in the middle of the lawn—these new blackberry bush suckers had neither regard for my plans and lawn design, nor respect for the personal space of their neighbors. At school and at church I would occasionally report the shenanigans of our bossy bush; I discovered in short order that more experienced gardeners than I have known for a long time that berry bushes are aggressive bastards. “You think that’s bad, you should see what my raspberry bush is doing!” was a typical response to my complaints.pruning

It’s been a few years now. Every spring I pull up random shoots from the blackberry bush in the lawn, but have allowed two or three new shoot to stay in the flower beds—shoots that now are as large as the original. Left untrimmed, each bush would sprout stalks taller than my six feet and branch out a few feet in every direction. I learned from a Google search how to prune blackberry bushes; blackberries only flower on stems that are two years old, and once a stem has flowered, it will never flower again. The prudent pruner cuts two-year stems to the ground after flowering and fruiting, channeling energy toward the one-year shoots that will flower next year.

I took great delight in ruthlessly cutting our bushes down to size. They currently look very unhappy post-trimming and going into the fall, but in the spring they will revive with new vigor and obnoxiousness. It doesn’t help that for some reason, this plant is Jeanne’s favorite of the dozens of items in our back and front yards. If it were up to her, our back yard would contain nothing but our blackberry bush and its offspring. While I am annoyed with its aggressiveness and the work I have to put in to keep it under control, she sees nothing but its beauty and productivity—that this plant, as unruly as it is, regularly produces wonderful fruit. I marvel annually at the methodical, predictable, and completely miraculous way in which plants emerge from the ground, grow,blackberry-flowers produce buds, then flowers, all the time “neither toiling nor spinning,” as Jesus pointed out.

A couple of years ago Jeanne paid special attention to how her favored bush does this, expressing the same wonder and amazement on a daily basis as she did the first time she petted a real cow. A blackberry bush first sends shoots up, then out, and in the midst of its out-of-control spread it sprouts a number of little white flowers at the tips of many of its branches. These little flowers are very pretty and last a couple of weeks; when their petals fall, the tiny center of the flower remains, looking rather lonely and naked. But these innocuous petal-less buds are what grow into blackberries. Slowly they turn from green, to light red, to darker red, eventually to deepest black, growing larger and larger in the process. Ripe blackberries from our bush have a taste so fabulous that it can’t be described. ripening-blackberriesWe have only experienced this a handful of times, because we both tend to get impatient, picking berries that appear to be ripe (but really aren’t) before their time. Even with a plant trying to take over the yard, patience is the key.

Jeanne and I happened to be talking about our blackberry bush, which finished producing berries for this year around the end of July, as we drove a few miles north to our usual Cineplex to catch a movie for the first time in a while (we saw “Sully”—and so should you). Jeanne expressed, as she often does, her amazement over how these little flowers turn into delicious fruit. It is something that has to be seen and experienced to be believed. Then she made a connection to another conversation that we occasionally have, about “the fruit of the Spirit” as described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “I just realized something for the first time,” she said. “The fruit of the Spirit is not something the Spirit brings us; the fruit of the Spirit develops in you as the natural process of a person living in tune with the Spirit inside them!” Tkjvhis is a great insight, since many of us who have heard about the fruit of the Spirit from the apostle Paul our whole lives tend to think of it as something describing what the Spirit produces for us. Rather, the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (pardon my King James Version)—are the natural fruits produced by those who live their lives energized by the Spirit within.

The natural activity of our blackberry bush, its ebb and flow, its dormant as well as active seasons, and its frequent need for tending and pruning, are all directly comparable to the life of the Spirit. There are seasons of nothing happening, as well as seasons when exuberance causes us to extend our resources in ways that need eventually to be cut back. Sending out “spiritual suckers” into territory for which we are not prepared or equipped, only to have our well-intentioned forays foiled by what knows better, is an experience anyone who seeks to live faith rather than just think about it is familiar with.big-ass-berry

So often we get impatient with ourselves because our natural American results-oriented energy has little or no place in the plant-like processes of the Spirit. We differ from plants because we can choose to cooperate with or resist the Spirit within us—a plant just does what it is fully equipped to do without worrying from day-to-day if it is doing it right. Patience and confidence go hand in hand as we proceed from the first signs of fruit to full maturity, then cycle back to do it all over again. As Paul writes elsewhere, “he who began a good work in you will see it to its completion.” I’m glad that the cosmic tender of the plants has more patience with me than I have with our blackberry bush.

the onion

Repairing an Angel

I love The Onion. A couple of weeks ago they reported on a sad event at the Vatican:

Angel flies into window at the Vatican

The story reminded me of another damaged angel who I wrote about not long ago . . .

As I sat at home last Tuesday, doing the things I would normally have been doing in my office on a Tuesday (thanks Winter Storm Juno for coming on a day I don’t have classes), I managed to avoid checking Facebook until early afternoon. When I did, I saw that my daughter-in-law Alisha had posted a link to a white aura“What Color is Your Aura?” personality test. I hadn’t taken one in a while (they used to be a mindless and fun obsession) so I bit.

What Color Is Your Aura?

I had done this one before a while ago (I think I got yellow) and was pleasantly surprised by the following: A white aura means you are intensely spiritual, possibly surrounded by angels. You are good, honest, quiet and a bit shy, but full of light. Congratulations! You are an amazing person. The usual on-line personality attempt to “pump you up”—but I like it. Of most interest was that I am “possibly surrounded by angels.” I’ve always found the very idea of angels, especially guardian angels, strangely attractive yet entirely outside the reach of reason and logic. Strangely this reminded me of a place that I not only don’t like much but is about as different from Juno-invaded Providence as possible: memphis in mayMemphis, Tennessee.

One of the few things I remember fondly about the city of Memphis, where we lived for three years in the middle nineties, is “Memphis in May.” This is an annual event in Memphis during which the city celebrates the culture, food and history of a country selected in advance. It was (and I presume still is) a big deal, providing us with a welcome window into the world beyond the Mid-South parochialism and Southern “hospitality” that we found so challenging. We arrived in Memphis in August 1991, just in time for the beginning of the 91-92 academic year at Christian Brothers University, the place the inscrutable gods of academics chose for me to begin my career as a philosophy professor. We were not amused. But a couple of months into 1992, we started hearing about “Memphis in May”—and the country of choice met with our strong approval.

Italy. I knew nothing about Italians or things Italian until Jeanne and I met; once we were together permanently by the end of 1987 (we had met a month earlier), it was a quick education. bensonhurstA girl from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—Italian father, Irish mother. Youngest of five, with three older, large Italian brothers and one older sister. Jeanne often describes herself by saying “I look Irish but I act Italian;” the latter part of that description is true of all of her siblings as well. The nature of an Italian father together with the nurture of being raised in a Sicilian neighborhood pretty much clinched the deal. By the time we made it to Memphis, our stepfamily was still relatively new; none of us liked Memphis at all (with the inexplicable exception of my older son), and we gladly anticipated seeing what Southerners might do to celebrate Italy.

The celebration must not have been that great, because I remember absolutely none of it—except the poster.011 The central figure is a Raphael-esque angel in gold and earth tones, contemplatively smiling and holding a garland as she walks down stairs containing the notes of “Spring,” the opening movement from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” There is also a lute on the second stair and a random, oddly shaped chair at the top of the steps with a palm, fruit tree, and cedar trees in the background. It thought it was pretty, particularly because I thought the angel with its curly, reddish hair looked something like Jeanne. I spent more disposable money than we really had available to get it framed for Jeanne’s birthday—it has hung somewhere in our home for the last twenty-four years.

Our Italy-poster angel is not the only wall-hanging angel in our house. A few years ago (even elephant-memory Jeanne can’t remember when), we purchased a ceramic angel who has hung on our dining room wall ever since. Let’s call her Hannah. 005Hannah hung happily for a long time attached by one of those wonderful Velcro contraptions that both hold things securely and can be removed from the wall without leaving a mark when necessary. One evening as I watched television in the close-by living room, I heard a crash. Usually such a noise is the effect of something one of the dogs has done, but not this time. Hannah had decided that she had hung in her particular spot long enough and fell five or six feet to the floor (she hadn’t flown for a while so was out of practice), shattering into five or six pieces. Fortunately she did not shatter into dust—fitting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle I thought “this is fixable.” “I’ll fix Hannah with Super Glue,” I told Jeanne when she returned home. This was a bold prediction.

I super gluehave a checkered history with Super Glue. Given Jeanne’s obsession with all things bovine, a decade or so ago I frequently purchased ceramic miniatures of the various “Cow Parade” cows that popped up in city after city. Soon we had more than a dozen of them; we even had a three-tiered display stand in the corner of the living room upon which these ceramic cows lived and grazed. That is until the day that Stormy, my son’s cat who was living with us while Caleb and Alisha were residing in the basement for a few months after they moved to Providence from Colorado, did a typical feline thing and knocked the display stand over just for the hell of it. cow paradeTiny horns and legs snapped off each Cow Parade treasure (they weren’t cheap). I gathered the parts and said “I’ll fix them with Super Glue.” As it turns out, Super Glue is great when you can clamp the things being glued together for thirty seconds (impossible when one of the items is a couple of molecules in length.) It is also great when the gluee’s fingers are not larger than the tube of glue and the things being glued. After many mishaps in which the only things being glued effectively were the tips of my fingers, I despaired as a repair failure. Jeanne took pity on me and put all the broken bovines into a box and put them into the attic where they still reside. Two of the less damaged ones are still in the living room, one missing a horn and one missing a hoof.

So my plan to repair the fallen angel with Super Glue was contrary to my past. But Hannah is larger than a Cow Parade figure, and her five or six pieces fit together nicely. Amazingly enough, the glue held, Hannah was deposited back on the wall (with more Velcro devices), and there she hung for a year. Until we decided to repaint the dining room over Christmas Break a month ago. I detached Hannah carefully in one piece from the wall and laid her, along with a number of other items (including the Italy angel poster) in the book room while we painted the dining room. It turned out beautifully; the day came to put everything back on the wall. hannahThat morning as I arose from reading in a book room chair next to where Hannah was lying, my clumsy foot touched her just directly enough to snap her trumpet and both of her hands off, each severed hand holding half of her broken trumpet. “No biggie,” I thought—“I’ll fix Hannah with Super Glue,” as I had the last time. But the detached pieces were eerily reminiscent in size of the tiny bovine items I had failed to repair in the past, and all of a sudden I was reliving the frustration of trying to repair midget cows. After several failed efforts, I said (loudly) “I’M ABOUT READY TO SHOVE THIS TRUMPET UP YOUR ANGELIC ASS!” and started thinking about what an angel with no hands and no trumpet might look like on the wall. Maybe nobody would notice.

Then I remembered that between my cow failures and now I have learned something about peace, avoiding frustration, and things angelic (sort of). Repeating the phrase that regularly calms and centers me when needed—“Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace”—I returned to the handless and trumpetless Hannah. Suddenly it didn’t seem so impossible to hold two tiny ceramic pieces together solidly without wiggling for a full minute. 004Suddenly it occurred to me to slide a book of just the right thickness under her newly attached trumpet and hands so they could meld with full Super Glue strength to the rest of Hannah without being threatened by gravity. I calmly left the room and did not check on her until the next day. Sure enough, Hannah was once again whole, a cooperative effort between Super Glue and peacefully centered me. Hannah now presides over the archway between the dining room and the kitchen. I don’t know if real angels ever need repair. But if they do, I recommend Super Glue and lots of Psalm 131.006

Invading the Impossible

A couple of Sundays ago the gospel reading from Luke prompted our rector and my friend Mitch to suggest that Jesus is not someone you would ever want to invite to dinner. Why? Because Jesus’ behavior and the stories he told indicate that he had little interest in or patience with the way things are “supposed to be done.” For instance, he suggests that when you throw a dinner party, everyone is welcomeyou should not invite your best friends and closest family, the people who you know and love the most and whose presence is guaranteed to make the evening a success (they also are the people who are likely to extend a return invitation to you in the future). Rather, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind . . . because they cannot repay you.” In Providence, and I suspect in many locations, it has seemed over this past summer that every busy intersection has a person or two standing with a container and a homemade sign that says something like “Homeless—anything helps. God bless you.” There has been a lot of chatter in various places about where all these people came from, are they really homeless or is this actually an organized scam, and so on. Jesus not only would not ask those questions, homelessbut he would also bring all of these folks along to your house for a meal if you invite him to dinner. So think carefully before you invite him—there’s no telling what he might do or say.

A few days later at the opening of the semester mass that also officially kicked off my college’s 100th anniversary year, the gospel for the day was from earlier in Luke. This time Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a high fever, Jesus heals her, “and immediately she arose and served them.” The word gets around town, of course, that the healing man is here and as evening falls everyone with anything wrong with them either makes their way or is brought to Jesus. Throughout the night he heals them all. As one might expect, he’s exhausted by the time morning arrives and, as introverts will do, “he departed and went into a deserted place.” But showing a typical lack of respect for an introvert’s need for solitude and battery recharging, “the crowd sought him and came to him, and tried to keep him from leaving them.” Just a normal twenty-four hours in the life of the Son of God.

So what are we to make of such stories if one professes to be a follower of Jesus and to at least be on the fringes of Christianity? My natural and immediate reaction from my earliest years has always been twofold. First, this guy was strange. Second, his being both human and divine equipped him to do stuff that normal human beings can’t do. Neither of those reactions is profound or unusual; it’s difficult to know what one is supposed to make of the gospel stories, particularly if they are intended to provide us with guidance for how to live a human life. global awakeningsBut not long ago I came across an “out of left field” observation about Jesus in action that jerked me up short.

Jeanne spent three weeks in June at an extended conference and workshop in Pennsylvania at a place called “Global Awakenings,” returning with much to be thankful for and much to share. All of the speakers and teachers she spent the weeks with can be listened to on-line, so over the summer I spent a good deal of time listening to and becoming acquainted with what these folks are up to. I’ve enjoyed and learned a great deal from my listening, but I resonated particularly with one fellow named Bill JohnsonBill Johnson. A few days after we listened together to one of his talks, Jeanne said “I have something from one of Bill’s books that I want to read to you.” Here’s what she read:

Jesus could not heal the sick. Neither could he deliver the tormented from demons or raise the dead. To believe otherwise is to ignore what he said about himself, and more importantly, to miss the purpose of his self-imposed restriction to live as a man. Jesus said of himself, “the Son can do nothing.” He had no supernatural capabilities whatsoever. He chose to live with the same limitations that man would face once he was redeemed. He made that point over and over again. Jesus became the model for all who would embrace the invitation to invade the impossible in his name. He performed miracles, signs, and wonders as a man in right relationship to God . . . Johnsons booknot as God. If he performed miracles because he was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if he did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue his lifestyle. Recapturing this simple truth changes everything.

“Wow!” I said—“Holy shit!” I thought—“That’s really out there.” One of several endorsements at the beginning of the book describes the author, Bill Johnson, as “one of the nicest persons I know, and one of the most dangerous.” That’s not an overstatement. Because if what he writes about Jesus is true, then there is no place for those who profess to follow Jesus to hide.

One of the great theological and doctrinal debates in the early Christian church had to do, not surprisingly, with how we are supposed to understand Jesus. Human? God? Both? The winner in the debate, as embedded in the Nicene Creed that Christians in many churches recite every week, was “Both.” Which is, of course, very confusing. Various groups have tended to emphasize one aspect over the other ever since. nicene creedMy own tendency has always been to embrace the human side of Jesus rather than divinity, a tendency that over the past several years has evolved into a strong resonance with incarnation, the divine choice to be in the world in human form. I’m convinced that this was not a one-time deal. God continues to be in the world in human form, in you and in me. The passage from Bill Johnson’s book resonates fully with a strong embrace of incarnation. So far so good.

But as many, I tend to waffle when it comes to the miracles of Jesus. Amazing things happen in his wake everywhere he goes; all he has to do is show up. It’s easy simply to say “Well of course—he was the Son of God.” Bill Johnson’s argument is controversial, first and foremost, because it takes this “out” off the table. His argument also makes a lot of sense—it’s just that most followers of Jesus, including me, aren’t ready to hear it. AthanasiusAthanasius provocatively once said that “God became man so that man might become God,” exactly what Bill Johnson is arguing. Jesus is an example and model of what a human being attuned to the divine is like, of what is possible for those of us who take our faith seriously. The idea of incarnation, of God working in the world in and through human beings, is a beautiful one—but it is also intensely challenging. Jesus told his followers that they would do greater things than he did, and that includes us. Are we sure that we are ready to “invade the impossible”?

Tired of Hating People–Thoughts on the anniversary of 9/11

Everyone beyond a certain age can remember clearly what they were doing fifteen years ago tomorrow when they heard the news. I was in my college’s main cafeteria getting coffee and noticed something weird happening on the Today Show broadcast on a television hanging from the ceiling in the corner. first towerAt that point all they knew was that one of the Twin Towers was on fire, apparently because an airplane had crashed into it. I had scheduled office hours that morning, so I listened to live radio reports on NPR of the second tower being hit and the collapse of both towers. There was a surreal air to the broadcast—I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true, some sort of elaborate hoax along the lines of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast many decades earlier. But it was true.

Classes were encouraged to meet and decide individually how best to deal with the day’s events. Several students in my first class of the day at 12:30 had family and friends who lived and/or worked in Manhattan—it was clear that the best thing for these students to do was to continue their frantic attempts to contact their loved ones. About half the class stayed and shared their thoughts—what they said and the nature of our conversation is difficult to recall. I know that many students (as well as many of my colleagues) were understandably angry and wanted retribution; tower collapseas we gathered our things to leave about half way through the class period I said “the one thing I’m feeling is that my best response to what has happened is to become a better person. A better teacher, husband, father, friend. That’s all I’ve got right now.”

There will be any number of retrospective reports throughout the day and evening today. Neither Jeanne nor I lost any immediate family or close friends in that day’s terrible events, although in a few cases it was only “luck” that spared someone we know well. A decade and a half removed, when I think about 9/11 and its aftermath as I have been over the past few days, I think of patriotism, wars that seem never to end, and the realization that with the swift passage of time soon I will be teaching students who, first, will not remember 9/11 and then, two or three years later, will not have been born when 9/11 occurred. But most of all, the lasting effect in this country of the terrorist attacks on that day has been a persistent atmosphere of fear and suspicion—as well as of the hatred that fear and suspicion  produce.

Just about a year ago the theme of the weekly “TED Radio Hour” on NPR was “Transformation—stories and ideas about becoming a completely different person.” The first story up that day was titled “How Did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?”untitled

How did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?

The story teller, Zak Ebrahim, is a peace activist and the author of The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice. Ebrahim’s father, El-Sayyid Nosair, for a number of years plotted with other radicals to attack a number of New York City landmarks, including tunnels, synagogues and the United Nations headquarters. May of these planned attacks were thwarted by an FBI informant, but one of the attacks—the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center–was not. Nosair and his fellow terrorists were convicted of placing a van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the sublevel parking lot of the North Tower; the subsequent explosion killed six people and injured over a thousand others. Ebrahim was seven years old at the time of his father’s conviction and incarceration—Nosair was sentenced to life imprisonment plus fifteen years.nosair and son

Ebrahim’s father had become radicalized in the early years of his son’s life; in his TED talk Ebrahim describes how shortly before his father was arrested he took Ebrahim, along with several of the men who turned out to be co-conspirators, to a shooting range for Ebrahim’s first lessons in using a rifle. Even after Nosair’s arrest, the impact of his worldview on his young son continued to be strong.

Growing up in a bigoted household, I wasn’t prepared for the real world. I had been raised to judge people based on arbitrary measurements, like a person’s race or religion. He would just talk about Jews being evil. And I would hear similar things from the men that were with him. You know, gay people being evil and them wanting to turn you gay so that you would go to hell too. And just gay people being all-around terrible people and a bad influence. And he used to say things like, a bad Muslim is better than a good non-Muslim. That’s pretty much what indoctrination is. You have authority figures around you telling you that the world is one way and you don’t get to see another perspective.

This radical indoctrination began to crumble when Ebrahim, as a teenager, began through school to be exposed to some of the people he had been taught to hate. PhiladelphiaOne of his fellow group members at the National Youth Conference in Philadelphia leading up to the 2000 Presidential election was Jewish. Ebrahim did not learn that his new friend was Jewish until several days after their friendship had started developing; he says that “I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that, for most of my life, I had been led to believe was insurmountable.” That summer he found a job at a Busch Gardens amusement park and for the first time had the opportunity to meet some gay people performing in one of the park’s shows. “I soon found that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met.”

One day I had a conversation with my mother about how my worldview was starting to change. And she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who’d experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said tired of hating“I’m tired of hating people.” In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.

On one level it’s easy to hate because a world made of “Us” vs. “Them” is simple to define and make judgments from within. On a deeper level, though, Ebrahim is right—the negative energy of fear and hate is psychologically exhausting, an exhaustion that is symptomatic of our culture. It’s almost as if it isn’t natural for humans to hate.

A few moments of attention to the level of discourse in the current Presidential campaign are sufficient to hear the tones of fear and anger that pervade our national conversation about almost everything. It is a season of intolerant and fear-mongering language. That such attitudes exist is nothing new; what is new is that we have reached the point where hatred and intolerance have found a new foothold in the public square and conversation. And even for those who seek a moderate position that avoids anger and fear, the current atmosphere is infectious. big enough lieA character in Eric Bennett’s new novel A Big Enough Lie explains the dynamic well:

There are people in the world whose opinions differ from yours so much that the difference implies violence, urges it, supplies a will for it. And if you stand on the side of moderation, this implication, this will to violence, upsets you even more than the mere difference of opinion itself. Because you are complicit in it—you become complicit in extremism by loathing extremism. You are reduced by your enemy to what you despise in your enemy. The world excuses only saints and lunatics from its economy of hatred, is what you realize. Pick a side.

On this fifteenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, my hope is that we as a nation, as a culture will decide, as Zak Ibrahim’s mother did, that we are tired of hating people. us-vs-themTired of dividing our tiny little universes up into “Us” and “Them” as we vilify those who do not look like, act like, or believe the same as those in our self-defined groups of specialness do, often in the name of rigidly dogmatic beliefs that cannot accommodate the complex and shades-of-grey world in which we live. As Zak Ebrahim discovered, the best cure for fear and hatred is simple experience. But such experience can only happen if each of us has the courage to step outside our ossified comfort zones and dare to meet the most frightening thing in the universe—someone who is not the same as me.

Embracing the Barbarian Invasion

Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.”  Hannah Arendt

One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. images[6]Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”

rays[1]The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.

Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, yowl-380x190[1]a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.

Conan-the-Barbarian[1]The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our 196834_112520205494582_3062546_n[1]dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.

And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. conan-barbarian-04_510[1]Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.

Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. Title[1]One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”

So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief.collegeville-lecture-31[1] During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?

As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. JCarse3YT1.2c_000[1]As James Carse writes,

This is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.

Good Morning, Psalms

Last Thursday, in just our second class of the semester, I had the opportunity to introduce my ethics students to the master of all things ethical. The key to Aristotle’s understanding of the life of human flourishing is that such a life depends on the formation of the best habits—Aristotle ethicsthe virtues—to guide one’s life. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, good habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. Habits are established by repetition and, once formed, are often very difficult to change. Accordingly, one should take great care that one’s moral habits are the right ones (virtues) and not the wrong ones (vices), since the wrong habits, once entrenched, will be next to impossible to replace with better ones.plato footnote

I have taught Aristotle’s ethics for many years and believe that although Alfred North Whitehead was probably correct when he said that all of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, the best thinking about ethics begins with Aristotle. And his insights concerning the importance of habits are relevant beyond the ethical realm. I find myself in the best physical shape of my life now in my early sixties because several decades ago my grudging daily trips to the gym somehow turned into a habit that I no longer had to talk myself into. Reading psalms with 100_0670Benedictine monks in Minnesota three times a day during my 2009 sabbatical established a habit of reading the three or four psalms appointed for each day in the Book of Common Prayer that continued for several years after my sabbatical ended. Between my alarm at 5:15 AM and getting to the gym by its 6:00 opening time I read the day’s psalter aloud (or murmured it, lest I awaken the dogs and Jeanne). I am convinced that this simple habit both helped transfer important changes in my life from sabbatical to real life, and also contributed to the preservation of my sanity as I juggled full-time teaching with the additional full-time duties of running a large academic program for four years.

But then I lost the habit, under the strangest of circumstances. My next sabbatical arrived, and with the prospect of unlimited time to rest, re-center, read, and write in front of me, somehow the daily regimen of early morning psalm reading fell by the wayside. I no longer needed to arise at 5:15, I rode my new bicycle obsessively instead of daily workouts at the gym, I applied myself energetically to my sabbatical writing project, and somehow my simple ten to fifteen minutes alone with the psalms every morning didn’t make the cut. habitsI made no conscious decision to end the habit—I just did. If Aristotle is correct in saying that well-established bad habits are very difficult to break, it turned out—in my case at least—that good habits can be broken very easily. I didn’t even realize consciously that my psalm reading habit had gone by the wayside for several weeks; once I noticed its absence, I made a few half-hearted attempts to start again over the following months. But they didn’t take.

I returned to the classroom for the first time in fifteen months a week ago, and decided that along with a return to a 5:15 wake-up call, I would attempt to re-establish my psalm reading habit. With only a week under my belt, the returns are promising; coming back to the psalms has been like becoming reacquainted with very wise friends who have been away for a while. My renewed acquaintances include:

Monday, August 29: Psalm 139

The opening psalm on the list for my first day back was one that, depending on my mood and what’s going on in my life, has been either very disturbing or deeply comforting.

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away . . .

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast . . .

big[1]For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Sometimes this Psalm reads like a description of a divine stalker, but more often the mere improbability that the creator of the universe cares about lil’ ole me is overwhelming. If I were inclined to be an atheist, or at least an agnostic, it would probably be because of this very point—the idea that God cares about human beings in any specific sense at all. Most of what we observe and experience screams against it. Our obvious insignificance screams against it.

Psalm 139 offers hope in the face of insignificance. Perhaps there is one place where I do not need to be an impostor or be overwhelmed by my insignificance, a place where I am known better than I know myself and am valued more highly than I could ever manufacture. The other day at convocation, NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist kristofNicolas Kristof told the hundreds of students and faculty in attendance that at those times when one feels insignificant, like a single drop of water in a very large bucket, a drop that can’t possibly make a difference, we should remember that buckets are filled by one drop of water at a time.

Tuesday, August 30: Psalm 146

The final entries in the collection of 150 poems are praises of various sorts—noon prayers at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the place where I first learned to inhabit these ancient poems, include one of the final five psalms in rotation. I always looked forward to Psalm 146, which for me summarizes what God—and therefore those who profess to follow God—cares about the most.

It is the Lord who keeps faith forever, who is just to those who are oppressed.

It is God who gives bread to the hungry, the Lord, who sets prisoners free,

the Lord, who gives sight to the blind, who raises up those who are bowed down,

the Lord, who protects the stranger and upholds the widow and orphan.john the baptist

When John the Baptist sends some of his followers from his prison cell to ask Jesus whether Jesus is the Messiah, “the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus responds in the language of Psalm 146. Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are being fed, strangers are being welcomed, and those imprisoned are being set free. That’s how you can tell when the divine is in the house, when human beings are in tune with what is greater than themselves. Imagine how different our nation, our world, would be if the above lines were the defining touchstone for success.

Thursday, September 1: Psalm 1

The compilers of the Psalms chose to kick things off with a description of happy people, those who “delight in the law of the Lord.”

They are like a tree that is planted bedside the flowing waters,

That yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all that they do shall prosper.

006I have always been fascinated with trees, but have come to love them in a deeper way over the past several years. Their stability, rootedness, and beauty have become iconic for me. I write about trees frequently in this blog: within the past few months I have written about Tolkien’s Ents, arboreal survival strategies, oaks of righteousness, and how the removal of a 150+ year old tree on campus this summer was traumatic for all involved. In an interview with Krista Tippett, theologian Ellen Davis said that “anything in our world now that slows us down is to be valued and maybe as a gift and even a calling from God.” The fact that the first analogy in the Psalms for the person who “meditates on God’s law day and night” is a tree silently proceeding through its seasons of fruitfulness and prosperity confirms Davis’ insight. I may not meditate on God’s law day and night, but fifteen minutes a day is doable.