Author Archives: vancemorgan

Revolution

Remembering the Revolution

There is a saying, particularly popular among conservatives, that “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.” I am a liberal, but cannot challenge the alleged truth of this saying since I have never (thankfully) been mugged. Over six decades of experience, however, I have had plenty of opportunity to wonder about an important question that this saying raises for everyone, regardless of political or social commitments—moral hazardWhat happens when ideology runs headlong into real life?

I got to thinking about this question anew while reading Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard over the past few days. It was actually a reread, since I used her novella in an ethics class a few years ago and am in the process of deciding what texts to use in the ethics classes I’ll be teaching in the fall. Published a year or so after 9/11, Moral Hazard is set in the turbulent Wall Street of the middle and late nineties. The main character, Cath, is a freelance writer with well-defined and consistent liberal positions on moral and political issues. She is in her mid-forties and has been happily married to Bailey, a man fifteen years her senior, for a decade. But Bailey becomes more and more forgetful and absent-minded; a series of medical tests reveals that he has Alzheimer’s. With large medical bills looming on the horizon, Cath uses a connection to get a speech-writing job at a top Wall Street firm. In order to take care of her husband, Cath finds herself in a job that requires her to violate many of her dearest principles on a daily basis.cigarette She hates every minute of it; one of her few daily respites is a stolen cigarette or two with Mike, a fellow sixties refugee who finds himself working for people who represent and do everything that he despises.

As the story progresses, both Cath and Mike find various justifications for their daily betrayal of their values. Cath, for instance, knows that she cannot hope to earn the money it will take to care for Bailey long term without a regular, well-paying job. This does not, however, make her feel any better about her abandoned dreams. After one conversation with Mike late in the book, Cath reveals something.

Okay, a secret. In my wallet, I keep a scrap of disintegrating paper on which is written, “The revolution is magnificent, and everything else is bilge.” Who said this and which revolution I’ve forgotten, but I’ve transferred it from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years to remind myself of a time when I was young and silly, but cared. The idealism was magnificent, not the revolution.

If Cath was a real person, she and I would be roughly the same age. I also am a child of the sixties, but for many reasons was not a real revolutionary—at least in practice. I was a bit too young to take part in many of the protests (my brother, three-and-a-half years older, did); my conservative religious upbringing in rural Vermont also limited opportunities for my internal rebel. But I had my moments. mcgovernFor instance, I was too young to vote in the ’72 presidential election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to Ted, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far.

My best opportunity to be a revolutionary came shortly after President Nixon’s escalation of the War in Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. I was in my freshman year in high school; my school was a public/private hybrid, serving as the local public high school for our town but also taking in several dozen boarding students—mostly from the NYC area—each year. Each day started with assembly for the five hundred or so students, a gathering that began with the Pledge of Allegiance. LIThere was one morning during my sophomore year when it dawned on me that I was pledging allegiance to a country whose present activities—at least some of them—did not deserve my respect or allegiance. So I didn’t stand up. And I did not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America or the Republic for which it stands at any subsequent assembly for the rest of my high school career—about two and a half years. Other than causing a few other students over time to join me in my non-pledge of allegiance, my daily statement and protest accomplished nothing tangible, other than a threat from the assistant headmaster to report my activities to my parents (a threat that I dearly wish he had followed through on). But it did something for me, and perhaps that’s enough.

Fast forward more than four decades. My positions on political and social issues are, if anything, more liberal now than they have ever been. RevolutionDuring our current political cycle and presidential campaign there are voices—from both extremes of the political spectrum—calling for a political revolution. I observe with delight and admiration young fellow citizens who, involved for the first time in their lives in the political process, are strongly supportive of a candidate whose policies and positions on just about every issue reflect my own as closely as any national political candidate in my lifetime. Somehow this candidate has managed to sustain his liberal idealism through a lifetime of political engagement, first on the local and then on the national level. I recognize my teen and twenty-something self in the young folks who are this candidate’s most ardent supporters. They are calling for a political revolution.Idealis-Realism

But I resonate more fully with the piece of paper that Cath has transferred from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years. The purest revolutions, historically speaking, have tended to be the ones that created the most havoc and caused the most damage. The revolution—any revolution—is not what is magnificent. What is magnificent is the ongoing struggle to engage the idealism that energizes revolutionary visions with the pragmatism required by real life. How will this beautiful, revolutionary vision be accomplished? Am I willing to cultivate the patience required to shepherd the most praiseworthy ideals through the swamp and muck of reality? To the idealists out there, don’t forget that for ideals to be worth anything, they have to work in the real world. For those suspicious of ideals, I challenge you to name one meaningful change that has ever been accomplished without them.

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

The Freedom of a Tree

I read once that there are two kinds of living things—they are distinguished by the strategies they have developed in response to perceived threat and danger. survival strategiesOne kind responds to danger by running away from it, developing strategies and evolving tools to sidestep threats in more and more complex and sophisticated ways. We call this kind of living thing Animals. The other kind’s strategy is to hunker down, grow roots along with protective armor, and face danger by refusing to be moved. We call this kind of living thing Plants. We human beings tend to consider our animal capacities to choose between various strategies as one of our most important and wonderful abilities, going so far as defining “freedom” in terms of how many options we have to choose from. three pinesBut the older I get, the more I think that the nature of true freedom is a lot more like the strategy of plants.

In The Cruelest Month, the third of Louise Penney’s Inspector Gamache series that I just finished reading, the good Inspector has a conversation with Gilles Sandon, one of more than a half-dozen suspects in the most recent murder in Three Pines, Quebec. Sandon is a former lumberjack, a hulking brute of a guy with an unexpected sensitive side. Gilles tells Gamache of a day a number of years ago when he walked with his tree-cutting colleagues into the woods for a day of work and heard a whimpering that sounded like a baby animal. LumberjackAs the whimpering became louder and turned into a cry, then a scream, Gilles realized that this wasn’t an animal sound at all. Furthermore, none of his companions could hear it.

Something had changed overnight. I’d changed. I could hear the trees. I think I could always hear their happiness. I think that’s why I felt so happy myself in the forest. But now I could hear their terror too . . . Mostly trees are quiet. Just want to be left alone. Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.

Gilles’ life was changed, beginning with his understandably being fired from his lumberjacking job (if a lumberjack won’t cut trees, what’s the point?). Over time he became a woodworking artist, specializing in making chairs out of dead trees that he carefully selects after they have fallen; as Gamache says, Gilles makes his living giving dead trees new life.

“Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.”treebeard In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the middle book in his classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits Merry and Pippin learn a similar lesson from Treebeard and the Ents, the oldest creatures in Middle Earth who are, for all intents and purposes, talking trees who have the ability to walk, think, and talk—very, VERY slowly and deliberately. Merry and Pippin, running for their lives from a band of murderous orcs from whom they have just escaped, find themselves in middle of Fangorn Forest where the Ents live. After hearing about the forces gathering for a classic battle between good and evil on the borders of their forest, entmootTreebeard calls for an “Entmoot,” a council of Ents to decide what, if anything, they should do about these disturbing events. It takes days for the Ents to gather, and many more days for the debate to take place at a one-sentence-per-hour pace. Merry and Pippin are driven close to madness with impatience over the snail-like deliberateness of the Ents—but when they finally choose to take a side in the battle, their participation sways the conflict, at least for a while, in the direction of the good guys.

In our American culture, freedom is often thought of as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it, free from the interference of anyone other than me. Any perceived limitation on what I want to do, even if clearly in my own interest and that of others, is a violation of my “freedom.” But philosophers have argued for centuries that this uninhibited throwing around of my deliberative weight is anything but true freedom. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, sovereignty of goodgood habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. More than two millennia later, Iris Murdoch provides a contemporary spin on Aristotle’s insight in The Sovereignty of Good by suggesting that it is in the small choices concerning what we pay attention to and adopt as centrally important that true freedom is to be found.

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.

True freedom, under this description, is acting in attunement with one’s character and conscience—items that are constructed slowly, deliberately, and in accord with one’s best nature. A lot like a tree, in other words.here i stand

A human being can never entirely trade its animal survival strategy for the rootedness of a plant. But we can, as Gilles, Merry, and Pippin did, learn a lot about freedom and how to be in the world from a tree. I used to wonder what Martin Luther meant when, at the Diet of Worms, he concluded his refusal to recant his heretical writings by saying “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Of course he could have done otherwise! I would complain. No one is forcing him not to recant. But Luther’s point was that at this moment in his life, recanting his writings would be the same as ceasing to be Martin Luther. He can do no other because his character has rooted him in place. As Murdoch suggests, if one has paid attention to the incremental tiny choices that shape one’s character and life over time, what to do at “crucial moments of choice” will not only be clear—it will be unavoidable. Be like a tree.

An Introspective Day

IGetImage[1]n our three years in Milwaukee, our first years together as a married couple trying to cobble a functional stepfamily together, Jeanne and I set our radio alarm to NPR, which would awaken us every morning at six o’clock. The early show was classical music, hosted by a local public radio fixture with the comforting and dulcet tones of an educated uncle. As we emerged into the day from sleep, the host would provide a brief weather report before queuing up the first musical offering of the hour. On some mornings, he would announce that “ladies and gentlemen, it is an introspective day—let’s begin with something appropriate from Beethoven.” EmperorConcertoCrop[1]The first movement from the Moonlight Sonata, or the second movement from the Fifth Piano Concerto, or the third movement from the Seventh Symphony—one of these products of Beethoven’s inner complexities would then serenade our rolling out of bed.

“An introspective day” meant that it was foggy, rainy, snowy, or at least cloudy—a day designed for redirecting one’s energies inward, the sort of day that everyone should be allowed to sit by a draft_lens18511478module153253276photo_1315951738read_by_the_fire[1]fire, drink their hot beverage of choice, and read. Nothing electronic blaring, no external demands, no pressures, just a chance to be quiet, breathe a bit slower, and feel a bit more deeply. Nice virtual image for a couple of minutes, but then real life showed up with two kids to arouse, feed and get to school, receiving a phone call telling Jeanne where in the large Milwaukee Public School system she was to report for the day, my twenty-minute bus ride downtown to the universityIMG_2762[1] where another day of PhD preparation activities awaited me. The introspective day stayed in the bedroom, a nice idea for the five minutes that it lasted.

I remembered this phrase one morning last June, more than twenty years later, as I arose at 4:30 to get a shower before Vigils at 5:30. The day before, my first full day on retreat at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, was more touristy than retreatish, as I drove south on Route 1 along the Pacific Ocean from the hermitage, ostensibly to find someplace with cell phone service (no cell or wireless service at the hermitage or within thirty miles in either direction), but really because this was my first time at Big Sur073 and I was not ready to settle down into a few days of silent retreat until I saw more of the most beautiful scenery imaginable that I had driven through coming from the north the previous afternoon. Every switchback turn revealed another breathtaking vista; by the time the landscape flattened out a bit I had taken almost one hundred pictures. I finally found flickering phone service on my Droid at a large parking area right on the beach—a beach that just happened to be Elephant Seal Vista Point, where several dozen elephant seals, twenty or thirty yards up on the sand looking like small beached whales, were piled next to and on top of each other like so many random logs. It was molting season; apparently elephant seal molting is facilitated by rolling in sand and throwing it around with one’s flippers, all the time talking trash to your neighbor who is doing the same. Wishing that Jeanne, who is a great lover of all seal-related things, were with me, I took pictures until my camera’s battery screamed for mercy.084 After exchanging texts with the significant other, I headed back for the hermitage, having missed Sunday mass (mea culpa).

Stepping out onto the patio of my retreat house room at 5:00 AM, expecting to see, as I had the previous morning, brilliant stars above and the cavernous expanse of the ocean before me awaiting sunrise to come into view, I walked instead into a fog so thick I could not see the end of the patio ten feet in front of me. 014“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an introspective day,” I heard the NPR guy say from more than two decades ago, and it indeed it was. For the first time I understood Moses’ experience when he went into “the thick darkness where God was.” The day was so introspective that I would not have dared to drive the two-mile long switchback road from the hermitage down to US 1 even if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to.

On the California Benedictine calendar, this day was the anniversary of the dedication of the Monterey cathedral, a place I’ve never seen and probably never will. But as we read appropriate psalms for the dedication of a building, rejoicing in the loveliness of God’s dwelling place, I returned in my imagination to Laramie.StMatthewsEpis.1925Skinner.Dunnewald01[1]St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, where I first experienced God as more than an idea or intellectual construct. As the lector read Peter’s call to “come to him a living stone . . . and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” I said a silent thank you for the Living Stones group at Trinity Episcopal in Providence who have taught me so much over the past three years, and with whom I had met a week earlier.

ANDR-S7F036[1]After bringing post-Vigils coffee to my room, I decided to read some more of War and Peace, where Tolstoy’s mastery placed me next to Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino. I observed as it slowly dawned on the Emperor that on this day, after years of unqualified victories, he was defeated by something that could not have been factored into his battle plans and calculations—the spirit of those willing to either defend their homeland or die trying. After then spending a few minutes with Pi PatelimagesCAXVBJ2Z floating with a four hundred fifty pound Bengal tiger on a life raft in the middle of the very ocean that lay unseen at the bottom of the steep mountain sloping down from my patio, I took stock. Without travelling more than thirty yards, I had turned back the clock more than twenty years for a visit to Milwaukee. I had visited a Pacific beach littered with elephant seals, my home town on the opposite coast, and a cathedral in a town between those coasts more than a mile above sea level. Without leaving the rocking chair in my retreat room, I had travelled back two centuries in time to the carnage of a battlefield fifty miles outside of Moscow, as well as to uncharted waters in the southwestern Pacific.

Someone once said that the whole universe is contained in a drop of water. And at 10:15 AM as I finish this essay on this introspective day, I am reminded that within this drop of water, at the center of my inner world, is the source of it all. I need go no further than that inner world to resonate with the cosmic, concluding doxology of Psalm 96, this morning’s final psalm.

7348428534_80057f1ee1_z[1]Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad,

let the sea and all within it thunder praise,

let the land and all it bears rejoice,

all the trees of the wood shout for joy

at the presence of the Lord who comes,

who comes to rule the earth,

comes with justice to rule the world,

and to judge the peoples with truth.

April is the Coolest Month

I am enjoying reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mystery series these days; the third book in the series is The Cruelest Month, set during an April Easter season and clearly taking its title from the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s inscrutable poem cruellest month“The Waste Land.” And there are some cruel things about April, starting with taxes being due and the beginning of my allergy season. But this April has been a good one—for several reasons, in no apparent order . . .

Jeanne and I just returned from a week’s vacation in Florida with friends and family—of particular note is that along with my youngest son from Colorado, my brother and sister-in-law joined us from Wyoming at my oldest son and daughter-in-law’s place in Fort Myers. It was the first time that this particular group of humans has been in the same place at the same time in the history of the universe.WIN_20160409_19_39_40_ProWIN_20160409_18_28_15_Pro

 

 

 

How is it possible that I checked Jeanne and myself in for our Southwest flight less than one minute after twenty-four hours before our flight and got lousy B-38 and B-39 boarding passes?

southwest boarding

I just read that Portland, Maine, has been named the best city for microbrewed beer in the world. Jeanne and I are headed there for a wedding in a month. This will be fun.  http://tides.bangordailynews.com/2016/04/15/home/portland-maine-ranked-top-craft-beer-city-in-the-world/microbrewery

I make no secret about the fact that I don’t like Florida much. I don’t like the heat, the humidity, the predominance of geezers, or the infinite number of commercial stretches that all look the same; also, the unhappiest years of my life were spent there a lifetime ago. But I must admit that I have revised my opinion slightly—last week the weather was very nice. No rain, very low humidity, and temperatures in the low to mid-eighties. If they could pull that off for the other fifty-one weeks of the year, I’d be sold.

bourbon street

Vacation ended with a couple of days in New Orleans at a conference. I have discovered that in my estimation, Bourbon Street is as overrated as the Strip in Las Vegas. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe I’m not attracted to places that encourage me to do things that stay there when I leave.

Why do airlines keep the airplane cabin cold enough to see your breath?cold airplane

I greatly enjoyed getting to know my lovely, sweet sister-in-law better. LavonaI also take great pride in pushing the obnoxiousness envelope sufficiently to get her to give me the finger! (Several others were taking wagers as to what it would take to produce that result)

Speaking of microbrews, my beer tastes have moved strongly toward the dark side, with porters and stouts at the top of the list. I’ve tried dozens over the past few months, including the dark offerings from most of the microbreweries in the Northeast. southern-tier-creme-bruleeMy current favorite: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée Stout. The lady at the liquor store says that it gets better with age, but I’ll never know. Jeanne and I can’t keep it in the house long enough to find out. Jeanne, btw, is not a beer drinker. She only likes dark brews with more than 10% alcohol content.

If you are looking for an unusual book, I recommend Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I won’t spoil it for you—suffice it to say that the novel includes the oddest and most interesting pair of sisters I’ve encountered in a long time. A couple of favorite passages from Fowler—both of which promise to be jumping-off points for new blog posts in the upcoming weeks.

  • An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.
  • If you believe, as I do, that morality starts with God, then you have to wonder why He simultaneously hardwired us against it.

Who let the reincarnation of my father into my son’s house?WIN_20160412_10_20_21_Pro

I have a good friend who is not a big fan of tattoos. Upon discovering that I now have one, she asked “What would your mother say?” I replied “My mother would have gotten a tattoo that read SON.”son

Upon returning to Providence, it was great to find that spring had been working its magic in our absence. The phlox are busting out all over, the lilac bush promises a record harvest of blossoms, and the little tree we planted last summer is cranking out the flowers for which we purchased it. Six decades in, I still find the spring resurrection of plants, leaves, and flowers to be as miraculous as any emergence from a tomb. Yay April!WIN_20160420_11_07_45_ProWIN_20160420_11_06_55_Pro

JC and family values

Family Values?

I was angry with my father for a lot of reasons over the years, some justified and some not. But I don’t recall any time when I was more pissed at him than when I heard him say on one of his cassette-taped “fireside chats”imagesWCLS816W aimed at his followers and groupies that “a person’s real family is almost never his blood family.” Thanks a lot, Dad—signed, “One of your blood family.” I heard this a few short months after my mother died many years too early of cancer and my father had remarried in record-breaking time. “Of course you feel nothing but positive familial vibes from your groupies,” I thought. “They’ve never experienced your self-centeredness, your moods, your superiority complex or had to put up with your annoying quirks as your blood family has.” To call a bunch of people who are nothing but cheerleaders for everything you say and do a “family” distorts the meaning of the word beyond recognition.

I have learned a number of things over the years, including that many of my problems with my father were mirrors of my own unaddressed problems. Strangely enough, I have also discovered that Dad may not have been as wrong about family dynamics as I thought. imagesGKY3V9C7Taking a close look at what the source (Jesus) said in the Gospels about the possibility of following God and being a good family person is enough to give one pause about a lot of things, including the very familiar “family values” that are trumpeted by political and religious folks from all sorts of angles at the drop of a hat.

Stereotypically, “family values” are conservative values, focusing on respect for authority, hard work, independence, patriotism, faith and so on; often they are largely synonymous with traditional values, which tend to include social positions such as anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage and lurking suspicions about homosexuality in general. But during every political cycle liberal and progressive voices are heard crying out that true family values are about concern for others, lifting the downtrodden and speaking truth to power. And the never-ending war over who truly defines and owns family values rages on. JC and family valuesMy own moral compass strongly aligns with the progressive perspective, but in this case it is a mistake for either side (or any in the middle) to stake a Jesus claim on family values. Because it is pretty clear from the Gospel stories that Jesus himself didn’t give a damn about family values or families at all.

WJMIn the Forward to his wonderful short book What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills provides an illuminating reflection on the What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?) meme that has for many years served a host of Christians as their “go to” touchstone for how to live a Christian life. One can find WWJD? coffee cups, posters, key chains, bumper stickers, tee shirts—the idea has been viral for a while. Wills asks, do we really want to do what Jesus did?WWJD For example:

  • Should a person say to his or her mother “Woman, what have I to do with you?” when she asks for a favor?
  • Should we encourage twelve-year-olds to speak to their parents rudely and dismissively as Jesus did to Mary and Joseph during the Temple episode?
  • Should we tell a person mourning the recent death of his or her father to “Let the dead bury their dead” in order to pursue more lofty goals (such as following us)?
  • Should we tell people that hating their parents, siblings, and children is a prerequisite for seeking after God?

deadJesus’ brothers neither understood nor understood his mission (it’s not always clear that Jesus fully understood it himself); when residents of Nazareth started saying that Jesus had lost his mind, his family pursued the first century equivalent of having him committed. Those who did follow Jesus during his itinerant ministry left their homes, their spouses, their children and their jobs behind as they were sucked into this strange man’s disruptive wake.

In other words, if one is concerned about family values, WWJD? is useful only as a guide for what one should not do. All attempts to root one’s own moral code, regardless its content, in the example of Jesus from the Gospel stories are little more than thinly veiled attempts to create Jesus in one’s own image. For every Gospel text congruent with our understanding of family values (and there are many such texts), there is a text in which Jesus promises that following him and seeking God is guaranteed to turn one’s world upside down and to violate almost every traditional moral expectation and norm.

Everyone is aware of families torn apart and destroyed when one of the family members sets out on a mission to “accomplish God’s work.” LombardiThis is not hard to explain, given the above—the stories of Jesus give ample justification for ignoring one’s family obligations and connections if they conflict with the perceived will of God for one’s life. So what’s the takeaway here? The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi used to tell his Green Bay Packers players that their priorities were to be “God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers”—although his players report that frequently he clearly changed the order. Is God a cosmic Vince Lombardi insisting upon being at the pinnacle of a rigid hierarchy, to the detriment of anything else, no matter how important, that might conflict?

That does indeed appear to be the case, assuming that the game of hierarchical “Who’s on top?’ is what the divine has in mind. But what if that isn’t the point at all? What if Jesus’ consistently violating our values and expectations is a call to consider something more radical than our limited imaginations can accommodate? top of heapIf, rather than residing at “the top of the heap,” God is everything and everything is in God, then the lay of the land is no longer a landscape of “either/or.” The answer to the question “which is more important, God or family?” is “yes.” Jesus’ provocative statements concerning the family are intended to demonstrate that when we include God as just another object of important things that need to be placed in proper order we are misconstruing God entirely.

If everything is in God, then God is not ultimately in conflict with anything. If God and family appear to be in conflict, then faith tells me that somewhere, at some level, God and family are in unity regardless of appearances. If I have to regularly choose between paying attention to God and to my job, then my faith-energized assignment is to learn how to find God in my job (since my job is in God, as is everything else). Attempts to fit the life of faith into familiar categories, even if we are willing to significantly adjust those categories, miss the boat. The energy of the Christian life is captured well by the Apostle Paul: I will show you a more excellent way.MEW

Something Under Construction

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Maria Popova`

In the 1992 Vice Presidential debate, with Al Gore on one side and Dan Quayle on the other, Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, asked two questions that have become part of Presidential politics lore: Who am I? Why am I here?

Stockdale took a great deal of criticism and heat for his performance as well as triggering a lot of laughter from those who supposedly knew better. But the Admiral was asking questions that those of us who have had to suffer through week after week of painful and embarrassing debates during our current political cycle would be happy to hear someone ask of themselves. Sometimes a bit of self-analysis and awareness is appropriate. Furthermore, Stockdale’s questions are two of the most fundamental timeless questions of philosophy. who am IWho exactly are we and what the hell are we doing here?

The “who am I?” issue is often packaged in philosophy classes as “the problem of personal identity.” How does a person stay the same over time? To get things going, I often ask my students how many have ever said something like “I’m not the same person that I was back then.” Every hand goes up, since everyone knows that even those parts of ourselves that we consider to be most important—our attitudes, beliefs, commitments, and so on—can radically change over time. Add that to the fact that scientists tell us that there is no cell in our body that will still be in our body seven years from now, and it becomes a challenge to identify exactly what it is about me that stays the same over time so I can still call myself the same person as I was throughout all of the changes that every person encounters.

Many philosophers and theologians have cheated (in my considered opinion) by saying that it is the “soul” that stays constant in the human person throughout all of the physical and experiential changes that each of us encounters throughout a lifetime. formsPlato insisted that the human being’s tool to engage with the unchanging and eternal Forms was the unchanging and eternal soul, an idea that traditional Christian theology has been more than happy to adapt to our connection with the divine. But press someone concerning what the soul actually is, and you will undoubtedly instead find out what it is not—it isn’t physical, it isn’t subject to change, is impervious to time, and so on. In short, the soul is the “whatever it is” that stays constant throughout a human being’s changes, but don’t ask for its positive characteristics. It is just a necessary placeholder. Unfortunately, one of the most important rules of logic is that one cannot define something negatively. lockeTheological issues aside, the soul hardly works as a standard for personal identity.

One of the most interesting and influential explorations of personal identity comes from John Locke, the great 17th century British philosopher. Locke suggests that one’s personal identity extends as far back as one’s memories extend—my identity, in other words, is the collection of all of those experiences stretched over time that can appropriately be owned as “mine.” “I” am the subject of all of these experiences. As my students point out in short order, there are plenty of problems with this notion.

  • Does this mean that a person with no memories, someone with advanced Alzheimer’s or in a comatose state, is technically not a person? Locke’s definition requires that we say “yes.”
  • Suppose that at (time A) 5 years old I go to disneyDisneyland, at (time B) 45 years old I am promoted to full professor, and at (time C) 90 years old my sons commit me to a nursing home. At 45 I remember going to Disneyland; at 90 I remember getting promoted but no longer remember going to Disneyland. Locke’s analysis requires me to say that Morgan B and Morgan A are identical, as are Morgan C and Morgan B. Morgans C and A, however, are not the same person. That violates the transitive law of mathematics and logic (A=B, B=C, therefore A=C), but who said personal identity is mathematically precise?
  • Human memories are notoriously inaccurate. What impact, if any, does this have on Locke’s proposed standard?

These and other puzzles arising from Locke’s analysis reliably produce great class discussions—but are we any closer to figuring out who we are?

brain pickingsIn a recent conversation with Krista Tippett, Maria Popova provided a 21st century version of Locke’s suggestions.

Identity for all of us is this perpetual process. It’s somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones . . . We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely curated catalog of those.

Popova’s reflections highlight a feature of a Lockean analysis that is easily missed—each of us has both the responsibility and the privilege of creating our own identities. under constructionAs Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “the human being is always something under construction.” We do not control much of what happens to us, but we do get to choose which features will rise to the level of “definitive,” which memories will serve as the foundation of who we are. Each of us, as Popova might say, is a curator of our identity. The more items there are to curate, whether experiences, texts, or other people, the more dynamic and nuanced each identity has the potential to be.

Popova is also willing to nod favorably toward the notion of the soul. It may not be the best choice as an anchor of personal identity, but Popova suggests that whatever the soul is, we have reason to think that it is real.woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote that “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And she talks about the slipperiness of the soul and the delicacy and complexity of the soul. But I think the fullest people, the people most whole and most alive, are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments. And it always is.

Philosophers are likely to complain that there is still no evidence to support believing in the existence of such a thing. But perhaps the best evidence in its favor is that multitudes of human beings seem bound, even hard-wired, to believe in it. Maybe that’s enough.

red_blue_states

Red and Blue Bubbles

As Jeanne and I do various things in the house on Saturdays, we often have NPR on. This past Saturday, however, our local NPR station was in the midst of fund-raising,RINPR interrupting the shows we wanted to hear so that two locals in the studio could talk to each other about how fabulous it would be if people would call in or go online and contribute money so that we could avoid having our local public radio station circle down the drain for another few months. About as exciting as watching paint dry. I actually am a monthly contributor (sustaining member, no less), which makes having to listen to fund-raising even more annoying. There should be a special station where people such as I can listen to what they tuned in and paid for while fund-raising is going on—I’m told that a couple of NPR stations  actually do have such an arrangement, but they have a far greater listening audience than our tiny state can muster.

MN_LakeWobegon1aTurning to WGBH, the mega-Boston NPR station, I was glad to hear that they were not fund-raising. “Prairie Home Companion” was on, which I find mildly amusing—fictional Lake Wobegone is actually based on a little town in central Minnesota close to where I spent a few months on sabbatical five years ago—but generally not amusing enough to fully engage my attention. Then guest musician Brad Paisley sang a song with the following lyrics:

Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea
Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ball cap boots and jeans
Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race
Not everybody knows the words to “Ring Of Fire” or “Amazing Grace”

southern comfort zoneThe song is “Southern Comfort Zone,” a zone about as far from my comfort as one could possibly get. Paisley is bemoaning how tough it is to be away from his Tennessee home, which I find hilarious. Dude, I lived in Tennessee for three years and was looking to escape within two months of our forced arrival (Memphis was the location of my first teaching job after graduate school). I do go to church and do know the words (lyrics, that is) to “Amazing Grace,” but other than that, the comfort zone Paisley is longing for is as far outside mine as possible. I don’t own a gun, I find sweet tea vomit-worthy, mtajikand I think NASCAR is probably the preferred entertainment in hell. Somehow I think I would be more at home in Tajikistan than in the “Southern Comfort Zone.”

I was reminded of a survey that popped up on my Facebook wall a week or so ago. This one, “Do You Live in a Bubble?” is much more detailed and serious than most quizzes that have popped up in the past months.

Do You Live in a Bubble?

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist at the AEI.pngAmerican Enterprise Institute, argues that the super wealthy, super educated and super snobby live in so-called super-ZIPs, cloistered together, with little to no exposure to American culture at large. Such people, he says, live in a social and cultural bubble. His 25-question quiz, covering matters of interest from beer and politics to Avon and “The Big Bang Theory,” is intended to help readers determine how thick their own bubble may be. After taking the quiz one is given a score from 1-100; the higher the score, the less thick one’s liberal, pointy-headed, academic blue-state bubble is.

I fully expected to receive a negative score, if that is possible, given that the vast majority of my friends are liberal, Episcopalian, college-educated and/or college professors (often all four). Sure enough, questions such as these clearly skewed me toward the center of a thick-walled blue bubble.

Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements? I have many acquaintances with whom I would have such disagreements if we talked about politics. But we don’t.

During the last month have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes? Definitely not.

Do you know what military ranks are denoted by these five insignia? (Click each one to show the correct rank). I might have guessed one of them correctly.army-insignia

During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge? We’ve had this conversation before– If I Were a Beer . . . No.

Do you own a gun? During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing? No, and no. We haven’t been hunting, gone to a NASCAR event, or eaten grits or biscuits and gravy either, just in case you are wondering (they were).

Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or a meeting at a union local? Really? No.

But I scored a 53 on this quiz, which essentially means that I’m comfortable in both the elitist blue bubble and the sweet-tea-drinking red(neck) bubble. That’s not true—it’s not even close to true. How the hell did this happen? Undoubtedly because of questions such as these:

Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? As a matter of fact, yes. A number of years ago, under circumstances too complicated and forgettable to summarize, the only working vehicle Jeanne and I owned was a small Ford pickup that was barely road worthy.DIGITAL CAMERA

Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights? Once. I played the sousaphone in my high school marching band my senior year. And by the way, how often do war protest or global warming parades happen?

Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Yes. My uncle owned a small factory that assembled modular homes and I visited once.

Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day? Are there really people out there who could honestly answer this one “No”? Now that’s really a 1% bubble! I had many such jobs as a teenager and twenty-something—and my brain often hurts at the end of a long day of teaching.

Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Yes, for at least twenty of my sixty years.

Johnson_Jimmynscs_jimmie_johnson_456x362.png.mainThere were also questions about whether I know the difference between Jimmie and Jimmy Johnson (I do), and how often I ate at Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Fridays or Chili’s in the past year (fortunately, only a few). And then the question that totally skewed my score:

Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian? The survey went on to clarify that The distinguishing characteristics of evangelical Christians are belief in the historical accuracy of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, including especially the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and belief in the necessity of personal conversion — being “born again” — as a condition for salvation.

evangelicalism-300x462Mr. Murray. You really don’t have to explain to me what an evangelical Christian is. Everyone I knew growing up was an evangelical Christian, including me. I’ve spent the last forty years or so not so much trying to get over it as to try to understand how it has shaped me and what is still forming me. I don’t call myself an evangelical Christian any more—“freelance” presses that boundary way too far—but I have drunk the Kool Aid, and lived to write about it.

I was somewhat embarrassed to post my results—I really don’t want to be as well-balanced in this case as the quiz claims I am. Several of my Facebook acquaintances in the blue bubble were offended by the obvious sense in which the quiz was trying to make us feel badly about how thick our bubble walls are. These friends suggested a few questions that could be asked in an alternative “Do You Live in a Red Bubble?” quiz.

Do you know who Mr. Casaubon is?
How many times in the past year have you eaten arugula?
Do you know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites?sunni-vs-shia
How many of your friends are nonwhite?
Do you know anyone who is married to his or her first- or second-cousin?

Well, I threw that last one in but you get the point. The problem with this sort of exercise is that it tends to thicken the walls of one’s bubble rather than making it more likely that one will go to the other bubble for a couple of weeks on vacation. Unless you live in a blue bubble and your relatives live in a red one. Then you bite the bullet and do your duty, trying to smile as you turn down yet another offer of sweet tea. But I am not watching NASCAR.??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Under My Skin, Part Two: Yes, It Hurts!

Bright and early on Wednesday morning, it began. Actually, it began around 10:30 on Wednesday morning—that’s bright and early for my son, who often works late into the evening. He had tattooed until midnight on Tuesday night. After Photoshopping two pictures of my dachshund Frieda into one, tracing the picture onto what looked all the world like carbon paper (familiar to those old enough to remember typewriters), then transferring the tracing onto my left arm, we were ready.

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“Looks like you’ll be doing paint by number,” I said to Caleb. “Thanks for reducing my profession to a kid’s activity, Dad,” he replied.

With a small light strapped on his forehead, Caleb looked like a miner. My sister-in-law LaVona had been asking me for a couple of days if I was nervous. I wasn’t, but even if I had been, I had announced to my corner of the world that this was happening, so I would be a great disappointment to all and a total pussy if I backed out now. cleatsI wasn’t sure what a tattoo needle biting into my skin would feel like, but it really wasn’t that bad (stay tuned). I told those present (Caleb, my brother, and me) that “It feels like a centipede is walking on my arm with tiny cleats on.” That was kind of a cool visual, one that worked for at least a while.

Caleb’s job was to do the tattoo, my brother’s job was to document the event with his camera and my tablet, and my job was to stay as still as possible as I reclined in the tattoo version of a dentist’s chair. All three of us are Tolkien fans, so we talked about our various favorite parts of the books and movies, then moved to “Breaking Bad,” “Rome,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Game of Thrones,” and every other movie and television show we could think of.WIN_20160413_12_51_08_ProWIN_20160413_12_06_29_Pro

 

 

 

 

This took up the first ninety minutes or so of the event, as Caleb tattooed from the bottom of Frieda’s outline (her coat) up through the right side of her face. I learned that different tattoo needles cause different uncomfortable and annoying sensations—the shading needle is not as intense as the outlining needle, for instance. But I was doing great—no cold sweats or familiar light-headedness that precedes fainting, and no fighting off the desire to scream or cry. I was the man, impressive to all present—especially me.WIN_20160413_12_51_16_Pro

The female contingent of my entourage—Jeanne, LaVona, and my daughter-in-law Alisha—Caleb’s partner in life and business as well as a tattoo artist in her own right—arrived around 1:00, fully expecting to hear screams, I think. They also were impressed with my Stoic determination. Jeanne tried to feed me an orange until Alisha reported that food is not allowed in the tattooing area. Apparently the Florida health inspector would not approve. Jeanne sat next to me on the opposite side from Caleb, LaVona watched Caleb’s activities with the same interest that people probably showed in Michaelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling, and Alisha—who sees and does this sort of thing every day—headed to the other room with Stephanie, the office manager, to do some paperwork and pay some bills. After a while, Jeanne and LaVona headed out to experience the wonders of downtown Fort Myers. They invited my brother to join them, but he knew better than to abandon his assigned photography tasks.WIN_20160413_14_07_55_ProWIN_20160413_13_51_37_Pro

 

 

 

 

About two hours in, we took a brief ten-minute break—I got to eat my orange (plus another), take a bathroom break, and was ready to finish this thing up. Caleb noted that it might feel a bit more painful when he started up again. That was an understatement. “FUCK!!!” my internal child yelled as we recommenced. “You’re right, that does hurt a bit more,” my outward philosopher commented. As it turns out, Caleb began to explain, first-time tattoo subjects tend to go through a version of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief while under the needle—I had spent the first two hours in Denial. But my best manly-man efforts kept me on top of sensations that were beginning to cross the line from annoying to “that fucking hurts.” And Caleb continued to fill Frieda in from the bottom up with his fancy tattoo-by-number instruments as I observed the process upside-down.WIN_20160413_14_26_29_Pro

At about the three-hour mark, Caleb got to Frieda’s left ear—the closest portion of the tattoo to my armpit. Apparently that’s a sensitive area. “HOLY SHIT!!!” my internal child screamed. “Are you using the outlining needle?” my external Stoic calmly asked—he was. Then he revealed that it was likely to get worse. Before long he would be returning to the bottom, coat area of the tattoo to add some shading (apparently the light colors have to be saved for last to avoid discoloration). “Whatever,” I thought—it can’t be any worse than it already is. About this time Jeanne and LaVona returned; after a few minutes of sitting next to me and observing that I was fidgeting more than when she had been there earlier, she helpfully suggested that I should sit still. “I’m doing the best I can!” I replied in a not-so-pleasant tone—Caleb observed that I had now moved from Denial to Anger. Helpfully, Tom Petty started singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” right about then on the Pandora station Caleb had queued up, so I didn’t have to say any more.WIN_20160413_14_43_19_Pro

As he moved to the shading portion, Caleb reminded me of his warning that “this is not going to feel amazing.” It didn’t. For the first time I started practicing the deep breathing through my nose and my mantra from Psalm 133: “Surely I have set my soul in silence and in peace.” “You can scream, you know,” Jeanne reminded me. “That’s not how I roll,” I thought as I rummaged around for my silence and peace spot.WIN_20160413_15_14_51_Pro

I never fully found it, but got close enough to sort of stay on top of something that had passed from an annoying sting to at least the first circle of descent into pain. “How much longer do we have?” I asked Caleb as I moved from the Anger stage into Bargaining. “Not that much longer,” he replied, helping me skip from Bargaining over Depression into Acceptance.

I interpreted “not that much longer” to mean about five or ten minutes—by the time Caleb finished the shading and added some white highlights, it was about forty-five. In addition to the pain level increasing slowly but steadily, I also got a major left-cheek ass cramp that wouldn’t go away. Pandora gifted us with “Stairway to Heaven,” the greatest rock song ever, and shortly after, it ended.WIN_20160413_15_34_58_Pro

I rolled out of the chair, Caleb wiped the fruits of his labor down with alcohol, and I got to see the finished product in a full-length mirror for the first time. And there was Friedalina, with her “I am superior to you in every way” attitude, looking back at me from my upper left arm. It was worth it—I now have a tattoo immortalizing a dog, who also happens to have been the subject of my very first blog post almost four years ago and of my first short essay attempt at a writer’s conference eight or nine years ago.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

From essay to tattoo—there’s something appropriate about that.WIN_20160413_16_04_14_Pro

Doubt and Dedication

Last Sunday was “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” As I wrote some while ago, despite the bad rap he has received for two thousand years, Thomas is one of my spiritual heroes. Here’s why.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty Anne Lamott

            massacre[1]Michel de Montaigne’s world was filled with religious fervor and piety. It was also filled with hatred and violence. Sixteenth-century France was not a pretty place—in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were killing each other with regularity and abandon, all in the name of Christ. Catholics and Protestants each were certain that they were right; energized by such certainty, each was willing to kill the other in the name of truth and right belief.

michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Michel was an upper class landowner and occasional politician—he was mayor of Bordeaux for two terms as well as a trusted diplomat and liaison. Sensitive and melancholy by nature, Montaigne was appalled by the violence that was tearing his country, his town, his neighborhood, even his own family apart. Accordingly, in his middle years he did what any introverted, sensitive, melancholy guy would have done. He withdrew to his turret libraryimages[11] in the small castle on his family estate and wrote—for the rest of his life. His finely honed powers of perception fueled his creative energies, with thousands of words spilling out onto the page often more quickly than he could think.MONTAIGNE[2] The result, Montaigne’s Essais, consists of fascinating and brilliant bite-sized essays on every topic imaginable, from cannibals and sexual preferences to Michel’s favorite food, his kidney stones, and his cat. And in the midst of this loosely organized jumble of creativity and insight, Michel frequently sounds like Rodney King in the midst of the Los Angeles riots—“Can’t we all get along?”

Montaigne writes that “there is no hostility so extreme as that of the Christian. Our zeal works marvels when it seconds our inclination toward hatred, cruelty, ambition, greed, slander, and rebellion.” This was the world in which he lived. Michel’s antidote?  Let’s stop claiming to be certain about what we believe and try some healthy doubt and skepticism on for size. Certainty is vastly overrated and is frequently dangeroustumblr_m8k1239tDW1rnvzfwo1_500[1], especially when claimed in matters that are far beyond the reach of human capacities. Montaigne is convinced that for the most part, human beings are not designed for the rarified air of certainty. He directly challenges those who “claim to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God,” observing that “there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities.” Is there anything more ludicrous, he asks, than our propensity to believe most firmly that which we know least about and to be most sure of ourselves when we are farthest from what we can verify? Human beings claiming certainty about the will and nature of God would be humorous, and Michel often presents it that way, were it not that such claims are often the basis for the worse of what human beings are capable of, including prejudice, violence, and killing.hops-pickers-on-stilts[1] Even as we seek preposterously to elevate ourselves to the level of the divine, Montaigne reminds us that we remain rooted in our humanity. “There is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts wedepositphotos_4980424-Fantasy-throne-room[1] must still walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own ass.”

Because of his willingness to embrace messiness and uncertainty as part of the human experience, because of his willingness to call chaos what it is and not something else, Montaigne is one of my heroes. So, as a matter of fact, is the star of Sunday’s gospel—Thomas.Doubting Thomas[1] “Doubting Thomas,” as he almost always is described, occupies a unique place in the line-up of disciples. He’s the one who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, wouldn’t believe second-hand reports from eye witnesses, until he saw Jesus himself, until he saw the wounds in his hands, feet and side. Thomas was always brought to our attention in Sunday School as someone not to be like; indeed, Jesus’ put down of Thomas after Thomas finally believes—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”—provides us two thousand years later with something to be proud of. We, not having seen, are the blessed ones while Thomas (the loser) gets in by the skin of his teeth.

But there is another way to read this, a way in which Thomas turns out not to be a spiritual weakling, but rather to be a model of how to approach the spiritual life. We don’t know much about Thomas apart from this story; he is included in the list of disciples in the first three gospels, but John is the only gospel in which Thomas makes an appearance. He’s not one of the inner circle, but occasionally makes appropriate comments Peter and John hurry to the empty tomband asks good questions. In John 20, John’s account of the resurrection and its aftermath, we find the disciples, minus Thomas, hiding in a room with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” Peter and John have already seen the empty tomb, but there is an atmosphere of confusion, uncertainty and fear in the room. Jesus appears to them, and all uncertainty vanishes. But Thomas was not there.

Where was he? Perhaps he wasn’t as afraid as the other disciples and was out and about on that first day of the week, as were the women who first saw the empty tomb. Perhaps he was on a food run for the rest of the disciples who were too frightened to emerge from their safe house. But he misses the big event. When the other disciples report that “we have seen the Lord,” Thomas’ response places him forever in the disciples’ hall of shame: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

saint-thomas-the-apostle-00[1]Fair enough, I say. Remember that the other disciples apparently did not believe until Jesus appeared to them. The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize that Jesus was with them until he emerged from the pages of the Old Testament prophecies that he was pontificating about and broke bread with them. Why should Thomas not be cut the same slack? Embedded in the middle of this misunderstood story is a fundamental truth: A true encounter with the divine is never second-hand. Hearing about someone else’s experiences, trying to find God through the haze of various religious and doctrinal filters, is not a replacement for the real thing. Doubt and uncertainty are central threads in the human fabric and play a fundamental role in belief. Unfounded claims of certainty undermine this. Don’t believe on the cheap. imagesCA7OWR7MBetter to remain uncertain and in doubt one’s whole life, doggedly tracking what glimmers of light one sees, than to settle for a cheap knock-off or a counterfeit. As Annie Dillard writes, “Doubt and dedication often go hand in hand.” Thomas’s—and Michel’s—insight is captured well by the remainder of the passage from Anne Lamott with which I began this post:Anne Lamott

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.

Thomas was right. We should save “My Lord and my God” for the real thing.