Category Archives: Angels

Loose Him, and Let Him Go

Last Sunday coincided with All Saint’s Day–a day we paid no attention to in the religious tradition of my youth. I’m still not sure what to make of the idea of saints, but the day’s gospel is worth paying attention to. It’s Jesus’ signature miracle but is only mentioned in one of the gospels. My favorite treatment of the story comes from Hollywood . . .

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

Then in 1966, when I was 10 years old, United Artists released imagesCAEO0LCK“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” one of the last of the great Hollywood biblical epics, directed by George Stevens. The cast was full of current as well as up-and-coming stars, included Max Von Sydow, in his first English-speaking role, as Jesus; Biblical epic superstar and future president of the NRA Charlton Heston as John the Baptist; Claude Rains, iTelly-Savalas-as-Pontius--003[1]n his final movie appearance, as Herod the Great; Martin Landau, the master of disguise in the “Mission: Impossible” of my youth, as Caiaphas; Telly Savalas of “Kojak” fame as Pontius Pilate,  imagesCA6OFXJKDavid McCallum (formerly one of the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” of my youth, currently starring as Ducky in “NCIS”) as Judas Iscariot; and my favorite: John Wayne as the Centurion at the foot of the cross, who delivers his one line—“Truly this man was the son of God!”—with all the sensitivity of a cowboy.

imagesCAVTYVXRStevens’ directorial choice is to hinge the whole three-hour-plus spectacle on the raising of Lazarus, which takes place just over half way through the movie. It is a remarkable piece of cinematography—instead of focusing on Jesus and Lazarus, the camera focuses on the reactions of those present. Shocked faces, stunned silence, a woman drops to her knees, a man bursts into tears. the_greatest_story_ever_told_movie_trailer[1]One witness runs down the road, grabbing random people and sharing the news—“Jesus of Nazareth . . . I saw it, I saw it with my own eyes! Lazarus was dead, and now he’s alive!” “The Messiah has come! A man was dead, and now he lives!” And indeed this is a blockbuster miracle, worthy of a predictable Hollywood musical effect, the rapturous singing of the final measures of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the background. As the witness nears the walls of Jerusalem, he is joined by two men healed by Jesus earlier in the movie: “I was crippled, and now I walk!” “I was blind, and now I see!” “Who has done this?” shouts a Roman centurion from the walls of the city. “The Man Called Jesus!” Remarkable. Astounding.

But the gospel text is very puzzling, raising more questions than it answers. If this is, indeed, Jesus’ signature, career-defining miracle, why is it only reported in one of the four canonical gospels? Why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke not consider the story important enough to include in their accounts? Why does Jesus deliberately delay travelling to Bethany upon hearing that his friend is deathly ill, dawdling along the way in order to ensure that Lazarus is dead by the time Jesus arrives? imagesCANUX8Y0What exactly is the depth and nature of the Jesus and Lazarus friendship? We know a lot about Jesus with Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha, but this is the first time we’ve heard about Lazarus. Is he the domineering older brother of Mary and Martha, or the spoiled younger brother on whom they dote? Why does Jesus weep? And why is Lazarus still wrapped in his grave-clothes when he emerges from the tomb?

The gospel author mentions Lazarus only one other time, in the next chapter just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds around Jesus have increased exponentially, as much to gawk at Lazarus as to see Jesus. The chief priests, plotting behind the scenes as always, plan to see both Jesus and Lazarus dead—this time there won’t be any resurrection. And Lazarus dissolves into our imaginations. What happened to him? How did he live out the rest of his life?

These are questions worthy of discussion, as are the questions raised by the account of the miracle itself. But Lazarus is not a museum piece to be dusted off and talked about once in a while. The story of Lazarus is our story, the story of all us who seek, in our individual and unique ways, to be friends with Jesus.

ValleyofDryBones-620x3101[1]In the liturgical year, the story of Lazarus often shows up late in Lent, just before Holy Week (although this year it is the gospel reading for All Saint’s Day; the Old Testament reading accompanying it is often Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. We all, I suspect, have spiritually experienced a valley of dry bones season. Dry bones are the remaining evidence of something that was once alive, but hasn’t been for a long time. Lazarus in the tomb is well on his way to becoming a pile of bones—“Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Here’s how this sort of experience, a season of dry bones. goes for me, as I suspect it does for many of you.

I claim to be a follower of Jesus, but the internal flame has slowly decreased to an ember that is threatening to die out. I haven’t seen or talked with Jesus, really spent time with him, for a while. So I send out a call for help to the last place I saw Jesus, where rumor reports he is currently hanging out. And nothing happens. “Hey! I’m dying here!” I silently cry. Those closest to me might realize that something’s wrong, but are unable to help. Nothing but silence. 173185024_c1419b6266[1]And I know this is not just a dry period, a time in the desert. I say to myself “I’ll come out of this, he’ll show up, I’m just in a down time, sort of taking a long spiritual nap.” But I know deep in my soul that I’m lying to myself. The spiritual ember flickers out, leaving a cold, empty space full of ashes at my core. This is real death, from which there is no return. “Lazarus is dead.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And death is not attractive. It isn’t pretty. No matter how beautiful the dress, how snazzy the suit, how professional the make-up job, a corpse is still a corpse. drybones[1]Spiritual corpses go through the motions, pretend that “there’s still some life left in these bones,” but deep down they know it’s a lie. I know, and after a while others know, that something smells. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I seriously doubt it. “My bones are dried up, and my hope is gone. I am cut off completely.”

But after what seems like a spiritual eternity: a rattling of bones, a puff of breath, and there are the stirrings of life. I’ve been dead for so long, I’m disoriented. I don’t recognize my surroundings, or the voice in the distance. jesus_20lazarus_20raised[1]“Come forth!” As a moth toward a flame, I’m drawn toward that sound, toward a pinpoint of light and I find that, against all odds, what was dead is alive again. I’m surrounded by those I thought I’d lost, those whom I thought I would never truly see again. “We thought you were dead!” “I was!” But I can’t move properly, can’t see clearly, I feel like a mummy who just became alive again. And I hear a commanding voice: “Loose him, and let him go.

I’ve been raised to new life—so why am I still bound by the vestiges of death, by the grave-clothes of a past that I thought was gone? Because spiritual renewal and growth are like the Darwinian evolutionary process—I drag the remnants of a past reality into my new life. Vestiges of what has died still remain. If inattentive, I will attempt to weave new garments of salvation out of old, stinking, rags that have long outlived their purpose. And I cannot remove them by myself—I need help. We need each other’s help. I need the help of those who love me and who know what it’s like to try to get one’s bearings as a newly resurrected corpse. And the Lazarus cycle goes on.

No one wants to die. But life with God is a cycle of death and resurrection, a daily, weekly, yearly Lazarus event. Dying, abandoned, buried, called back to life, emerging to new life with lots of work to do. Sometimes we’d rather not. But the message of the story of Lazarus is “Don’t be afraid to die”—especially to those things we cannot bear to even think about losing. Don’t be afraid to release even what seems most necessary—familiar thoughts, comfortable patterns of behavior, habits set in stone, OXYGEN COMMUNICATION COMPANIONwell-intentioned but self-centered expectations—the very things that for each of us seem to be the cornerstone of existence. To truly live, we have to die. Simone Weil put it beautifully:

They alone will see God who prefer to recognize the truth and die, instead of living a long and happy existence in a state of illusion. One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says: “He is risen.”

Big Brother

In the 1946 classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody is assigned as George Bailey’s guardian angel. It’s a challenging assignment; George has been driven to the brink of suicide by a series of unfortunate choices and circumstances. George and ClarenceMore than George’s life rides on Clarence’s success since Clarence, who has been a wingless angel for over a century, is guaranteed by his managing angel Joseph that if Clarence turns George around, he will finally earn his wings. Clarence has a childlike honesty and is completely up front with George about both his identity and his mission from the start—and George isn’t buying any of it. “Well, you look like about the kind of angel I’d get,” George comments. “Sort of a fallen angel, aren’t you? What happened to your wings?”

I was reminded of this scene from everyone’s favorite Christmas movie the other morning as my Facebook feed greeted me with the opportunity to find out who among my 627 Facebook acquaintances is my guardian angel. I have taken far fewer of these sort of Facebook quizzes and games over the past several months than I used to, but this one was of interest. I particularly wanted to know who my guardian angel is so I could find out where the fuck she or he was when I tipped over on my bike and broke my ankle ten days ago.

guardian angel

Upon seeing the result I thought “That makes perfect sense. My brother is exactly the kind of angel I would get, and I’m not surprised he didn’t notice I needed help. I’m totally screwed. Fallen angel, no wings.” But today is his birthday, so a few observations are in order.

It’s a good thing we connect frequently on Facebook, because my brother and I rarely see each other. vaughn and lavonaVaughn and his wife LaVona live a busy life in Wyoming where he is a doctor while Jeanne and I are equally well established 2500 miles away in Rhode Island. My son and daughter-in-law spent a week this summer with their aunt and uncle in Wyoming; if memory serves correctly, it was the first time my daughter-in-law ever met them. She remarked afterwards that my brother, my son, and I are so similar in our mannerisms—the way we walk, talk, cross our legs, our senses of humor—that it is “freaky.” Vaughn and I were best friends during the early years of my life, more of necessity than choice, since for the first eleven years of my life and fourteen years of his we lived in rural Vermont, far removed from relatives and even school friends. If we didn’t want to be alone, we had to get along. I particularly remember an early turning point in our relationship.

As she usually did on a Saturday morning, 11898831_1011331812232317_5409885431890534606_nmy mother sent my brother and I outside shortly after breakfast and said “See you at 5:00 for supper.” So she was surprised to see me coming through the front door about a half hour later. “What are you doing here?” she asked. I answered that my brother had told me to go upstairs to get something needed for the game we were playing that he had forgotten in his bedroom. “You go tell your brother to come in here and get it himself!” she told me. “You don’t have to do what Vaughn tells you to do!” “I DON’T?” I replied—this was news to me. Up until that point I had assumed my older brother had the authority of a third parent. That Saturday morning was a turning point in my life—I didn’t have to do what my brother commanded any longer.

Just as a good Baptist kid should, I used stories from the Bible as touchstones during my growing up years. As the younger of two sons, jacob and esauI identified with Jacob’s preference for his mother and for hanging around the house rather than going out hunting and killing things, something Vaughn did with my Dad. Jacob’s ability to regularly outsmart and manipulate his doofus older brother Esau rang true, because I was sure I could get my equally challenged doofus older brother to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was sure that if Baptist fathers gave special and exclusive blessings to oldest sons, I could get Vaughn to hand over his blessing in exchange for a can of soup.

In reality, it wasn’t like that. My brother and I are the first two people on either side of our family to earn a four-year college degree, let alone an advanced degree. I remember no time when it was not clear to both Vaughn and me that we were going to college; this, of course, put the grade pressure on from the beginning. Both of us earned mostly A’s, but my impression was that Vaughn got his without breaking a sweat, while I had to work hard for mine beginning with my Freshman year in high school. This served me well as I headed to college, as my work ethic was already established; my impression was that my brother didn’t enter the world of having to work hard at school until

I sometimes wonder how it is possible that the two of us are even distantly related. He loves rural Wyoming, while I prefer urban settings and would go insane with boredom living in the sticks. He prefers vodka martinis, which taste like lighter fluid to me, while he cannot abide the intense single malt scotches that I have come to love. He once pronounced on Facebook that Samuel Adams Boston Lager is as dark as he will go. I replied that Boston Lager is as light as I will go. Even though he dresses like an aging cowboy for work, he made critical remarks about corduroy jackets in another Facebook pronouncement–I had to point out that such jackets are the sine qua non of male attire in my profession (I own five of them). He loves hockey but can take or leave college basketball, apparently unaware that the greatest two weeks of sport each year is March Madness.

Today is my brother’s birthday—Happy 63rd, Big Brother! You’re my favorite sibling! Of course you are my only sibling, but you’d probably be my favorite even if there were more. If I was to construct an imaginary brother, he would be just like you but with much better taste in adult beverages. Even though we don’t see each other very often, it’s a comfort knowing where my closest match for organ transplants lives. Mom and Mad Eagle are smiling on you today—have a good one!Trudy and Bruce June 1982

An Aria as Lovely as a Tree

As Jeanne headed into Dunkin’ Donuts to purchase her customary large decaf French Vanilla with eight creams and three Equals (and Mr Tpity the fool who doesn’t get it right), I stayed in the car surfing the FM dial—my coffee intake for the morning had already exceeded its quota. I landed on New York’s NPR classical station just in time to hear “Ombra mai fu,” the opening aria from Georg Friedrich Handel’s 1738 opera Serse. serseParked in an ugly Double-D parking lot on Long Island, I thought to myself that when the angels sing, they must begin and close with this piece—perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.

As is my frequent custom, I shared my unexpected and much appreciated encounter with Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” with my Facebook acquaintances, then on my blog. Several who share my love of classical music shared their own favorite versions of the aria on YouTube; a good-natured debate arose over whether the aria is most beautiful in the soprano range, as Handel wrote it,

transposed into the lower and richer mezzo-soprano or contralto ranges,

or perhaps sung by a male soprano, as it would have been originally, since the aria is sung by King Xerxes in Handel’s opera.

The music is so glorious that I, not knowing Italian, speculated that the text of the aria was probably religiously themed along the lines of so much of Handel’s compositions. But no—the text of “Ombra mai fu” contains no lofty sentiments, no paeans to the divine. It’s a brief poem of thanks for the shade of a plane tree.

Ombra mai fu                         Never was a shade    

di vegetabile                           of any plant

cara ed amabile,                    dearer and more lovely,

soave più.                                or more sweet.

Over the centuries Handel’s glorious music has been co-opted for different texts, such as the hymn “Holy Thou Art.”

But it is fitting that one of the most inspired pieces of music ever written is originally in honor of a tree.

One of the greatest continuing insights of Reverend John Ames, the aging Calvinist minister from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”gilead

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

“You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?” Good question. It takes a lot more courage to embrace this world with all of its imperfections and disappointments as a spectacular and continuing divine miracle than to step back and bemoan the fact that it seldom is the miracle we would have performed if it were up to us. It isn’t up to us—the power and glory of our created, sacred world is far above our pay scale. And yet sacredness and beauty embedded in imperfect matter is a reminder that according to the Christian narrative, this very strange yet compelling fusion of the divine and the imperfect is God’s intention with us.sunset

Saints and Warthogs

MLPPT_UncGratitude_1[1]Part of my incurable biblioholism is that invariably my favorite book is the one that I am currently reading. My favorite book one week not long ago was Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, a collection of essays from two of my favorite theologians, Sister-Joan-Chittister-pf2[1]Sr. Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Truth be told, they might not technically be theologians at all (I don’t know if their union cards are up to date), but I find each of them to be provocative and brilliant in their own unique ways. I purchased this book a couple of years ago, simply because of who wrote it, but am only now taking the plunge.

Irowan-williams[1]n one of Rowan William’s essays, “Saints,” he defines the term “saint” as “someone who starts a chain reaction of new perception in the world, who reinforces, even among those who don’t or can’t yet believe, the confidence that there’s more to us all than we have suspected.” I like that definition a lot, because it places the emphasis where it belongs—on creativity and iconoclasm—rather than where we tend to go when thinking of saints—ethereal religiosity and unapproachable moral rectitude. imagesCAIG1NYII must say, though, that I have a more difficult time thinking of persons who embody William’s definition than those who satisfy the more traditional saintly mold. What comes to mind more readily from my own history is experiences that have started the sort of internal chain reactions that reveal something new and unexpected. Usually these events have been incremental and small, only revealing their saintly characteristics after the fact. But every once in a while, I have been blown favorably off course by an event, a book, or an idea that changed things for good. Sainthood is in the air, if I only know where to look.

oates_1-040909_jpg_400x500_crop_q85[1]Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” is all about someone unexpectedly getting sucked into a vortex of holiness. In this story Ruby Turpin, one of O’Connor’s most memorable characters, has a very bad day. Ruby and her husband Claud own a small farm in 1940s Georgia—their livelihood is made from the yield of their acres worked by hired black workers and the raising and sale of a few cows,DirtRoad[1] pigs and chickens. The bulk of the story is set in the waiting room of a crowded doctor’s office where Ruby and Claud wait for the doctor to look at an infected area on Claud’s leg where he was kicked by a cow a few days ago. Ruby is a chatty, pleasant, overweight, confident Christian woman in her forties with, as she frequently says, a “good disposition,” and tends to immediately strike up a conversation with whoever is willing.waiting-room1[1] Other patients in the room include a well-dressed woman with a sullen, ugly teen-aged daughter, a grandmother, mother and son who are obviously “white trash,” and others who flit around the edge of the conversation.

It becomes immediately clear that Ruby has a strong sense of how things are supposed to work and of the proper hierarchy of persons in her world. She is thankful that God didn’t make her a nigger, or white-trash, or an imbecile—she is extraordinarily grateful that she was born with a good disposition, is blessed with enough food and money (although not too much), and is generally just thrilled to be herself. As she drops these tidbits into her conversation, as well as comments about why Negroes should perhaps go back to Africa, Ruby notices that the sullen young lady keeps shooting increasingly hostile glances in her direction. The girl’s well-dressed mother eventually reveals that her daughter,images[9] a student at an exclusive college “up north,” has been given everything by her parents but is an “ungrateful person” with a bad attitude who never does anything but criticize and complain. Mrs. Turpin remarks that “it never hurts to smile,” concluding that “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I’ve got, a little of everything and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting ‘Thank you Jesus, for making everything the way that it is!’” In response, the sullen college student throws the college textbook she has been reading across the room at Ruby, hitting her above the left eye, then leaps on top of Ruby and starts choking her.

Once Ruby is rescued by others and the young lady, “obviously insane,” is sedated, Ruby asks “Don’t you have something to say to me?” The girl responds in a vicious whisper 6030468896_4a5cb062b2_z[1]“go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!” As the day winds on Ruby, despite her good disposition, can’t shake this comment from her consciousness. Back on the farm toward sunset, as she hoses mud off the pigs, Ruby’s mounting anger ignites in a direct and explosive tirade aimed at the very God she had been thanking earlier.

What do you send me a message like that for? How am I a hog and me both? Why me? It’s not trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church. Three little pigsHow am I a hog? Exactly how am I like them? There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash so much, go get yourself some trash then. You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. Go on! Call me a hog! Call me a hog again! CALL ME A WART HOG FROM HELL. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??

When Ruby comes up for air, she raises her eyes to where the sun has just slipped below the horizon. And she suddenly sees for the first time that day, perhaps for the first time in her life.

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw . . . a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right . . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and respectable behavior . . . Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. . . . In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.purgatory_r1_c1[1]

And the story ends. Something has broken through Ruby’s safe and smug assumption that God’s behavior and expectations fit her comfortable world seamlessly. Did the vision change her life? Did she forget it in the next minute? O’Connor wisely leaves it to us to wonder.

God’s program is not ours—God’s priorities are upside down. But that’s the point. A transformed world requires transformed people. Only an entire rearranging of what is “natural” will suffice. Be on the lookout for saintly moments of holiness, the small but persistent ways in which the faith we profess turns everything upside down.


Prey 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

testament of youthIn her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made into 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?

During these first days of sabbatical I have enjoyed getting back in touch with the work of Iris Murdoch, one of the greatest philosophers and novelists of the twentieth-century. In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Murdoch’s characters grapple 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.

Giotto lamentation

The Weight of this Sad Time

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.

Justifying My Existence

It is unsettling, even scary, to relinquish who we think we are, and scary to stop clinging to what we have and what we do. Henri Nouwen

As I picked up my bag to walk to the gym, then to the office for a few hours of work, I said “I’m off to justify my existence for the day!” The idea of such daily justification comes from my father who, when he was at home rather than on the road travelling, used to ask my brother and me as we stepped into the house after school justify“What did you do today to justify your existence on this planet?” He always had a smile on his face when he said it, but there were serious undertones to the question. The challenge to not just be a piece of furniture in the room, not just to occupy space, but to prove my worth on a daily basis has stuck with me ever since. Jeanne’s response to my announcement was to laugh and say “You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not so sure.

I can talk a good talk about why, despite the Protestant work ethic and stereotypical American focus on action and productivity that pervades our culture, who one is does not amount to the same thing as what one does. chittisterAs Joan Chittister writes, humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” One should work to live, after all, not live to work. I am not, however, nearly as good at walking the walk. This has become more and more obvious as I move into sabbatical mode. Within a month I will no longer be a program director, something that has consumed me as a second full-time job for the past four years. I will not be a full-time teacher for the next sixteen months, uncharted territory for someone who believes he was born to be a professor. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen for several years that the biggest thing that being an administrator, first four years as department chair, then four more as a program director, has taken away from me is writing. But this is not entirely true. I actually have been writing a lot over the past almost-three-years on this blog—close to 300,000 words worth of writing (enough for three 250-or-so page books). What I have not done for close to a decade is academic writing of the sort that an academic must do in order to get promoted and tenured. Why? Because I don’t have to. Nor do I want to. button_tenurepromotionTenure and the last promotion came a long time ago, well before the last decade of administration piled on top of teaching. I no longer need to write and publish the sort of thing that one needs to write and publish in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this is a good thing since I don’t want to write that sort of thing and haven’t wanted to for some time.

What this means, going into sabbatical, is that for the first time in my professional life—actually for the first time in my adult life—the pressure is off. I’m being paid to be on sabbatical—undoubtedly a rare gift pretty much exclusive to the world of academia. And I’m not sure how to handle that. Over the past few years I have taken baby steps in the direction of trusting the world around me to show me what’s next rather than imposing my own expectations and structures on what’s next. sabbaticalBut they are only baby steps, insufficient to guide my plans for sabbatical. Beginning around this time last year I started planning for sabbatical by doing the usual things—setting up a series of appointments with our very helpful director of sponsored research, sending out proposals both for residential and non-residential sabbatical projects, and so on. For several months in late 2014 I waited to see what I would be doing and where I would be going on sabbatical. The response to all of my proposals? “Thanks, but no thanks.” Other than the lovely form rejection letters in various forms, I received no feedback other than “we don’t want to fund you doing that.” By the time the rejections arrived the spring semester had started, so other than a few “what the fuck??” moments, I didn’t have the time to think much about the implications until the past couple of weeks. I have plenty to work on and write about—three book projects, no less—but the usual routes to where that will happen and when have been dead ends. Now what?

Isaiah 6I was lector yesterday morning at church for the first time in months, and in one of those unexpected moments of synchronicity that I’ve noticed more and more frequently over the past several years my assigned Old Testament reading was one of my favorites from the Jewish scriptures, the call of Isaiah. As I read it from the lectern the story had immediate resonance. Isaiah has a vision of the divine throne room, where six-winged seraphim fly about and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” 24/7. After Isaiah expresses his utter unworthiness at being present for such a glorious spectacle, an angel takes a live coal with tongs from the altar and, laying it on Isaiah’s lips, says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Now you are ready, in other words. God itself asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me.” A risky thing to do, opening oneself up to whatever might come. Isaiah’s mission starts by saying “I’m ready for whatever.” Scary business, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells the brief story of a woman’s last hours before death. franklLying on her filthy cot in the barracks, the woman spoke briefly with Frankl.

“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

I am here—I am life. Maybe that’s enough. At least it’s a start.

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

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

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

Thunderous applause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneWith the end of the current semester, we have finished the second academic year in our beautiful and impressive still-new Ruane Center for the Humanities. On the west side of the stone entryway 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—his 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 have been embedded all semester with my students as we explored 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 spent our last week 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. I asked my seminar students to consider, then discuss, letters from prisontwo passages in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge in their intellectual notebooks and an on-line discussion forum.

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.

“The time of Christianity is over.” These words confused my students to say the least—“I am shocked that a minister of God could say such a thing,” one of them wrote. 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 from death camp chimneys. As unsettling as this passage was for my students, the second passage from Bonhoeffer shook them to their core.

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? A number of students observed in their notebooks how sad they were that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I commented, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different than 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!

A couple of weeks 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.”

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.

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.