Category Archives: beauty

Ordinary Miracles

Every year, between Pentecost and the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the lectionary takes us through week after week of “Ordinary Time,” a seemingly endless stretch of Sundays in green during which there are few special celebrations, no Advent or Lenten introspection and expectation, no thrilling Christmas, Easter or Pentecost celebratory remembrances, just a bunch of green week after week after week. A friend of mine once claimed that Ordinary Time is her favorite part of the liturgical year. I told her she was nuts.

ordinary time 2

But I’ve learned over time to appreciate Ordinary Time. Each year, for instance, the gospel readings during Ordinary Time take us through one gospel writer’s version of Jesus’ adult ministry–this year it has been John, but my favorite is Mark. I like Mark’s style–he’s brief, direct, and to the point. One week, Jesus calms a stormy sea with a simple “Peace, be still.” Another week he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Another Sunday, he not only heals people and casts out demons, but he also empowers his disciples to do so.

As Simone Weil wrote, “the stories of miracles complicate everything.” And they do. Ever since my youth I have asked “What are we supposed to do with such stories, especially since we don’t see people raised from the dead or storms dispersed by a voice command today? Did these things really happen? If so, why don’t they happen now?”

The religion I was raised in explained some of this by dispensational theology, meaning that the dispensation of miracles, for some unexplained reason, ended with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Now that we have the Holy Spirit and the Bible, apparently miracles are old hat. I don’t buy it. But a stroll through the gospels raises the complications of miracles for me in a new way.

While riding in the car not long ago, Jeanne and I talked briefly about what it must have been like to be with Jesus and witness the miracles. How could anyone who observed such events have been as confused and often unbelieving as the disciples apparently were? Were the miracles daily events? Or does it just seem that way because the gospel writers are only hitting the high points, Jesus in miracle-working mode?

Maybe the gospel versions of Jesus’ ministry are like a ninety-second trailer for a movie. The trailer makes the movie seem like a “mus see,” but when you see it you find out that the only funny, dramatic, or poignant parts are the moments you saw in the trailer. Maybe life with Jesus during his ministry involved lots of down time with a few high points.

Just when you think you’ve got this guy figured out and have rationalized an explanation for what must have happened when he calmed the sea several weeks ago, just when you’ve decided that he’s a very interesting and charismatic guy but nothing more, then he randomly raises someone from the dead and the confusion starts all over again.

The real confusion for me, I think, if I had been a disciple comes into sharp focus as Mark’s gospel proceeds and he tells the story of the capture and beheading of John the Baptist. If there’s anyone who deserves a miracle from Jesus, it’s his relative John. John’s whole ministry was to “prepare the way” for Jesus, to connect Jesus to Old Testament prophecies, to baptize Jesus, to identify him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” then to step back.

But John has a big mouth; he runs afoul of paranoid and crazy Herod Antipas and finds himself in prison. How hard would it be for Jesus to open the prison and set John free? Jesus wouldn’t even have to be there—he could have done it from a remote site, sort of like a first century wireless connection. But Jesus doesn’t work that miracle or any other, and John’s head is soon presented to Salome on a platter.

The randomness of the miracles must have struck Jesus’s followers then as powerfully as their apparent absence strikes us now. Miracles were no more predictable or formulaic in Jesus’s day than they are now. I suspect this is one of the reasons Jesus frequently used to tell those who received or observed miracles not to tell anyone (a directive that was usually disobeyed immediately). Following Jesus in the flesh would not have clarified the miracles confusion any more than following Jesus now. So the question remains—what to do about the miracles (or absence of them)?

A recent rereading of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead reminded me of a much healtheir and less stressful space concerning miracles, a space that I’ve begun learning to occasionally occupy over the past few years. In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Rev. Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy.

Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights 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.” Toward the end of the novel, Ames writes:

It has seemed to me sometimes as thought 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. . . . But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than we think. 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?

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.

Every week at my Episcopal church during the prayers of the people, the leader says “We thank you for all the blessings of this life. This week we are especially grateful for (individuals share personal thanksgivings).” It is always striking how few of us share our personal thanksgivings. Often at that point of the prayers, I often flash back over the week just past and conclude quickly that “nothing special happened.” That’s the attitude of someone who is unaware or chooses to be ignorant of the fact that everything is a blessing, that it’s all a miracle.

If I started expressing my thanks for everything that is truly miraculous—Jeanne, my sons, my dachshund Frieda, my love of my work, the beauty of autumn weather, and so on—I’d be filling in the blanks for several minutes. Some Sunday I’d like to be surprised at that point in the prayers as the congregation fills in the blanks for at least a full minute with our personal thanksgivings. As Rev. Ames writes, “Confusing as this world is, it is remarkable to consider what does abide in it.”

There is no one but us

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There are many aspects of the academic life that I love, but attending academic conferences is not one of them. Yet last weekend I found myself on an Amtrak Acela headed for a conference on Simone Weil, colloquywhere I would be reconnecting with some friends and colleagues as well as presenting a paper (the last one of the conference, usually the third rail of such events). After a four and a half hour train trip to Philadelphia, then another half hour on the regional train to the conference hotel, I was ready for dinner. My normal procedure would have been to take my tablet along and do a bit of paper grading, but both tablet and phone were in need of charging, so I headed to the onsite restaurant on the main hotel floor with Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, the reading assignment for the final meeting of my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium early the next week. At seventy-five pages, Dillard’s book was the perfect companion for dinner. With no electronic distractions and fortified by three fine craft beers and two appetizers, I read Dillard’s striking text from cover to cover, once again blown away by her unique ability to push me to places where I would just as soon not go.

Not much happens in Holy the Firm, a meditation on the beauty of the natural world as well as the many ways, both affirmative and devastating, in which it impresses and imprints itself on human beings. htfThe central event of the book is a private plane crash in which the face of Julie Norwich, a seven-year-old girl, is horribly burned. It is a classic WTF??? event, as Dillard expresses brilliantly.

We’re tossed broadcast into time like so much grass, some ravening god’s sweet hay. You wake up and a plane falls out of the sky . . . What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims?

I have spent almost a full semester not with my “Beauty and Violence” students asking the “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” question of whatever or whoever is greater than us and presumably responsible for some of the random violence and tragedy that surrounds us. A little kid with her face burned off? WTF??? indeed.

Dillard’s struggle with how to even shape a meaningful and appropriate question is eloquent, disturbing, and relentless. How are faithful people supposed to seek relationship with a God who is apparently oblivious to such events? “Where was God?” is frequently asked, a question that Dillard answers with truth rather than faith or hope. “We need reminding, not of what god can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel’s worth of sense into our days.” lawnThe truth of the matter, which the existence of  “flamefaced children” force us to confront, is that God does not appear to care.

We reel out love’s long line alone toward a god less lovable than a grasshead, who treats us less well than we treat our lawns. . . . Of faith I have nothing, only of truth; that this one god is a brute and traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen.

I expect my “Beauty and Violence” students to have a lot to say about this text in class this afternoon. We have worked hard all semester to challenge the traditional notions concerning God that are absolutely impotent when applied to Julie Norwich situations. Several authors have suggested that, for any number of reasons that are worthy of consideration and discussion, God is not omnipotent in relation to our world. Dillard nods toward such ideas throughout her work, including in Holy the Firm:

Faith would be that God is self-limited utterly by his creation—a contraction of the scope of his will; that he bound himself to time and its hazards and haps as a man would lash himself to a tree for love. That God’s works are as good as we make them. mangerThat God is helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen.

A God who creates out of love rather than power is limited in all of the ways that love places limitations on our actions concerning what we love. An intriguing possibility arising from alternative traditions in both Christianity and Judaism. But as my students and I have concluded regularly this semester, “We don’t know” is the most honest thing we can say when seeking to know the mind and intentions of the divine. And the follow-up, for persons of faith, is usually “Now what?”

As Dillard notes in the above passage, it appears that we clumsy, partially ignorant, well-intentioned but frequently failing human beings are how the divine gets into the world. And that, in many ways, is both empowering and worrisome.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us. There has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.

This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his prison cell awaiting execution by the Nazis,  writes to his best friend that “that we must live as people who manage our lives without God.” Because no cosmic source of answers and solutions is going to sweep in and set things straight. We’re it. “There is no one but us.”

The next morning as a couple dozen folks partook of standard conference breakfast fare waiting for the paper-presenting festivities to begin, I chatted briefly with Tomeu, the president of the academic group hosting the conference. Noting the absence of two annual regulars, I asked “Where is Jane? Where is Larry?” Both were on the list of papers to be presented over the next couple of days, and neither had been missing from any of the dozen or more of these conferences I’ve attended over the years. “Oh, you didn’t hear what happened?” Tomeu replied—“Jane fell last week and broke several bones.” “That’s awful!” I said—Jane is in her late seventies/early eighties and is rather frail. “And what happened to Larry is just terrible,” Tomeu continued.  sad angelLarry, one of the nicest people I have ever met, told me a year earlier about his beloved first grandson, showing me several photos of his pride and joy. Just last week, Tomeu said, Larry’s three-year-old grandson had choked on a marshmallow and could not breathe. By the time the marshmallow was dislodged, the child had been without oxygen for several minutes; in the hospital it became clear that he had suffered significant brain damage. The next day, Larry’s grandson died.

There’s nothing to say, other than oh my God. You want to scream A FUCKING MARSHMALLOW????, but in the end, no words are appropriate. I’ll tell this story to my students this afternoon, and Larry’s grandson will be the most recent example, joining Julie Norwich, of a “what the Sam Hill is going on?” complaint. It’s enough sometimes to turn one into an atheist. And yet here I, as I so often do, resonate with Annie Dillard—also from Holy the Firm.

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which Gpitino celticsod burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were.

Many years ago when Rick Pitino was coach of the Boston Celtics, he was often asked how long it would be before the Celtics returned to the glory to which spoiled New England basketball fans had become accustomed over the years. Pitino counselled patience, because “Larry Bird isn’t going to come walking through that door any time soon.” And neither is God. There is no one but us.

God and Darwin Walk into a Bar . . .

Several years ago I spent a sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute on the campus of a Benedictine university in the Midwest. Several of the Benedictines at the abbey on site were liaisons between the abbey and the institute, and were part of our regular lunches and discussions. Wilfred, one of the Benedictines, was recently retired from several decades of teaching physics at the university as well as the prep school nearby. During one lunch conversation Wilfred noted that “Darwin taught us more about God than all of the theologians put together.” I am in the final weeks of leading an Honors colloquium this semester; my students and I have discovered just how insightful Wilfred’s comment was.

The colloquium—“Beauty and Violence: The Problem of Natural Evil”—is an exploration of what we might be able to say about what is greater than us through close observation and study of the natural world. My students, the majority of whom are products of parochial school education, have found on an weekly basis that the God they were taught to believe in simply does not square very well with what we find in front of our faces. oasA central part of the course was two weeks with Darwin’s The Origin of Species, one of the most important books ever written. None of my students, even the two bio majors, had ever read the book—they just had heard a lot about it. I often challenge my students to put persons who supposedly disagree sharply about important matters in conversation with each other. So suppose God and Darwin walk into a bar. The Almighty orders his usual 21-year-old Balvenie neat (it’s an upscale bar), and Charles orders a rum and orange juice (really—he drank that). What might they talk about?

Darwin: I read the other day that between one-third and one-half of the people in the U.S. don’t believe in the theory of evolution. Why do people hate me so much?

God: That’s because they haven’t taken the time to have a drink with you! You have the same public relations problems that I have—people assume things and make judgments about us without ever taking the time to get to know us.

Darwin: I am aware, though, that a lot of good Christians believe that the theory of natural selection, if true, undermines many of the features that Christians traditionally have attributed to you.

God: Like what? I always find it sort of amusing when people get into fights over the details of my personality on the basis of third-hand and partial information.

Darwin: Oh, for instance that you are omnipotent and created the world with a specific plan in mind. Since chance and randomness are central features of evolution, an all-powerful God who plans all of the details of creation out ahead of time doesn’t fit evolution very well.I invented it

God: No kidding! But who ever said that I’m into control and planning in the first place?

Darwin: Uh . . . just about everyone? Put that together with your being all good, as well as omniscient, and the traditional portrait of God Almighty is pretty well filled out.

God: You tell me, Charles. Does that portrait strike you as anything like what you know me to be?

Darwin: Not everyone gets to have an occasional drink with you like I do. For the most part, the ideas that people have about you are guesswork and projections based on what they have direct access to. Your followers, for instance, have thought for ages that observing the world around us can help us intelligently speculate about what you are like. And the theory of evolution didn’t help.

God: Why not?

Darwin: All I can do is tell you how the theory of natural selection affected my own belief in you over the decades that I was developing the theory. The more I studied the natural world, the more appalled I was by the violence embedded in every part of it, along with the extraordinary beauty and diversity of living things. Then Annie, my eldest and favorite daughter died after a long illness, despite my wthank god for darwinife’s and my prayers and the continuing efforts of the best medical people. I tried for many years to square my own experiences and knowledge with what I was supposed to believe about God. An omniscient and omnipotent God who allows pain and suffering to run amok throughout creation? I just could not believe in a God like that anymore.

God: Good, because I don’t believe in that God either. But you’re no atheist. An atheist could not have written your final lines in The Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . having been breathed into a few forms or into one; and whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin: That was inspired, wasn’t it? I think I’m an agnostic—I just don’t know what to think about God—you, I mean. Having a drink with you makes you seem so normal, but as soon as you’re gone I have far more questions than answers.

God: But that’s a good thing. A rabbi I know says that he would rather be on earth with the questions than in heaven with the answers.

Darwin: Really? But what are we supposed to do when what we thought we knew about you just doesn’t fit with what we are learning about ourselves and the world around us?

God: I always say that if you don’t like the answers you are getting to your questions, change the questions! Forget for a minute everything you’ve ever been told about what I’m like and start over. Let’s suppose that your theory of evolution by natural selection is largely correct (it is, by the way). On the basis of what that theory tells you about the world, what might you speculate about me?

Darwin: My first guess is that you like change more than stability, and novelty more than the familiar. Annie Dillard, who is almost as astute an observer of the natural world as I am, wrote that “not only did the creator create everything, but he is apt to create anything. God and evolutionHe’ll stop at nothing. There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say: ‘Now, that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’” I’d guess you also favor process over finality and imperfection over perfection.

God: And why would I value imperfection over perfection?

Darwin: Because as every artist knows, imperfections are fundamentally necessary to beauty. Charles Baudelaire wrote that “That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity–that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.”

God: And Baudelaire was pretty good, wasn’t he? This reminds me of something a physicist-turned-Anglican-priest said recently in an interview: “God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity.” John Polkinghorne is right, because I really am more like Ella Fitzgerald than Beethoven.

Darwin: Most importantly, you apparently are committed to freedom and creativity above everything else—not just in human beings, but in everything. Within very broad parameters, life never stops recreating itself in new forms.teilhard

God: One of my favorite guys, Teilhard de Chardin (how can you not like a Jesuit paleontologist?) hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “Properly speaking, God does not make: He makes things make themselves.” But of course this is risky . . .

Darwin: No kidding! Freedom, open-endedness, radical creativity, a “hands off” attitude—that raises a whole bunch of other questions: the problem of evil, is there a point to all of this, what faith amounts to, can science and religion cooperate . . .

God: Stop! Stop! I’m not sure of the answers to some of those questions myself! (checks his phone)god so loved—Shit! Look what time it is! Can you pick up the tab this time, Charles? I forgot my wallet back home . . .

Darwin: Again? Okay, but now you owe me big time . . .

God: In more ways than you know. Wilfred was right. You’ve taught people more about me than all of the theologians put together!

Getting Ready for the Apocalypse

A colleague and friend from the English department contacted me a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in developing a team-taught course with him to be taught for the first time in the Spring 2018 semester. This is one of the things I love about teaching at my college. Because the core program at the center of our extensive core curriculum–a program that I directed for the four years that ended just before my sabbatical last year–is taught by teams of colleagues from all over campus, the opportunities for collaboration across disciplines are abundant, as are the chances to create new courses from scratch. My colleague, with whom I taught for a semester several years ago during his first semester at the college, suggested to me that we create a course called “Apocalypse,” which we eventually described in our official proposal as follows:

This colloquium asks students to think about how civilization – and even humanity itself – might end.  With a bang? A whimper? A rapture? A zombie apocalypse? Visions of the destruction of civilization are currently experiencing a renaissance, from literature to television, film, and video games.  The “Apocalypse” colloquium is designed to connect this contemporary moment with the long tradition of apocalyptic writing and thinking.  Since their appearance, human beings have expressed their fears and hopes about the end of the world.  By asking students to think about the end of civilization and its aftermaths, we invite them to reconsider some of the fundamental questions their earlier core classes:  what is civilization? what responsibilities do human beings have to each other? what role does the divine play in promoting moral behavior? what is virtue, and does it apply in all circumstances? what things are essential in life? At a time when a poor internet connection or missed flight or speeding ticket can seem like a minor catastrophe, it can be instructive to imagine life in a world without electricity, planes, cars, police, or laws.

Truth be told, this topic is well outside my areas of expertise–I agreed to develop the course with my colleague because I thought it would be fun to teach with him again. In addition, I do have some experience with apocalyptic thinking–I was raised in it.

A new HBO miniseries called “The Leftovers” began a few years ago. TLindelof-The-Leftovers-HBOhis is the sort of series that I usually have no interest in—something weird has happened (like a huge invisible dome randomly dropping on top of a town) and the entertainment of the series is to see how people deal with the new situation. As my father would have said, it’s fun to observe a cow’s reaction to a new barn door. Shows with such premises are generally too Stephen King-ish for my taste. But the idea kernel behind “The Leftovers” is different.video-the-leftovers-trailer-shows-us-what-the-rapture-looks-like On a seemingly unimportant day, October 14th to be exact, millions of people worldwide inexplicably disappear into thin air. Here one moment, gone the next. The first episode of “The Leftovers” drops us three years later into a small Pennsylvania community as they prepare for a third year anniversary celebration (wake? remembrance?) of the dozens of friends and family members who evaporated on October 14. So what makes this bizarre premise any more interesting than a giant dome falling out of the sky? This one hits close to home, because in the parlance of the people I grew up with, the October 14 event that is at the heart of this show is the Rapture.

rapture_1_I don’t know if “Rapture Obsession” is an official medical diagnosis, but whether it is or not my family, my church, and just about everyone I knew growing up had it. In spades. The basic idea is simple—Jesus is coming back. And when he does, he’s going to take those who believe in him, who have “accepted Christ as their personal savior,” with him back to heaven (the Rapture) and leave the billions of unraptured losers here on earth for a seven-year period known as the Tribulation during which, literally, all hell will break loose. Armageddon. The Antichrist. The Apocalypse. All of these are triggered by the massive in-gathering of the faithful. At least in my youthful understanding, the primary reason to put up with all of the restrictions, limitations, and general annoyance of being a Christian was to guarantee that one is going and not staying when the Rapture occurs. Not that there was any solid guarantee that I was “in” rather than “out.” I spent many panicked moments as a youngster when my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be thinking that the Rapture had occurred and I was screwed.

Where did people get such a ridiculous idea from? The textual evidence in the Bible, surprisingly, is relatively thin and mixed at best. There are a few cryptic comments in the Gospels, a few more hints in Paul’s letters, but the bulk of the relevant material is in the Bible-closing Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew scriptures (as read through Christian filters), material containing predictions so cryptic and visions so strange as to suggest that the authors were on hallucinogenics. 375px-Tribulation_views_svgThere’s enough there to draw one’s attention if one is so inclined, but not enough for anyone to be sure about what the texts actually mean.

But that didn’t stop my church community from being sure as hell (!) that we were in and just about everyone else (including Catholics, Universalists, and tons of other people who claimed to be Christians) was out. There was plenty of debate about the details. We believed that the Rapture would be the official kick-off of the Tribulation (we were “Pre-Trib” people), but some Rapture believers thought it would happen half-way through the Tribulation (“Mid-Trib”) and some even thought it would happen at the end, just before the Final Judgment (“Post-Trib”—I never saw the point of a Post-Trib Rapture). Pastors preached on it, Bible scholars and experts gave week-long conferences piggy-backed on revivals (my Dad was one of these experts), The_Late,_Great_Planet_Earth_coverand we all went into a tizzy when in 1970 evangelical minister Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, called “the number one non-fiction bestseller of the decade” by the New York Times, exploded on the scene. And this is not a dated phenomenon. Hal Lindsey’1972 bestselling sequel had the eye-catching title Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth; a brief Internet search or a Sunday road trip to the closest megachurch will confirm that Rapture mania is also alive and well on planet Earth. “The Leftovers” is likely to be a big hit.

perrotta__120628065425-275x411I first became aware of the series when Tom Perotta, whose novel the series is based on, made the rounds of my favorite NPR shows the week before its debut. In one of the interviews, Perotta said that part of his research for the book was living as an embedded person in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian community and church for a certain amount of time, sort of like how the Soviet spies in “The Americans” live embedded in Maryland as a typical middle-class 1980s American couple. Assuming that, as always, the book would be better than the television series (it is), I ordered The Leftovers, published in 2011, from Amazon. It is clear from the outset that Perotta had done his homework well; on page 3 of the novel’s Prologue, the narrator describes that, as one might expect, there is a great deal of confusion and debate about “what just happened” in the weeks following October 14th—was it the Rapture or not? Many argued that it couldn’t have been.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th—Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were—hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. left-behind-people-on-rapture-dayAs far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

My church would have been at the forefront of those who denied that this was the Rapture on theological grounds. It would be understandable if not everyone in our congregation was raptured—not everyone was a good enough Christian. Those in the inner circle would have even been happy to predict who was not sufficiently up to snuff. But non-Christians? Atheists? Catholics, for God’s sake? Underlying Rapture obsession and mania is the very familiar human attempt to put God in a box, to figure out ahead of time what God is up to, what God is like, and what God likes best—then to act accordingly. A rapture such as fictionalized in The Leftovers is such an affront to our best efforts at putting the divine in a straitjacket that it has to be rejected as something other than the real thing. young_earthMaybe God threw this pseudo-rapture into the mix early just to test our faith, I can hear someone suggesting, sort of like God planted dinosaur fossils and made the earth appear to be several billion years old rather than the few thousand that the Bible says, just to fuck us up (for a good reason, of course).

Truth be told, though, the random harvest described in The Leftovers sounds exactly like something God might do, once as many human boxes and straitjackets for the divine as possible are left behind. God’s apparent randomness and lack of respect for our human obsession with fairness and justice is on display everywhere. It is entirely understandable that Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? has been a record-breaking bestseller. The very process of natural selection that has and continues to produce the vast diversity of living things is energized by randomness and chance. For those who insist on going to their favorite sacred text to get a handle on the divine, you need go no further than Jesus’ observations that “it rains on the just and the unjust” and “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Every time we believe we have God figured out, it is good to remember that if you want to give God a good laugh, just tell her your plans.when-will-the-rapture-happen-flowchart

Lent is for Lovers

Each of the past three or four years on this blog, I have posted the same essay on Ash Wednesday: “Why Lent is a Bad Idea.”

Beauty for Ashes, or why Lent is a bad idea

This has occasionally subjected me to a certain amount of push back from my Catholic friends, but I’ve stood firm by my attitudes and arguments. But over the past couple of weeks, my lovely  Jeanne and I have had an ongoing conversation about Lent that has caused me to start rethinking my anti-Lenten attitudes.

It all started early one recent Saturday morning. It’s 5:30 in the morning (on Saturday, mind you), my eyelids are resisting the inevitable and Jeanne asks me, “What is Your Relationship with Lent?!”  She’s been up taking care of the dogs, getting her coffee and obviously thinking about her relationship with Lent. Oh, the joys of being married to an extrovert. Jeanne manages to get a few mumbles out of me concerning my bad Lenten attitudes; later in the morning, she writes at the computer for fifteen minutes or so, then sends me via email attachment her composition entitled “Thank God it’s Lent,” clearly intended for my blog consideration, in which she explains her own evolving relationship with Lent. With minimal changes and occasional commentary from me, here’s what she wrote:

“Jeanne was a cradle Roman Catholic.  She surpassed many of her fellow young Catholics by being a daily communicant as a child, pursuing nunship,

I find the idea of my extroverted wife as a nun very amusing, and can imagine the inhabitants of the convent singing, as in The Sound of Music, “How do you solve a problem like Jeanne?”

working as a Minister of Music, falling in love with two seminarians at different growth phases (and winding up with a philosopher) and finally leaving the Roman tradition for a simple relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or as she likes to call the Holy Spirit, Big Bird).

I know both of these seminarians, and am thankful they both had the good sense to choose the church over the love of my life—it would have been awkward when I met her thirty years ago if she had been married to one of them.

She’s spent her entire life it seems wrestling with the Godhead.  In fact, she has often described her relationship with God using the image of a boxing ring.  She and Jesus in the center, Jesus’ hand on her head, Jeanne’s fists flailing at the air. Jesus waiting for Jeanne to tire out, Jeanne never taking the mat.”

Jeanne calls this “Brooklyn spirituality,” which is about as far from my own type of spirituality as one can get. Still, one of the reasons our three-decade union of opposites has worked is that we respect the importance and value of each other’s very different attempts to figure out what the divine is up to.

“Jeanne came to believe that ‘If God is love, then Lent isn’t about giving things up or deprivation. It is about loving.’  She continued, ‘If I give something up because it is a sin I’m not moving toward God and myself, because the action is a negation.  But if I accept that what I’m giving up is something that isn’t good for me in the first place, then giving it up is truly loving myself. I’m showing gratitude to God and love for myself as His temple, His creation.’”

With allowance for my obvious bias in favor of anything Jeanne says, this is a profound insight. My problem with Lent has always been that it provides an opportunity for “spirituality on the cheap.” Anyone can give something up for forty days, especially if it produces a false sense of spiritual satisfaction. Jeanne’s insight is that I have this all wrong (a point she makes frequently to me). Lent provides an opportunity to deliberately do something that all of us regularly neglect: Taking care of and loving ourselves as if we mattered. Because we do. To wrap up, Jeanne—as is her custom—got direct and honest.

“To flesh this out, Jeanne has battled with food since birth, or at least that’s how it seems.  Her latest struggle is with diet drinks, coffee—which is her favored delivery system for sugar substitute and cream—and alcohol!  She loves her vodka.

About as much as I love single malt scotch and dark beer. 

“She’s thinking of giving these up for Lent because

  1. They are not good for her body,
  2. They are not good for her mind, and
  3. They are not good for her soul.

Yet, she drinks them.  To honor her new way of thinking about Lent, she has decided to embrace Love by doing what is good for her body, mind and soul.  Now if she could only grasp that going to the gym is also about loving herself!”

These are good decisions–plus, this means that for the next forty days Jeanne won’t be drinking any of my dark beer.

On this Ash Wednesday, the Lenten question for each of us is not “What should I give up for Lent in order to feel deprived, and therefore more spiritual or holy?” The question rather is “Do I dare treat myself as if I matter?” or “Am I willing to risk seeing myself as valued and loved in the manner that God sees me?” If the answer to this is “yes,” then what are the ways in which I habitually treat myself as if I did not matter? Am I willing to deliberately suspend those activities, even for a limited time? Am I willing, with Big Bird’s help, to take on a new Lenten experiment—loving myself?

A Crooked Faith

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. Immanuel Kant

I love many kinds of music, but classical music is my first love. I was classically trained on the piano from age four through high school; my first piano teacher, a Julliard graduate who somehow ended up in northern Vermont teaching piano, was also the organist for the North Country Chorus, a volunteer choral group that was, in the estimation of Vermonters at the time, our version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every year the North Country Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah, which became—and still is—my favorite classical composition. Its music is inspired, of course, but in addition its settings of texts from the King James translation of both the Old and New Testaments were an artistic gift to a kid who was forced to study and memorize significant portions of the Bible from an early age. Even today, decades later, I hear Handel’s glorious music every time I encounter a passage from Scripture that is included in the libretto of Messiah.

After an instrumental introduction, Messiah begins with a tenor recitative and aria set to prophetic texts from the first verses of Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This is followed by the first chorus:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Handel’s music is so beautiful that it is possible to miss the power and promise of the text: When God arrives on the scene, messes get cleaned up, crooked things get straightened out, imperfections are made perfect, and problems get solved. A wonderful promise—but not one that squares with my experience.

I was reminded of these texts and this music as I read and responded to the Facebook comments on a recent blog post that a friend shared on a progressive Christian Facebook page that she administers. The back-and-forth started innocently enough:

  • Him: From the last couple of posts you have made it seems as if you are questioning your faith that’s my thought.
  • Me: I’m ALWAYS questioning my faith! In my understanding, that’s perhaps the key factor that keeps faith alive and prevents it from becoming rigid and inflexible. A favorite writer of mine says that the opposite of faith is certainty–doubt is an indispensable part of a vibrant faith.

In a quick succession of posts, the commenter then sought to set my crooked ideas straight:

  • Him: The word of God stands firm it is not flexible in no way form or fashion And to quote anything from a man’s corruptible heart against it is sin there’s no two ways about it . . . If you always question your faith you are lost and I feel for you you can’t ride the fence or change his word to suit your will . It is what it is period.

Well, now. Before I had the opportunity to say something snarky and self-righteous in response to this clearly misguided, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist person, another commenter posted that she appreciates my posts because they help her “grow and learn,” suggesting to the first commenter that he should “find something more conservative.”

  • Him: I’m a progressive liberal in politics thank you but first and foremost I’m a true Christian to the best of my ability.
  • Me: I also am a progressive liberal in my politics and seek to be a true Christian to the best of my ability. The difference perhaps lies in our understanding of what “true Christian” means. I completely reject the idea that it requires inflexibility, rigidity, or being in service to a specific interpretation of texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
  • Him (after some further pushback from others in the conversation thread): I’m not a conservative in no way but yes I am seeing this page for what it truly is I will see myself out. I will pray for you and those like you who can’t accept the truth of the Bible for what it is and maybe one day you will see your personal opinion on what you want the Bible to mean is in fact wrong. Good day.

I’ve been involved in this sort of conversation many times over the years, and they just about always end this way, with the conservative Christian promising to pray for the liberal “Christian” to see the truth and thereby escape hellfire and damnation, as the liberal immediately rehearses how he will judgmentally and condescendingly share this story with his fellow progressive friends at the first opportunity. But a half hour or so later, the commenter posted one more time, offering some well-intentioned and much appreciated scriptural advice.

  • Him: I leave you with one verse and I promise I will not persist here any further. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
  • Me: Thanks–this is a favorite of mine as well. Except that I prefer the more accurate translation of the final clause: “And he will direct your paths.” Faith is not a straight line–it’s an adventure that takes a person in many unexpected directions.

When Immanuel Kant wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” he was observing, at the beginning of a discussion of his moral theory, just how great the challenge of getting human beings to morally straighten themselves out actually is. Perhaps it is reflective of my natural perversity when I say that I sort of like the crooked timber of humanity. The best moral theories take human beings as we are rather than as the theorist idealistically wants us to be. The same can be said for faith. My own faith is rooted in my embrace of the central, incarnational idea of Christianity: God became human—and still does. The Christian story is not about God straightening human beings out, but rather is about God using our natural human bends, twists, and turns.

Reading the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did using this lens reveals the crooked timber that we all know to be definitive of being human. Christians love to focus on the loving, generous, eloquent, patient, courageous Son of God that we find on every page and tend to overlook other things we discover about Jesus. He got tired, could be curt and dismissive (even to his mother), and was occasionally sarcastic, impatient, and judgmental. He was a real human being, in other words, with all the lack-of-straightness that involves. And that’s good news, since it means that I don’t have to “straighten up” or “sit up straight,” as various authorities used to demand from me, in order to be a bearer of the divine in the world. God is often just around the next corner of our crooked paths.

God Might Actually Enjoy Us

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

In the academic world, teaching schedules are usually planned and assigned more than a year in advance; accordingly, I found out over a month ago what I will be teaching during the Spring 2018 semester. One of my assigned classes is “Contemporary Women Philosophers,” a course  I team-taught once a number of years ago and specifically requested when our preferences for the next academic year were solicited, so I’m pumped. I mentioned this to a colleague as we waited for our monthly department meeting a couple of weeks ago; my colleague asked “which philosophers are you going to use?” Off the top of my head I mentioned Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Hannah Arendt . . . “What about Marilynne Robinson?” he asked. Great idea–Robinson’s essays and fiction are brilliant, and she happens to be the author of the book that is closest to perfect of any I have read.

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Amen.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights 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.”

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. dillardYou 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 for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.

I Was a Stranger

A bit over a year ago, in the midst of the Presidential campaign that no one will ever forget, I found myself part of a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in. On that thread, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. The person she was likening to the exterminator in her analogy is now the President; last Friday he issued an executive order temporarily suspending immigration to this country, prohibiting immigration indefinitely from certain countries, and setting off a flurry of lawsuits, protests, and other sorts of push back. In the midst of it, I was reminded of a story from ancient Greek mythology thousands of years ago that raises the very challenging issues and questions that we find ourselves grappling with.

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen not long ago. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, the students offered various suggestions, ranging from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. A portion of Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, the people whom we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

Our former President once closed a prime time speech on immigration with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in such passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

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.