Category Archives: Angels

The Time of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

In her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made testament of youthinto a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch grapples directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

Holy Family Values

Each week for the past many years, Garrison Keillor has told “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake WobeLake-Wobegon[1]gon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an attraction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneOn the west side of the stone entryway to the beautiful humanities center on my campus, in only its fourth year of operation, is carved a memorable saying from the Gospel of John: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. On the top of the opposite east side of the entryway is the equally memorable closing line from Paridiso, the final book of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Ruane DanteThe Love which moves the sun and the other stars. In my estimation the choice of this passage for such an exalted position on the building is controversial; when the building was still in the planning stage, I made the tongue-in-cheek argument that nothing more appropriate could be inscribed on the front of a classroom building than what is written over the gates of Hell in Canto III of Inferno, the first book in Dante’s masterwork: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. But I lost the argument and had to settle for printing that line off and taping it on my office door. It must have worked, because very few students come to visit me in my office.

Dante’s vision at the end of Paridiso is the climax of an agonizing journey through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven. This capstone experience, strangely enough for a guy who is never at a loss for words, is one that he struggles mightily to convey. Beatific visionOne gets the impression that words fail him and his linear thought process is dissolved as he is subsumed into his long-awaited encounter with the Divine. But I’ve never found Dante’s vision compelling, simply because it’s just that. A vision. And it’s so Catholic, with multitudes of saints, angels, and Mary swirling around in a choreographed dance. I actually resonate more fully with Dante and his guide Virgil as they pick their way through the horrors of Hell and the trials of Purgatory—these portions of the journey I can resonate with because they remind me of the world I actually live in with all of its contradictory beauty and ugliness. That’s the world in which I will be embedded this coming semester that begins in two weeks with a bunch of sophomore students as we explore grace, truth and freedom in the Nazi era, finding glimmers of hope and nuggets of wisdom in the middle of the worst that humanity can devise.bonhoeffer

We will spend some of the semester with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who, imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison for more than a year because of his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, found himself in his isolation fending off despair and realizing that whatever God is, God is none of the things he had always thought and taught. In letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer put his fears, his concerns, his hopes, and his life itself on display in language that is shocking and disturbing in its directness. We will consider two passage in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge both in class and in on-line discussion forums letters from prison.

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

Later in the letter, he repeats that “the time of Christianity is over.” Students in past versions of this course have been shocked that a Protestant pastor could write such a thing. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that none of the old formulas or descriptions work anymore, not in a world in which millions of human beings are disappearing as smoke and ashes from death camp chimneys. In a second letter a few weeks later to Bethge, Bonhoeffer continues the theme.

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

God wants us to live in the world as if God does not exist, Bonhoeffer writes. What can this possibly mean? Once a student commented in our discussion forum how sad it was that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I replied, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different from what you are accustomed to.”

A few short months after he wrote this letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg Prison, just a handful of weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Far from losing his faith, Bonhoeffer exemplifies a willingness to let faith evolve rather than crumble in the face of the greatest and most intense challenges. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem entitled “Who Am I?” in his notebook which ends in a place that provides hope for all persons of faith.

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all. . . .

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!

Not long ago as I was driving to the 8:00 early show at church I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” on NPR. Her guest was Margaret Wertheim, a physicist described in the promo as “a passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions.”

http://onbeing.org/program/margaretwertheim-the-grandeur-and-limits-of-science/7472

Toward the end of the conversation Tippett notes that Wertheim, who was raised Catholic, has been described in the media as an atheist. “Are you an atheist?” Tippett asked. WertheimWertheim’s response brings us full circle back to Dante.

I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

I love Wertheim’s answer because it is infused with Bonhoeffer’s energy. Dogmas and religious formulas will always fail because God is bigger than that. Seeking the love that moves the sun and the other stars will always take us to places we do not expect, places of beauty and darkness, a search energized by a faith that cannot be lost.

We Are Not Alone

Jesuit priest and author James Martin recently said in an interview that we as a culture have sanitized the Christmas story. This is worth paying close attention to during this current Christmas season which seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe,, dealing with a controversial Presidential election, and the usual jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point. Its text is focused on yesterday’s gospel from Matthew, a story that you will definitely not see represented in anyone’s creche or on anyone’s front lawn.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

Who Comes This Night?

Aleppo, Russians tampering with our election, a sharply polarized country, general mistrust in all sort of institutions, a truck driving into holiday celebrators in Berlin—the clashing of our world with the Christmas season has never been more dissonant. In his lovely holiday song “Who Comes This Night?’, James Taylor asks some very pressing questions:

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking?

If there was ever a time when accumulated layers of consumerism and tradition needed to be peeled back from the Christmas narrative to reveal what lies beneath, it is now.

Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday,” “Love, Actually,” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.” “The Nativity Story” presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.

These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? A friend, who recently passed away, tended to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.” Our lives are built from stories that we embrace and own as ours—this story is one of the best. As I reported in this blog recently, a student of mine once said that even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, she would “still be a Christian, because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the Incarnation is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight. At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” The message of Christmas cuts across every one of the boundaries that we spend so much time drawing and protecting, for it tells us that the human and the divine belong together and that the only way that God gets into the world is in human form. That’s you. That’s me. That’s us.

The heart and soul of Christianity is remarkable both in its simplicity and its iconoclasm. God made into flesh. Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas

How Can This Be?

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” But I love Advent, Mary is a major Advent player, testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown favor toward me and has bestowed blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024

Bring It On

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being, Jesuit author and spiritual advisor James Martin spoke of how we have sanitized the Christmas story into something appropriate for polite conversation, crèches, cards, and movies.

I think it’s been tamed. It’s not only been commodified and commercialized; it’s been tamed. It’s a nice, pretty story about two nice, good-looking people, usually white, who had a pretty baby in a manger. But in a sense, it’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo. And it’s also—I have to say—it is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And I think we’ve tamed it. And in a sense, it doesn’t demand our belief. We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute” . . . And I actually have to say, I am really getting to the point where I’m starting to loathe the Christmas season.

One of the ways to avoid loathing the Christmas season is to pay close attention to what the gospel narratives actually tell us about the people chosen to usher Jesus into the world. They are just like we are—normal, challenged, hard-working human beings, just living their lives, who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of events larger than they could comprehend.

Each new lectionary year begins with Advent, and each year a different gospel is on display. This year, Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, we get the first of the four gospels, Matthew. It is a book written by a Jew for Jews about a Jew. Scholars tell us that this gospel was written 30-40 years after Jesus’ ascension; its author’s primary focus is to look back to events a half century past and convince a Jewish audience that Jesus, a Jewish man who was crucified as a common criminal, was actually the promised Messiah. The author’s intentions are clear from the start when the gospel begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back from Joseph through King David—from royal tribe of Judah from which the Messiah is to come—to Abraham. The author even points out some interesting details in this genealogy that the well-versed Jewish reader or listener would not miss.

It turns out that there are some questionable women in Joseph’s family tree. Salmon, David’s great-grandfather, for instance, marries Rahab whose story is told in the book of Joshua from the Jewish scriptures. The invading children of Israel send spies into the Promised Land to scout out the area; they end up in Jericho, a walled fortress that is the most important and powerful city in Canaan. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab (what were they doing there?), who hides them from the king of Jericho and helps them escape from the city by dropping a rope from her window so they can climb down the wall to safety in the middle of the night. For her efforts, this non-Israelite prostitute and her family are the only inhabitants of Jericho spared when Joshua and his army, using information from the spies Rahab saved, conquers and destroys Jericho a few chapters later.

Salmon and Rahab’s son is Boaz. Perhaps it is because he is a half-breed that he is willing to marry the foreign widow Ruth. The story of Ruth and Boaz is beautifully told in the Book of Ruth, a hidden and seldom-read gem in the Hebrew Scriptures. During a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Judah with their two sons in search of sustenance, which they find in the neighboring land of Moab. The sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, something which the Mosaic Law prohibited (just as it prohibited Salmon from marrying a foreigner, let alone a prostitute). But all of the men in the story die. Devastated by loss and with no means of support, Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem after saying goodbye to her former daughters-in-law. Orpah sadly heads back to her family home, but Ruth will not leave Naomi, touchingly saying “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

It’s the beginning of an unexpected love story—foreign woman meets wealthy Jewish guy (Boaz). Ruth and Boaz’s grandson, Jesse (who is no more than half Jewish), has eight sons. The eighth son and runt of the litter, consigned to writing poems and killing lions while tending sheep, is David whom Samuel anoints as the second king of Israel. The line continues through Solomon, who is the product of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Even the Messiah’s line has its questionable elements and characters—which should tell us something about the divine plan and priorities.

The birth of Jesus is set up by Matthew not with the women of the story, Elizabeth and Mary, in central roles but rather with Joseph, the descendant of David. He is the central character both in today’s gospel reading as well as the text in two weeks when he runs to Egypt in the middle of the night with his young family to escape King Herod’s murderous plans. What do we learn from Matthew and from Luke, the only other gospel in which Joseph appears, about Joseph? First, Joseph is the strong, silent type. While other major players in the stories of Jesus’ birth and formative years get major speaking parts, we have no record of Joseph ever saying anything. Mary gets the Magnificat, angels are singing and messaging at the drop of a hat, John the Baptist gets to yell “Repent,” Zachariah has the “Song of Zachariah,” the wise men have a brief speaking role, and even the minor character Simeon gets to contribute a song before he dies. But Joseph is silent. In reality, I suspect, he was capable of speech when necessary, such when he’ trying to find a place to stay in Bethlehem for his wife who has gone into labor, but he gets no gospel speaking role.

Second, Joseph is in touch with his inner self in a way that would make modern therapists proud. He pays attention to his dreams and acts on them. Mary briefly argues with the angel at the annunciation in Luke, but Joseph hears an angel in a dream, wakes up, and acts on what he’s heard, both in this week’s gospel and two weeks from now. No questions asked. In fact, he’s perhaps the greatest dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake and distant ancestor Joseph from Genesis. The difference between them is that Joseph in Genesis is not the strong, silent type, can’t stop blabbing about his dreams to everyone, and ends up in a well. Joseph knows that some things are meant to be acted on and not talked about.

Third, Joseph clearly is flexible and able to roll with the punches. One would think that the angel Gabriel might have made the annunciation to Mary and Joseph together, but no. Only Mary gets the message. We aren’t told if Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant because she tells him her story or because he happens to notice that she’s putting on weight, but because he is a “just man” he chooses to break their betrothal privately rather than making a public display of it as the law would have allowed. Finally, an angel gets around to telling Joseph in a dream and the betrothal is back on—but no sex until Jesus is born. The New Testament and tradition indicate that Mary and Joseph did have several children in the years after Jesus was born, so at least that worked out.

Finally, Joseph was a stepfather. As part of a “blended family” for the past three decades, I have had the opportunity to observe the challenges of the impossible job of step-parenting from close range. I wonder how Joseph processed being handed an impossible job, with no blueprint or instruction manual. All he wanted to do was marry the person he loved. God said, “Okay, but here are a few other things you get to do too.” I wonder if Joseph and Mary, overwhelmed with the task before them, threw themselves so wholeheartedly into the process of making this step-family work that they neglected for long periods of time to pay attention to their own relationship with each other. Did Joseph ever wonder when it would be “his time,” when he would be valued for who he was rather than for what he could do for Jesus, or Mary, or God? I wonder if Joseph ever saw “you’re not my real dad” in Jesus’ eyes or actions. Did Joseph ever resent Jesus’ biological connection with Mary, something that nothing Joseph ever did or said could possibly balance out? I wonder if Jesus ever told Joseph, at least when he had grown up, that he appreciated Joseph and that he apologized for the times he’d been a jerk.

In Santa Fe, there is a little church called the Loretto Chapel, located for the past many years on the grounds of a downtown hotel, which contains a “miraculous staircase,” built by a stranger with a donkey and a toolbox who showed up in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. The newly built chapel needed a staircase to the choir loft; those who knew about such things said it would have to be a ladder, since a regular stairway would be too invasive of the chapel space. The stranger built an architectural marvel, a spiral staircase containing two 360 degree turns with no visible means of support and held together with wooden pegs rather than nails. The stranger disappeared without being paid after completing the staircase; not surprisingly, legend has it that the donkey-riding stranger was none other than St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

I tend to consider such stories to be apocryphal legend; we don’t even find out that Joseph is a carpenter until much later in Matthew when the people of Nazareth reject Jesus because this “carpenter’s son” claims to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. But this does sound like something that Joseph would do. There’s something spectacularly ordinary and efficient about Joseph. Something needs to be done, and he does it. After dealing with a pregnant fiancée he’s never had sex with, sleep-talking angels, a murderous king, lost reservations at the inn, delivering a baby in a barn, and being a stepfather, building a staircase that defies gravity for a bunch of nuns is nothing. Bring it on.

As I had the opportunity this semester to discuss some of the seminal texts of the Christian faith with my freshman students, I reminded them that at the heart of the Christmas story is an outrageously ridiculous, but beautifully attractive, idea: God chose to become human. God continues to engage with the world through humans. We have surrounded ourselves with all sorts of distractions in order to avoid grappling with a most basic truth, a truth worth remembering as we head into the final week before Christmas: God loves us. That changes everything.

The Weight of this Sad Time

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, but I am this morning. This post from several months ago sort of captures my mood at the moment; as Wittgenstein wrote, “of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

The Farewell Tour

I am a fan of all New England pro sports teams, but my attachment to the Red Sox is greater than my attachment to the Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins combined. The Patriots, lacking their all-world quarterback Tom Brady, have unexpectedly won their first three games of the season, but I have hardly noticed. That’s because the Red Sox, who have ended up in last place in their division each of the previous two seasons, are the champions of the AL East and begin the playoffs tomorrow. I always say that I don’t pay attention to the NFL until the Red Sox play their last game of the season–this year I hope that will not be for a few weeks.papi

At the heart of this year’s winning season has been the  most spectacular farewell tour in baseball history. When David “Big Papi” Ortiz announced several months ago that he would be retiring after the 2016 season, little did anyone know that the 40+ Ortiz would put together what has been perhaps the greatest season of his illustrious, Hall of Fame worthy career. His final season has been so remarkable that many don’t believe that he will really retire once the season is finally over. But I suspect that he will, hopefully with a fourth World Series ring in tow. 

I’m sure that a post just for Big Papi, and hopefully celebrating the 2016 World Series Champion Red Sox, will be forthcoming in a few weeks. For now, I am reminded of what I wrote at the end of the farewell tour of another athlete a couple of years ago, a reflection that led to some speculation about what the farewell tour of certain important figure from history might have looked like . . . 

In the mostly forgettable “Forget Paris,” the 1995 romantic comedy follow-up to his 1989 megahit movie “When Harry Met Sally,” Billy Crystal plays an NBA referee with all sorts of personal and romantic problems. forget parisOn one particular evening Crystal is refereeing a game in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the LA Lakers are playing. Abdul-Jabbar is on a season-long “farewell tour” in each city his Lakers visit in the wake of announcing his retirement at the beginning of the season. Crystal’s personal problems have put him in a particularly bad mood that evening, and when Kareem mildly questions a foul call, Crystal immediately ejects him from the game. “You can’t eject me,” Kareem loudly complains—“I’m on my farewell tour!” forget paris referee“Well,” Crystal yells back, “let me be the first to say . . . FAREWELL!!”

Sports fans of all sorts, and baseball fans in particular, have been witnesses to the latest farewell tour during the months of the regular baseball season that ended last Sunday. Derek Jeter, the captain and twenty-year veteran shortstop of the New York Yankees made clear well before the beginning of the season that it would be his last, something that retiring sports heroes tend to do more and more often in recent years in order to set up a season of “lasts” as each sports stadium, arena or park is visited for the last time.Jeter farewell I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the Jeter farewell tour for a couple of reasons.

First, I’ve paid less attention than usual to baseball during this past season because by the end of May it was pretty clear that my beloved defending world champion Boston Red Sox were not only not going to repeat, but were destined for last place in their division. Second, Derek Jeter has spent two decades playing for one team—the freaking New York Yankees. I hate them with all the unwarranted and irrational hatred that only a sports fan can muster against their favorite team’s hated rivals. So, unlike the vast majority of baseball followers, I thought it was hilarious when ESPN’s Keith Olbermann began a seven-minute “Let’s knock Derek Jeter down to size” rant on his show last week with “Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not even the greatest shortstop who ever lived.”olberman

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/09/keith-olbermann-derek-jeter-espn

I might add that he also never (to my knowledge) walked on water, turned water into wine, or raised someone from the dead, although one might get that impression from the adulation flying around over the past few weeks during the final lap of Jeter’s farewell tour. I even tweeted about this the other day: baseball jesus“If Jesus was retiring from baseball, would he get as much play as Derek Jeter?” “Only if he played for the New York Yankees,” a Yankees fan who follows me for some reason tweeted back. Maybe Jesus picked the wrong profession.

Even some Red Sox fans I know were rather shocked by Olbermann’s rant (which I’m sure is exactly what Olbermann intended and hoped for). Why? Because even though I have every reason to hate Derek Jeter because of his bad taste in choosing a team to play for, such hatred is tough to sustain—he’s been a class act for twenty years. In a world in which sports stars seem unable to go through a full week without shooting themselves in the leg, being picked up driving drunk, failing a drug test, or punching their fiancée in the face, Derek Jeter was a model of consistency and class both on and off the field. No scandals. No garish headlines about cheating on significant others. No steroid use. No posturing and showing up umpires (he never got ejected from a game during his whole career). How can you hate a guy like that? I found out a while ago that even if I have a hard time hating Derek Jeter simply because he’s a Yankee, others don’t have that problem.

NYBosDuring the baseball all-star game a few years ago, I was at the house of a friend who traditionally hosted a party for a few friends to watch the game. My friend is a Mets fan who (if this is possible) hates the Yankees more than I do, but two of his best friends—a married couple also in attendance at the party—are rabid Yankee fans. Of course plenty of trash-talking took place throughout the game, as the host and I made fun of the Yankee all-stars as they batted or pitched and the married couple belittled the Red Sox all-stars. Toward the end of the game, Derek Jeter, a perennial all-star, was the topic of discussion. “Come on,” the Yankee fans insisted, “you can’t hate Jeter. No one hates Jeter.” Grudgingly I admitted that I did indeed have a difficult time hating Jeter. But my friend the host had no such problem. “F___  Jeter,” he said. “And f___ his mother too.” My goodness. There is no hatred as intense and uncompromising as a sports hatred.

The whole “farewell tour” thing is an odd one. What will Derek Jeter do for the rest of his life? Play video highlights of his now ended career? Even the greatest sports star slowly fades from memory like the Cheshire Cat’s grin after the end of the last game. When’s the last time anyone heard anything from Michael Jordan, for instance? Maybe Jeter will go the way of many retired jocks and become a talking head on ESPN or MLB-TV. Brad and AngieI hope not—it would be in keeping with his classy character to walk away from the game, start a philanthropic concern or two, adopt a bunch of orphans from across the globe like Brad and Angie, and practice walking on water or turning it into wine.

Speaking of impressive feats with water, if Jesus had conducted a farewell tour with modern technology available after he rose from the dead, what would it have included? Some possibilities:

  • A surprise visit to the Sanhedrin during one of its weekly business meetings.
  • An exclusive “60 Minutes” interview in which Scott Pelley will get Jesus to say what he really thinks about his dad.
  • 5000An on-site restaging of the feeding of the five thousand, with hidden cameras in the baskets containing the five loaves and two fish so everyone can see what’s actually going on in there.
  • A re-enactment of the forty day temptation in the wilderness, this time accompanied by a CNN film crew so we can find out what the devil looks like.
  • A serious grilling by the various talking heads at Fox News during which Jesus will try (unsuccessfully) to explain why helping the poor, widows and orphans is not just another example of enabling people who should be able to support themselves.
  • A massive industry in Jesus paraphernalia—crosses, tee-shirts, mugs, hats, pieces of his clothes and cross, tours that follow “in the footsteps of Jesus”—a commercial bonanza! Oh wait—all of that stuff’s already happened.

Of course, Jesus chose not to do a first century version of the mega-farewell tour. He chose instead to spend his final forty days hanging out with his closest friends before ascending into heaven observed by only a few people. Imagine what a fit his publicist would have had nowadays if Jesus had turned down the opportunity to ascend to heaven in prime time on all of the channels. Talk about a farewell! But probably Jesus chose not to make a huge public deal out of his final weeks on the job because, in a real way, he never left.DJ and Jesus