Category Archives: belief

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The Designer God Project

Jean-Antoine Houdon ~ Voltaire[1]Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. In truth, we invent God all the time, often with seeming disregard as to whether the God we have invented actually exists or not. Anne Lamott suggests that we can be pretty sure that we have created God in our own image if it turns out that God likes all the people and things that we like and dislikes all the people and things that we dislike. So how am I, or how is any God-believer, supposed to tell whether the God I believe in exists in reality, or exists simply as a figment of my self-obsessed imagination? I’m having the opportunity to explore these issues with my students early this semester, and the process has been both dynamic and illuminating.

The texts for an early seminar last semester in the interdisciplinary program I both teach in and direct was the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis and the first twenty-four of Exodus.gen-ex[1] It is often a challenge to get freshmen to discuss anything in seminar in the early weeks of their first semester; getting a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, most of whom are products of twelve years of parochial education, to talk about the Bible is even more difficult. But I’ve been doing this for a while and have a lot of tricks. After assuring them that no one has ever been struck dead in any of my classes for speaking honestly about their reactions to what they’ve read in a “sacred text,” a few brave souls began to admit that the God of these Old Testament stories is quite different from the God they had been taught to believe in. This God frequently seems insecure, petty, unfair, and arbitrary—what’s up with that??

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that a thought experiment was in order. I said “Okay, if you don’t like the God of Genesis and Exodus, let’s work for a while on what we do want God to be and to act like. Let’s create a ‘Designer God’—you get to create God from scratch. Write in your notebooks for ten minutes on the following topic: Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics. Come up with three characteristics and explain why any God worth believing in would have to have them. Go.”

After the writing portion of the thought experiment, the students compared notes and found that the God they had just designed individually was pretty similar from person to person. As they offered their favored divine characteristics, I wrote the list on the board:

Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics:

Forgiving

Trustworthy

Understanding

Fair/Just

Loving (at least to those who deserve to be loved)

Powerful

Dependable

All-Knowing

Not a micromanager

As we discussed selected characteristics on the list, a number of issues were revealed.

Fairness and justice: The biggest problem the students had with the Old Testament God is that this is a God who plays favorites. 172663381_640[1]Any God worth believing in should treat everyone the same. “Why?” I asked. Do all of you treat everyone the same? Do you like the seven billion plus people in the world the same? Do you even like the few dozen people who you know really well the same? They had to admit that they didn’t. “Then why do you expect God to do something that you make no attempt to do?” I wondered. The students struggled for an answer other than that God is God and we’re not—the divine should be held to a higher standard than we are, although where that standard would come from other than God they weren’t sure.

images[6]Love and forgiveness: At first, the idea was that any God worth believing in should be loving. Period. “Even mass murderers, drug dealers and child abusers?” I asked. Well, several thought, we need to qualify this love thing a bit. God should love those who deserve it, or those who believe in God, but not everyone indiscriminately. Love that is equally spread everywhere without qualification is cheapened somehow. God’s love is transactional, in other words. I do this, God responds with love.

Power: Omnipotence turned out to be a big one—no God worth believing in is wimpy or weak. “But God in Genesis and Exodus is powerful and has no problem exhibiting that power on a regular basis. And you didn’t like thatomnipotent[1],” I reminded them. As it turned out, Designer God should be powerful but should not be all about using that power all the time. “When is it appropriate for God to use that divine power?” “Whenever I or my group is in trouble or needs something” was the most common response. So you want God to be like a 9-1-1 operator or a lifeline on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That didn’t sound right, but maybe so. That led to another Designer God must-have trait.

Dependability: God needs to “be there” was the way that many students put it. “Dependable” and “trustworthy” were synonyms in this discussion. “Being there” means on call, though—the students clearly were not interested in a proactive God that demanded much of them. When things are going badly, listen up and answer my prayers. When things are going well, leave me the hell alone. No-Micromanage-150x150[1]The students were largely in agreement when I reframed this trait as a requirement that God not be a micro-manager. An overall plan for my life is fine, but I want to have a great deal of choice in terms of how I choose to find out about and pursue that plan (even freedom not to follow that plan if I so choose).

As we entered the last half hour of seminar, I asked everyone to take a mental step back and look at the list of Designer God characteristics that we had been discussing. 1834269-a-macro-of-santa-claus-face[1]Truth be told, they looked like the characteristics of a combination of a non-interfering Santa Claus and my students’ parents on a good day. Or the personality traits of the pleasant, vanilla God they had been taught to believe in. The question to ask, I suggested “What evidence is there that the God you have just designed actually exists?” Is there any evidence that these are the character traits of the divine, or are these simply a projection of what we want to believe in? A careful and clear consideration of the world we actually live in reveals that for every piece of evidence supporting the existence of the Designer God, an equally obvious piece of evidence suggests either the Designer God’s non-existence, or—perhaps more challenging—that whatever God is, God is something quite mysterious, exhibiting characteristics not on our list, and well outside our comfort zones. puppet[1]The Designer God Project was a two-hour exercise in creating God in our own image. And maybe that’s where most of us would like to stay. We’re like the Israelites in Exodus who get the shit scared out of them when God actually talks to them directly. They are very uncomfortable with the noise, the lightening, the fire, and the obvious power. Their response? “Moses, you go talk to God and tell us what God wants. We can deal with you, but don’t want to deal with that.”

The writer of Hebrews suggests that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God. Something created in my own image is far more comfortable, predictable, and manageable. Forrest-Gump1[1]The uncomfortable thing about adventuring with a real God rather than hanging out with a projection of myself is that it opens the door to continual growth and surprise and blows the doors off my comfort zone. Walking with God is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the six-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, at a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar last week, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper a few days ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid

Hopeful Thinking

I have been reminded of the academic annual cycle over the past few weeks as I notice that exactly a year ago events in my professional life were following exactly the same track as they are this year. Last year we had a faculty search in progress in my department–this year we do as well. Last year the search got me to thinking . . . about hope.

For an academic department seeking to hire a new faculty colleague for the next academic year starting in September, January and February are busy months. These are the months during which finalists are chosen, interviews are conducted, and offers are made. I am currently a member of a four-person search committee for such a new hire in my department; GPSVisionMissionValuesV2we have narrowed the several dozen candidates down to six semifinalists, three of whom will be chosen as finalists for on-campus interviews at the next department meeting. As I reviewed the various dossiers today, something jumped out at me in a semifinalist’s written response to the college mission statement (required of all semifinalists) that I had either missed or ignored the first time through. The candidate writes that “A dear friend and colleague with whom I shared an office for many years once confided in me that he could hardly believe that I was really religious, for I seemed like such a reasonable man. ‘And religious belief, as we know, is a kind of pathological state. Religion is good for children, as a means to reinforce morals; but in adults, belief in God is a sign of psychological disorder.’”

true-detective1In keeping with the often haphazard workings of my brain, I was immediately reminded of the most recent episode of HBO’s new series “True Detective.” The series is set in southern Louisiana, near the Texas border. Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are detective partners, but could not be more different. Hart has a well-developed “good ole boy” persona which masks a number of personal quirks and demons that are slowly being revealed, while Cohle wears his intelligence, pessimism and misanthropy on his sleeve. Their pursuit of a serial and ritualistic killer brings them to a tent revival meeting, where from the back they observe and discuss a gathering of a hundred or so believers held in rapt attention by the preacher at the front.

Screen-Shot-2014-01-26-at-7.30.40-PMRust: What do you think the average IQ of this group is?

Marty: Can you see Texas up there on your high horse? What do you know about these people?

Rust: Just observation and deduction. I see a propensity for obesity, poverty, a yen for fairy tales. Folks putting what bucks they do have into a wicker basket being passed around. Safe to say nobody here’s going to be splitting the atom, Marty.

Marty: See that? Your fuckin’ attitude. Not everybody wants to sit around in an empty room and get off on murder manuals. Some folks enjoy community, the common good.

Rust: If the common good’s got to make up fairy tales, it’s not good for anybody.

Marty: Can you imagine if people didn’t believe, the things they would get up to?

Rust: The same things they do now, just out in the open.

Marty: Bullshit. It would be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery, and you know it.

screen-shot-2013-11-14-at-2-52-24-pm.png w=585Rust: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

Marty: I guess your judgment is infallible, piece of shit wise. Do you think your notebook is a stone tablet?

Rust: What’s it say about a life that you got to get together, tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day. What’s that say about your reality, Marty? Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain and dulls critical thinking.

Marty: I don’t use ten-dollar words as much as you, but for someone who sees no point in existence, you sure fret about it an awful lot. And you still sound panicked.

Ihobbesn one short sequence, Hart and Cohle get to the core of religious belief. Is it an “opiate of the masses,” a haven for shallow thinking individuals who seek comfort, community, and an escape from their lousy lives, or perhaps the most dependable firewall against a state of nature that would, as Thomas Hobbes put it, be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”? Or is it something else altogether? There is a lot of food for thought in this brief exchange—no wonder I love our current golden age of television. It sure beats the hell out of the GilligansIslandCast_310x310 “Gilligan’s Island” and “Bonanza” of my youth.

I have been asked occasionally by religious folk how I can be both a person of faith and a philosopher; because I have not generally worn my faith on my sleeve I have yet to be asked the same question by a non-believer. But no matter who is asking the question, the assumptions remain the same—reason and faith don’t naturally go together. The job applicant’s office mate and Rust Cohle both assume that common sense and clear thinking rule out what is presumed to be at the heart of all religious belief—the sort of magical and wishful thinking I considered and rejected in one of my recent posts on this blog.

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking does an end run on the hard work of grappling with how things actually are, replacing such work with wishful thinking and unsubstantiated hopes.

But as Jeanne commented in response to my post on magical thinking, calling everything that cannot be reduced to empirical facts “magical thinking” is a bit “harsh.” Is there no place for hope in the life of a thinking, rational person? Is it never legitimate to hope for and believe in something that cannot be fully substantiated with a combination of past experience and present available facts and data? This is perhaps the central theme of most everything facebook_cubic_logoI’ve written over the past few years, and while its importance to me has not diminished, neither have I come to any settled or formulaic answers. I recently, against my better judgment, participated briefly in a Facebook conversation in which one person challenged anyone to provide “one single, solid piece of evidence that he or she has ever had an encounter with God.” It was very clear from the context of this challenge and the previous discussion that this person was defining “evidence” very narrowly—something tangible and objective that everyone could agree upon.

TFM3x300005orihe evidence that grounds my faith is not of that sort. I continually rely on the definition of faith from the Book of Hebrews, which says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” What do I hope for? That there is a meaning to it all, that underneath the apparent chaos and meaninglessness of reality there is a vein of purpose that can be mined. Dorothy Allison puts it well:

There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.

My faith gives substance to this hope by encouraging me to accept as “evidence” in support of the meaning and purpose I hope for all sorts of things—experiences, intuitions, feelings—that do not fit neatly within the very narrow definition of “evidence” that the Rust Cohle’s of the world insist upon. Shakespeare-More-Things1601No better expression of an expanded openness to the abundant evidence related to hope has ever been written than in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When Horatio has difficulty believing that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is real, Hamlet replies that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” And to misquote another famous line, faith “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.” In the end, the best evidence that hopeful thinking is not magical thinking is a changed life. An encounter with the divine often can only be communicated on a “come and see” basis. In john-9John 9, a formerly blind man whose vision has been restored by Jesus finds himself being grilled by the Pharisee authorities. Who did this? How did he do it? Don’t you know that we have already concluded that this Jesus person is a sinner? The man simply responds “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.” Experience trumps fact every time.

Magical Thinking

There must be something about the end of January and named snowstorms. This year it is Juno–exactly a year ago it was Janus. I’m making plans for another mega shoveling event (Jupiter, Jorge, Jockstrap or something like that) in late January 2016, since clearly there’s a pattern here. Or maybe that’s just magical thinking . . . as I considered exactly a year ago.

indexI am a huge college basketball fan. Actually, I am a huge Providence College Friars fan, not surprising since I have taught at Providence College and lived in Providence for nineteen years and counting. There’s nothing like Division One college basketball—I have had two season tickets to Friars games for nineteen years and have probably missed no more than a dozen home games (except for the semester I was in Minnesota on sabbatical) during those nineteen years. Last week I drove through Snowstorm Janus to an evening game at the dunkin-donuts-center-1Dunkin’ Donuts Center, then posted smugly on Facebook “I am in my seat at the Dunk” for all of my Facebook acquaintances who consider themselves to be “fans” to read and be shamed by.

Early in our time here in Providence, I received a Friars sweatshirt for Christmas. I particularly liked it because it was a turtleneck sweatshirt. I like turtlenecks. They are an essential part of a professor’s winter wardrobe (usually worn with a $_35corduroy jacket, an even more indispensable sartorial item—I have five). The comfort and warmth of this sweatshirt, along with its understated “Providence Friars” on the front, made it a “must wear” item for every home game.

 This item of clothing took on even greater importance when I realized, after several home games, that the Friars had never lost a home game that I attended wearing the sweatshirt. So, of course, I continued wearing it to home games and the Friars kept winning. This continued for more than one season, until on the way to a game one evening my son Justin noted that even though I do not have an extensive wardrobe, it was not necessary to wear the same damn thing to every game (especially since I also owned a hwl set=sku[20233460],c[2],w[500],h[375]&load=url[file product]T-shirt or two with the Friars logo). I then let him in on the secret: “We have never lost a game that I attended wearing this sweatshirt.” I felt that I had let my son in on one of the best-kept secrets of the universe, but he simply responded “Yes we have, Dad.” I vigorously denied his claim, of course, but to no avail. “You were wearing it at the final home game last year when Pittsburgh kicked our ass, and at the game before that when we lost in overtime to Villanova!” It sucks to have someone with total recall of trivial facts in the family—I knew better than to challenge his memory, since every time I have done so in the past I have been proven wrong. Thinking back, I speculated that Jeanne must have (without my knowledge) washed the sweatshirt for the first time ever before last year’s Villanova game and inadvertently washed away the secret substance that guaranteed Friars wins.

magical%20thinking%20button[1]I had been a victim of magical thinking—the identification of causal relationships between actions and events where scientific consensus says there are no such relationships. There is logical fallacy  describing this way of thinking with the very cool name “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” “After this, therefore because of this.” Since (at least according to my flawed memory) the Friars won every game that I wore my special sweatshirt to, I concluded that they must have won because I wore my special sweatshirt. Avid sports fans are notoriously susceptible to magical thinking—lucky clothes, coins, and ritualistic activities from what food and beverage is consumed on game day to the path driven to the sports bar all are treated as causal links to victory. But don’t scoff at or feel badly for the avid sports fans. All human beings are susceptible to magical thinking, often in areas of belief and activity far more serious than sporting events.

Adolf-Hitler-3009436 I am team-teaching a colloquium this semester that is rooted historically in 1930s and 40s Germany and the rise to power of the Nazis, and am learning that Adolf Hitler’s decision making throughout this period was energized almost exclusively by magical thinking. Believing that he had intuitive connections to truths and powers unavailable to others, Hitler cultivated the mystique and aura of a shaman, an aura that become more and more seductive and convincing to others as his actions over and over again led to seemingly “magical” results. As one scholar writes, “Hitler came to believe that he was blessed, that he was earmarked by Providence for a special mission. There was some kind of magical destiny for him.” Of course the destructive downside of such thinking is revealed when the conviction of a special destiny and connection to greater powers persists even when not verified by real world events. Magical thinking is answerable to no one other than the person doing the thinking, since it does an end run on logic, evidence and rational processes. As one of Hitler’s contemporaries described,

Hitler does not think in a logical and consistent fashion, gathering all available information pertinent to the problem, mapping out alternative courses of action, and then weighing the evidence pro and con for each of them before reaching a decision. His mental processes operate in reverse. Instead of studying a problem . . . he avoids it and occupies himself with other things until unconscious processes furnish him with a solution. Having the solution he then begins to look for facts that will prove that it is correct.

Hitler’s magical thinking was not  an aberration or evidence of psychosis or insanity. Although very few of us ever have the opportunity to use magical thinking as a basis for decision-making that affects millions of people directly, all of us are susceptible to it on a regular basis. Any time my belief in a connection between cause and effect is untouched by contrary data or information, magical thinking is involved. If I “know” that I am right even though I lack any reason to believe this other than my own “gut,” magical thinking is involved. imagesAnd whenever I believe that with an appropriate prayer, pious activity, meditative silence or good deed I can force the divine hand into producing a desired result, I am definitely infected with magical thinking.

Magical thinking is more pervasive in religious belief than any other sort. Religious belief for many is energized by the question of how to tap into divine power, to cultivate a relationship with what is greater than us. From prayers said in a certain way through rosary beads to donations to charitable organizations, virtually any practice can take on the aura of being the way to attract God’s attention, to make it most likely that the divine interest will be drawn toward my little corner of the universe. Vast numbers of books have been written concerning and dollars spent promoting the latest suggestions as to how to get God involved directly in my wishes and desires. The funny thing is that such practices and activities often seem to work. I prayed in a certain way for a person to be healed, for someone else to find a job, for a favored politician to win election—and it happens. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. images.2Those who promote or invent seemingly successful techniques for gaining God’s attention rise to the status of guru or spiritual giant, and everything they say, write, or do takes on special significance.

But crashing disappointment always comes and it turns out that the life of faith is not magic after all. There are as many days and weeks of slogging through an apparently empty desert of belief as there are mountain top experiences when it seems that God must have decided to channel divine energy directly through me. It turns out that whatever the divine is, it is not a slot machine, a formula to be solved, or an incantation to be performed. This is why Jesus resisted performing miracles on demand. He knew that magical thinking is powerfully seductive because it is easy, because it seems to free us from the challenging work of day to day seeking. maskros.jpg w=714Jesus likened the divine to the wind, which we cannot predict and which blows where and when it wants. The very air we breathe is infused with the divine. Everything is sacramental, but there are no sacred cows.

the jesus lizard

What I Would Love to Find

bird by bifdIn Bird by Bird, the best book on writing that I have read, Anne Lamott tells the writing wannabe to “write what you would love to find.” That’s great advice—but of course that means the prospective writer has to do a lot of reading. At least I do, since I often don’t know what I would “love to find” until I find it. When things get busy, when I tell myself that I don’t have the time to read anything other than what I’ve assigned my students for the week (since it’s always a good idea to be a class or two ahead of them), my blog writing begins to resonate like vibrations in an echo chamber or the sound of one hand clapping. one handWhen I tack a new paragraph at the beginning of an essay I wrote a year ago and call it a new essay, I know it’s time to find another hand to clap with.

In my current state of affairs, this happens during semester or summer break. Last summer was filled with reading multiple volumes of Scandinavian noir mysteries which provided me with new ways to consider the familiar. What would I discover during the all-too-short Christmas break between semesters that just ended? I have learned to trust the apparently random suggestions of friends and colleagues for new reading material over the years, and once again they delivered. Thanks to two friends, I have discovered two more authors to love and to use as new sparks of writing energy.

The first suggestion came from my friend and colleague Bill, who occupies the office directly across the hall from mine in our still-new cathedral to the humanities. Bill and I know each other well; we have taught on an interdisciplinary faculty team together, have frequently talked about pedagogical issues, and share the privilege (?) of having directed the program I currently run (he was the director before I was). abyssBill brings his sons to his office on occasion—they like to peek into my office to see the penguins. And Bill reads my blog. One morning not long ago he said “I’m reading a book you would like. It’s called My Bright Abyss; Christopher Wiman is a poet, but this is sort of a spiritual memoir. It’s tough reading at times, but he writes about the sort of things you write about.” On Bill’s recommendation I ordered it from Amazon, despite Wiman’s being a poet (I have frequently described myself as “poetry challenged”).

Boy was Bill right. One of the many things I love to find is well-trampled territory described as if the author just discovered it for the first time.

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions.

Ain’t it the truth? I call myself a “person of faith” regularly, but that makes faith sound like something that—once the decision is made—is a regular part of one’s daily apparel like shoes or underwear. But faith is much more ephemeral than that, something that Wiman captures perfectly. When Jesus asks Peter, whom he has just rescued from drowning at the end of Peter’s ill-fated effort to walk on water, doubt“Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” I’m hoping Peter answered (or at least thought) “Because I’m a human being and this faith thing is like a magic trick: Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Wiman also has little resonance with the notion of finding comfort in religious belief. My students often suggest that “comfort” is the main attraction of faith commitment: comfort that “all things work together for good” and comfort that in an afterlife “everything will work out.” The next time I hear that in a classroom discussion (or anywhere else), I’ll introduce this from My Bright Abyss:

shardChrist is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.

Imagine if Jesus had said that “following me will be like a shard of glass in your gut.” How many followers would that have attracted? Come to think of it, though, the gospels claim that Jesus said many things like that. We just tend to ignore them.

My other Christmas break discovery came to me when my good friend Marsue asked if I had ever read in the darkLearning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. “I want to get it for you,” she said, “but the last time I got you a book you already had it.” I had not read any of Taylor’s work, but her books have showed up frequently enough in the “Suggested Reading” on my Amazon Prime site (which I guess is generated based on what I have purchased in the past) that I have had this very book on my “Wish List” for a few months. Not wanting to undermine Marsue’s intended generosity, but taking this suggestion from a trusted friend seriously, I read three of Taylor’s other books over break. Not only have I found another literary soul mate, Jeanne is reading these books as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church is her memoir of how tending for her own spiritual health and growth required her leaving the active Episcopal priesthood, a story that I resonated with at many points. Her treatment of suffering and the book of Job in altarAn Altar in the World, however, was unforgettable, beginning with her memorable description of why pain and suffering are not logical puzzles to be solved or abstract challenges to faith to be overcome.

Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act can vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove. Your virtues can become as abstract as algebra, your beliefs as porous as clouds.

I have for the most part been mercifully free in my life thus far from the sort of paralyzing pain that she is describing. I also have no reason to believe that the faith I care about and profess would mean much of anything in the face of such pain. But her directness and honesty is unusual and much appreciated from a priest and theologian. She’s excellent at “making it real”—something I continue to strive for both in my writing and in my life.

What would I like to find (and what am I interested in writing)? Anne Lamott is right—the answer is often the same to both questions. A friend and colleague the other day asked who the audience is for what I write. I couldn’t believe it when I answered “I guess my audience is people like me.” I’m writing in the hope that once in a while something I write will be what someone else will love to find. I write for people who might resonate, as I do, with Christopher Wiman’s analogy for the life of faith:

To live in faith is to live like the Jesus lizard, quick and nimble on the water into which a moment’s pause would make it sink.the jesus lizard

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Republican Jesus

It has been entertaining watching the Republican-controlled 114th Congress stumbling out of the gate over the past several days. Last summer I wrote about someone who might be able to help them out: Republican Jesus.

I’m not sure how I became a liberal. I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist religious world that frowned on liberal activities such as dancing and going to movies; left-leaning political positions were never mentioned. barry_button1Northeastern Vermont is not known as a hotbed of liberal attitudes. My father was as politically aware as watching Walter Cronkite every night on television allowed him to be, and he was a classic reactionary voter. Starting with the first Presidential election I remember, mondalemy father voted for JFK, Goldwater, Humphrey, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Mondale, Bush the First, Clinton, Dole, and Gore before passing away in 2002. He was always voting against someone or somethingdole-button-1. The only time I recall hearing my mother saying anything about politics was probably the only time she voted differently than my father. As she returned home from voting in the ’72 Presidential election, I asked her who she voted for. “McGovern,” she said. “I just don’t like the sound of that Watergate thing.”

I was too young to vote in the ’72 election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to ComeHomeAmericaTed, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far. To be honest, I’m not sure how anyone who came of age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s as I did could have avoided becoming a liberal, although my cousins, who are my age and grew up in the next town managed to avoid it. The impact of growing up in the sixties and early seventies is all over me, from my ponytail to my natural attraction to pushing the envelope rather than embracing the status quo to my internal delight in ignoring rules and regulations, even if ever so slightly.

But lots of people grew up in the sixties and did not turn out to be the liberal that I have been my whole adult life. I’ve become more and more convinced over the past few years that if I am to take my faith commitments seriously, which I always have even in times when deeply submerged beneath layers of rationality, fear, hubris, complacency or even brief attempts at atheism, then if I am going to be consistent the political and social beliefs and positions I511vOzalgjL__SL500_AA280_ inhabit are going to well left of center. In other words, although there is definitely a 60s counter-cultural youngster still inside me, the real reason I am a liberal is because I am a Christian. Don’t get me wrong—I am fully aware that there are millions of people professing to be committed Christians in this country who are hard core conservatives both in their political and social beliefs and are proud of it. I just don’t know how they pull it off without crossing their fingers behind their backs.

A brief email conversation with an acquaintance several years ago illuminated this for me very clearly. My acquaintance is a Christian speaker, retreat giver and counsellor with a certain following; I was a regular recipient of her e-newsletterr-SARAH-PALIN-JOHN-MCCAIN-OBAMA-large570. During the 2008 Presidential campaign summer, she wrote passionately about her great respect for Sarah Palin, the former Governor’s ability to “stick it to the liberals,” and her plans to streamline governmental support programs. In a private email I asked my friend (ingenuously) “How do you square your political positions with your faith?” In her reply, among other interesting things, she wrote “I think that, first and foremost, Jesus wants us to stand on our own two feet and take care of ourselves.” Now that’s a Jesus that I am unfamiliar with from the Gospels, but a Jesus that has become rather popular for a lot of people in these politically polarized times: Republican Jesus.

For instance, in last Sunday’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes, not because he’s a show-off in need of a signature miracle on his resume, but because “he was moved with compassion for them.” Regardless of whether you believe this story to be factual or allegorical, it undoubtedly illustrates the compassionate heart of the gospels. In the same situation, however, Republican Jesus would have acted otherwise:lazy jesusfeeding 5000

 

 

 

 

The Jesus of the gospels came from poverty, was poor his whole life, had little if anything positive to say about the pursuit of money and wealth, and had tough news for the rich young man who wanted to be his disciple—“Sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.” I suspect that Republican Jesus would have encouraged the rich young ruler to continue amassing wealth and enabling others to do so, in keeping with an often forgotten part of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the one percent, for their wealth shall trickle down to those who do not work as hard , and who are not as smart and creative (maybe). Republican Jesus would have endorsed the message of the “Gospel of Prosperity” ministers who preach that financial success is a sign of God’s favor.NVP

Toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus summarizes what the life of following his example requires succinctly: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Republican Jesus? A different attitude entirely.   Jesus with rifle

It’s all parody and sarcasm, of course, and the Republican Jesus meme has gone viral all over social media. Unfortunately, the positions and attitudes expressed by Republican Jesus are carried out on a daily basis by well-meaning persons who simply assume that their hardcore conservative values somehow or another mesh seamlessly with the teachings of the Jesus whom they claim to love and follow. And I don’t get it. There are good reasons to take various political/social positions, and there are good reasons to choose to be a Christian. The trick is remembering that what you believe in one area of your life has a direct impact on things that you believe in other areas of your life. Conservative Christians—good luck with that. It’s challenging enough as a liberal (impossible, actually), but at least I’ve got the book on my side.09ab37a6ab5e3feada1e948c21889d0c

Dogmatic Ben Franklin

The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. Richard Rodriguez

Every time someone claims that we live in a country founded on “Christian principles,” I think of Benjamin Franklin. autobiographyHis Autobiography is often a text at the appropriate time in the interdisciplinary program I teach in—it’s short, pithy, no nonsense and quintessentially American. Exactly what I would expect from Ben. He doesn’t say a lot about organized religion other than to express his distaste for and rejection of it, turning his back on the Presbyterianism of his youth because the ministers’ sermons were primarily “explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect,” clearly designed to create good Presbyterians rather than good citizens. He describes himself as a “thorough Deist” just as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were,three amigos believing in a creating God who has little to no direct engagement in the world, who is best worshipped by “doing good to man,” and who will in some manner “certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.” DeismNo miracles, no incarnation, resurrection or revelation. And no organized worship.

Ben was surrounded by religion in eighteenth century colonial America but remained as secular as they come throughout his life. He observed concerning a saintly Catholic woman who had spent her life in service to others while living in a one-room garret with only a table, bed, crucifix and picture of Saint Veronica that he was amazed “on how small an income life and health may be supported,” while being most impressed with the ability of George Whitfield—one of the primary preachers during “The Great Awakening,” a remarkable religious revival in 1700s New England—to project his voice across a large open field. He was particularly intrigued by the Dunkers, a small Baptist sect (who “dunked” the newly baptized) that would become the Church of the Brethren a couple of centuries later. With a name like that, they could have given our favorite New England donut and coffee establishment a run for its money. One of the Dunker leaders complained to Benjamin that, as often happens when religion is concerned, other religious groups frequently accused the Dunkers of “abominable practices and principles, to which they were utter strangers.” brethrenBen sensibly suggested that the Dunkers should publish “the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline,” thus reducing the opportunity for misunderstanding and slander. To which suggestion the Dunker leader made a remarkable reply.

When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression . . . we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.

creedI like the Dunkers’ attitude. Doctrine bothers me because it so easily turns into its evil and rigid twin, dogma. As I recited the Nicene Creed with a dozen or so other 8:00 service attendees a couple of Sundays ago, I made more effort than usual to pay attention to what this close-to-two-thousand-years-old affirmation of faith is actually committing me to. There’s some pretty weird stuff there. Not long ago I heard someone mention that she is comforted by the fact that the words she is saying when reciting the creed are the very same words Christian believers have recited for close to two millennia. I’m not sure why that’s something to be comforted by. On the Sunday in question, I rather was wondering what makes any of us think that what fit the bill two millennia ago is still a perfect fit. I was reminded of something IWiman read from Christopher Wiman’s My Bright Abyss the other day: “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance.”

I understand the immediate and obvious pushback from many circles, of course. I grew up in a religious world in which all of the images of belief involved stability, immutability, inflexibility and certainty. Truth does not change. If you are not stable and secure in what you believe, how are you going to be able to defend it against the inevitable onslaught of change, unbelief, secularism and relativism? We sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” and that we were “standing on the promises of Christ my king.” We would not have recognized ourselves in Christopher Wiman’s unflinching description:

Dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches.

But that was us. Wiman continues:

The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse . . . The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone.

people of the bookThose who follow the great Western monotheistic religions are often referred to as “People of the Book.” What the Dunkers realized is that writing something down, “setting it in stone,” so to speak, creates the very real possibility that worship will turn toward the book rather than focusing on what inspired it in the first place. Doctrine and dogma are just two of many ways in which human beings try to make encounters with the divine safe and predictable. And of course, the more I turn my attention toward expressions of what I believe rather than to the open spaces where the object of that belief resides, the more defensive I get. BBTAs Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

Human beings never behave so badly as when they believe they are protecting God. . . . If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.

So there’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Be like the Dunkers. It’s no way to run a successful religion—but then, Jesus wasn’t interested in doing that.

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Get Thee Behind Me, Santa

Today is Black Friday, on my shortlist of candidates for the stupidest day of the year. Would that there had been lines outside the polling places a few weeks ago as long as those lined up outside Walmart, Target, Toys ‘R’ Us and other cathedrals of capitalism this morning. A bit over a year ago I reflected on related issues. Enjoy, and happy day after Thanksgiving!

Autumn is my favorite season, and this year’s version in New England has been even more beautiful than most. But all things must unfortunately come to an end, and now in mid-November the leaves have just about all fallen. Even for our small postage-stamp yard, this means raking of leaves. images[2]Last year, in a purported nod toward the fact that I am in my later fifties, but really because I thought it would be fun, I purchased a leaf-blower. And it is fun, so much so that yesterday I found it easy to be a good neighbor and take care of the leaves in our neighbor’s half of the driveway that we share as I was blowing a pile of them from our half toward the road. I’m not sure that I would have been as neighborly had I been armed with a rake rather than a blower.

This was my third, and probably final, leaf-blowing-and-bagging event of the season and I realized before the event that I needed another package of large paper bags for bagging purposes. Upon entering the neighborhoodLowe's Sanford Store #3608 Reopening Lowe’s and heading for the place where blowers, bags and rakes were two weeks ago when I bought bags the last time, I was immediately disoriented. Autumn leaf-control tools and accessories had been replaced by mass quantities of the worst that commercial Christmas has to offer. Fake trees, gaudy and tasteless lawn decorations and tree ornaments had taken over the right front quadrant of the store, supported by the ever-offensive strains of Xmas muzak in the background. WHAT THE FUCK!!!??? I thought, as I do every year about this time when I am smacked in the face by the Ghost of Capitalist Christmas for the first time in the season. Halloween was just two weeks ago! Thanksgiving isn’t for another ten days! Thanks for making me hate Christmas all over again, Lowe’s!

This experience brought a recent email exchange with a colleague to mind. As the director of a large interdisciplinary academic program, and as the chair of several college committeesdeakin_large[1], I am often forced to remind various colleagues who report to me that deadlines are not suggestions or optional. Here is a recent email exchange:

Me: Are you going to be able to get your reviews up on the website by the end of the week? Please say yes—that’s the deadline, you know.

Colleague: I know, Vance, I know . . . I was in Maine for a funeral over the weekend. I will definitely get everything in by Friday, if not earlier. When I got back I read your reminder email to everyone from last week and felt very guilty and ashamed that I hadn’t even started my reviews.

Me: Good. Part of my job is to indiscriminately spread shame and guilt everywhere like some evil Santa Claus.

Colleague: Get thee behind me, Santa!

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not aligning myself with the forces resisting the supposed War_on_Christmas[1]“War on Christmas” that certain folks annually claim is being fought by political and social liberals such as myself as part of a continuing effort to make atheism the religion of the land. The most recent salvo in the war against the war on Christmas is Sarah Palin’s Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. I won’t be reading this book, but I’m quite confident that I know the general thrust of her argument, if she bothers to have one.good-tidings-great-joy_zps3892bf56[1] Liberal atheist grinches are out there trying to steal our crèches, monitor our language so that we will be embarrassed to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” or “How are you doing during this lovely Holiday season,” and make it a thought-crime to think about the baby Jesus. I find this paranoia amusing, sad, or maddening depending on my mood. If one’s faith is rattled by such matters, one has larger issues to confront than the possibility that not everyone shares one’s faith. The Incarnation that I celebrate at Christmas is at the center of what I believe concerning God—whether an oversized fake baby with a halo and pious expression gets to lay in a manger while observed by imagesCAWOLV2Cother pious statues and animals on the front lawn of city hall doesn’t have much effect on that belief.

No, my WTF? annual response to Christmas crap in early November is not about protecting Christmas from the evil, liberal atheist hordes with whom I probably share a great deal more in common than with those resisting the imaginary war on Christmas. My interest is in pushing back against the evil designs of Santa. This is a scary guy who continually finds ways to invade my physical and mental space uninvited. Think about it:

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you are awake

Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is SantaimagesCAV5HLBR, the most persistent stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be disconcerting and creepy.

The Christmas tune aside, I no longer think that Santa Claus is my moral judge, nor do I believe that he monitors my sleeping habits—for many those concerns have simply been transferred to the cosmic image[1]Santa Claus called God. I have had continuous confirmation from various classes this semester that in the minds of many persons, Santa Claus and God have become indistinguishable. And what more insidious undermining of an adult, vigorous, intelligent faith could there be—the divine turned into a fat guy with a beard who can be bribed by good behavior into fulfilling even the most trivial desires? A jolly elf who effectively seduces millions of people every year into believing that and behaving as if the best place to celebrate Christmas is in one of our Providence-Mall[1]contemporary cathedrals of worship—the shopping mall. Get thee behind me, Santa, indeed.

The war on Christmas has been underway for a long time, waged not by liberal, politically correct atheists seeking to undermine traditional values, but rather by the insidious and inexorable pressure to trivialize and commodify everything. The heart of Christmas is no more present in lawn ornaments, “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” slogans, and “Merry Christmas” lapel buttons than it is in the extravaganza of holiday paraphernalia that screams at me every time I drive down the street or walk into a store between Halloween and New Year’s Day. The heart of Christmas is in the silent mystery of the Incarnation, in the strange and beautiful ways in which the divine chooses to enter our world in human form on a daily basis. There are many ways to connect and resonate with the heart of Christmas—Santa is not one of them.evil_santa[1]

As Good As We Make Them

Yesterday was midterm election day; last Sunday’s All Saint’s gospel reading was the Beatitudes from Matthew. A confluence of realities that don’t go together, right?

It is a scene so familiar in our imaginations that it has become iconic. In films, on television, the subject of countless artistic renditions, we are transported back two thousand years. It is a beautiful, cloudless day. 453a34c850f8_sf_3Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have gathered in the countryside from miles around; some have walked for hours. On the top of a hill in the middle of the impromptu gathering is the man everybody has been talking about and has gathered to check out. He doesn’t look any different from any number of other guys in the crowd. In spite of the stories that seem to pop up everywhere this guy goes, you would not have been able to pick him out of a crowd. Then he opens his mouth, and the world is forever changed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

We don’t know the details of the setting, of course—the traditional images are evocations of centuries of imagination. Maybe it was a cloudy and windy day. Maybe these words were spoken inside someone’s home or a synagogue. Maybe they were shared in private only with a few intimate friends and confidants. Maybe the man never spoke these words at all and they are intended as a brief summary, written decades after the fact, of how he lived and called others to live. beatitudesBut the Beatitudes, the opening lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel account, are so beautifully poetic, so rich yet sparse, so gentle yet powerful, so all-encompassing and embracing that over the centuries they have seeped into the Christian ethos as the summary expression, as the “mission statement” if you will, of a religion and all it professes to stand for. In many ways the Beatitudes are as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm—and this is unfortunate. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. Rome-4They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which these words came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. 240px-TissotBeatitudesThroughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and consistently throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is driven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate.  Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitolTen Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. Because of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m intensely grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God?

An intriguing thought experiment, but ultimately the Beatitudes are not about transformed social institutions. They are about a transformational way of being in the world. The Beatitudes are far more than a beautifully poetic literary statement. They are the road map for how to carry our faith into the real world. The world we live in is no more naturally attuned to the challenge of the Beatitudes than was the world in which they were first spoken. Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyIndividuals infected with the energy of the Beatitudes are those whose responsibility it is to help transform reality. As Joan Chittister writes,

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, indexthe charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

Or as Annie Dillard tersely puts it, God’s works are as good as we make them. The Beatitudes are a call to get to work.

monochrome exposure

Monochrome Exposure

October is often the month that the best new movies of the year are released and the best books of the year are published—this year is no exception. Jeanne and I saw “The Judge” last night; although it did not crack my “top” anything list, it was very good, especially the lead acting performances by Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., and Vera Farmiga. On the novels front, two of favorite novelists’ latest were published within a couple of days of each other—Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. I was in the middle of my latest Scandinavian mystery when these two novels arrived from Amazon, so Jeanne grabbed Lila and I read The Children Act last week as soon as I left Denmark.

The Children Act is the story of Fiona Maye, an experienced and highly respected family court judge in London. The story centers on how a particular case impacts both her professional and personal life. McEwanA seventeen-year-old boy is hospitalized with leukemia; his regimen of treatment requires a cluster of powerful medicines, including one that produces anemia. To combat the anemia a blood transfusion is required—standard procedure. But the boy and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and blood transfusions are prohibited by their religious beliefs. Fiona hears testimony from attorneys representing the interests of the hospital, the young man (three months away from his eighteenth birthday and legal majority), and his parents. In her judgment on the case, Judge Maye writes something that could have been written about me at age seventeen:

His childhood has been an uninterrupted monochrome exposure to a forceful view of the world and he cannot fail to have been conditioned by it.

Just how strongly the religious training and atmosphere of my youth influenced and shaped me was brought to my attention sharply just a few days ago as InquirersI spoke with six folks ranging in age from fifteen to seventy in an “Inquirers’” class at the small Episcopal church that Jeanne and I attend. Such classes are preparation for the Episcopalian version of confirmation, capped by a liturgy involving the Bishop at his annual appearance next month. Inquirers class is open to persons who wish to join the church officially, those who wish to renew their original baptismal vows so far removed in the distant past that what the vows say—let alone what they mean—has been forgotten, persons who wish to be “received” into the Episcopal church from other churches in which they were originally confirmed (most often disaffected Catholics), and anyone who is just looking for an hour’s worth of religious entertainment on a Wednesday evening. Knowing that my own religious upbringing in the Baptist church included brainwashing in the Bible, my good friend and rector of the church Marsue asked me if I would come to this particular meeting to talk about “Bible History.”

October and November are by far the busiest and most stressful months of the academic year for me as director of a large interdisciplinary program on my college campus, so I unashamedly admit that I hadn’t thought for more than five minutes about what I was going to say to this class as I walked into church on Wednesday evening. OT worldBut I was not at all worried—I knew that just relying on my fifty-plus year old foundation in things Biblical would be more than sufficient to introduce Episcopalian-wannabes who had probably never encountered Scripture first hand in their life to the Bible lay of the land. I even forgot to bring one of the dozen or more Bibles at home with me. Upon request, Marsue produced a book with a few maps relevant to Old Testament events from her office, while the church secretary (who is one of the Inquirers) scared up a few Bibles.

Directing everyone to the Table of Contents, I table of contentswalked them through the patriarchs, the exodus, the time of the judges, the unified kingdom under David and Solomon, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Israel’s captivity in Assyria followed by Judah’s captivity in Babylon a century and a half later, capped by the Persian emperor Cyrus’ allowing the Hebrews to return to the devastated Promised Land to rebuild the Temple and their communities—all in a bit over a half hour. It was fun to return to the Sunday School lessons of my youth (a Sunday School that was run like a real school—we were expected to learn things, subject to quizzes and exams). It was even more fun to come up for air occasionally and ask for questions. There weren’t any, because everyone (especially the teenagers) was looking at me as if I were a mutant or some sort of trained monkey. I was working without notes—no notes are necessary when plugging into things learned in-depth at a young age. As Aristotle says, if you want people to learn things they won’t forget, get them when they are very young.

After the crash course in Old Testament happenings, Marsue made a few comments that opened the door to broader issues. I had pointed out on the maps that the centerpiece of these historical events—Canaan—is remarkably tiny in the overall scope of things. MonotheismYet in our twenty-first century this part of the world continues to carry extraordinary importance to billions of people both politically and religiously. The three great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all claim Abraham as their father and this part of the world as the central home of their faith. The violence and bloodshed of the current Middle East mirrors the violence of the Old Testament, just on a larger scale. The Palestinians of today have the same grievance against the still relatively new nation of Israel that the native people of the Promised Land had against the recently freed Hebrews of the Old Testament. We were here first.

In the midst of making these contemporary connections, one of the older members of group—one of the church’s two current sextons—spoke for the first time as he remembered various conversations with people of different faith commitments over the years. Whether during impromptu discussions with fellow soldiers during basic training or conversations with his next door neighbor, he noted how it has always struck him that people with significant faith differences actually share a great deal in common. ‘one godWhy can’t we simply understand that we can believe in the same God in very different ways?” he wondered. Why all the hatred, the violence, the suspicion and judgmental attitudes?

Her Honor Fiona Maye runs headlong into the same issue as she deliberates her decision in the case of the Jehovah’s Witness teenager. She’s not a religious person herself, but whether religious or not, the Jehovah’s Witness belief that God’s will does not include blood transfusions, even if required to save a life, seems odd, peculiar, and irrational. Such apparently arbitrary rules are cultish—something from which normal persons need to be protected or perhaps rescued. And yet, Fiona realizes, that one person’s cult is another person’s truth.

mountainsReligions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, or truer than another. What was to judge?

Fiona’s position and status requires her to make a judgment, but she realizes that it cannot be on the basis of moral superiority or certainty. For what makes sense and what is true for a person is always largely shaped by that person’s experiences, some of which—especially those of one’s early youth—one does not freely choose.

I remember a number of years ago when my therapist, after listening during yet another session to my descriptions of how the impact of my religious heritage on my adult life had been, in my understanding at that time, largely negative, suggested to me that I might want to trybuddhism Buddhism. If Christianity isn’t working, try something else. But I knew that I couldn’t do it, even if I wanted to. I’ve been working on this for a while now, and I realize more and more that although I have no basis on which to insist that my faith is the best way to package the truth, it is my truth. Each unique expression of faith, viewed from a distance, looks pretty much the same to an objective observer, which is a good thing for all persons of faith to remember as they get ready to go into religious warfare, virtual or actual, on a regular basis. But faith is never lived from a distance. It is inhabited up close. My monochrome exposure to faith as a child may have exploded over time into Technicolor, but the original imprint is still there. It is not mine to impose on anyone else, but it is mine.roses