Category Archives: belief


Get Thee Behind Me, Santa

Today is Black Friday, on my shortlist of candidates for the stupidest day of the year. I hope there will be lines outside the polling places on the first Tuesday of November next year 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 weekend 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 Autumn leaf-control tools and accessories had been replaced by mass quantities of the worst that commercial Christmas has to offer.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. A 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]

The “F” Word

There’s nothing like unexpectedly dropping an f-bomb on a bunch of students. But it’s even better when one of them does it. I teach at a Catholic college, so one would think that the students would be used to talking about the f-word—we Baptists certainly were when I was growing up. F-wordBut dropping an f-bomb in class, even when the context is entirely appropriate and the word is germane, is like farting in church. Everyone clams up, an uncomfortable atmosphere fills the room, and no one wants to deal with it. And I am presented with, as professors like to say, a “teachable moment.”

Mark Twain once defined “faith” as “believing something you know ain’t true.” Strangely, I find that my largely parochial school educated students think of faith in this way. Faith is opposed to reason, to logic, to evidence, yet is the foundation of what they have been told are the most important truths imaginable. Things believed by faith are certain and beyond question; I’m reminded of the bumper sticker on a number of vehicles in the church parking lot of my youth: “bumper stickerGod Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But in my estimation just about all of the above “facts” about faith are false. I agree with Anne Lamott when she writes that the opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is certainty. But that’s not something I can just drop early into a conversation about the f-word. I have to build up to it.

A good place to start is with another excellent insight from Anne Lamott—faith is a verb, not a noun. It’s an activity, not a thing. So what exactly are we doing when we are “faithing”? I use a good technique that I learned in grammar school—“Somebody use the word “faith” in a sentence that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, church, or God.” That’s a temporary challenge for many of my students, but pretty soon someone says something like “I have faith that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse.” Or “I have faith that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year.” I suggest “I have faith that when the time comes, my friend John will make the right decision.” All of these sentences are still treating faith as a noun rather than a verb, as something you have rather than something you do, but progress is being sox

“Do you know that the chair isn’t going to collapse?” I ask. “Are you certain that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year?” (especially since they have finished in last place in their division three of the last four seasons, with a world championship in the other season). “Well . . .no.” So you’re just guessing? In both cases, the answer there is “no” as well. Apparently faithing is an activity that occupies the vast territory between certainty and guesswork—the knowledge territory in which we human beings spend a great deal of our time. Although my student can’t prove that her chair won’t collapse in the next minute, she can refer to past experience to support her faith claim—she’s seen human beings in thousands of such chair situations in her life and has never seen a chair-fail yet. Red Sox fans can point to the positive second half of the season after an embarrassingly abysmal first half, the promise of three or four brand new young players, a shake-up in upper management, and so on. faithingMy faith in my friend John is not blind—I’m convinced that the phrase “blind faith” is an oxymoron—it is based on years of observing his careful consideration of important alternatives before making a decision. When removed from the confines of religion, faithing turns out to be a perfectly natural activity—the activity of moving past evidence in hand toward a conclusion for which there is not complete evidence. Faith is the activity of inching past probability toward something stronger (although the goal is never certainty).

With this in hand, we move to my go-to definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My Catholic students who are largely ignorant of what the Bible contains are often surprised to find out that this is from the Book of Hebrews, the first verse of Hebrews 11 which is sometimes called “the honor roll of faith.” They are even more surprised to find that the definition says nothing about God, religion, heaven, hell, or any of the other accompanying items they are used to seeing in the entourage of a definition of faith. Instead, it is an excellent summary of what we have been discussing about faithing as a normal human activity.  We faith when we want to provide substance to something important that we are hoping for (the chair will hold me up, the Red Sox will make the playoffs, my friend will make a good decision). All of the items hoped for are “unseen” because they either have not happened yet or cannot be proven true with certainty. rene-descartesFaithing fills in the gaps between evidence and what we hope for, realizing that further evidence over time may force us to adjust our hopes or discard them altogether.

In one of his letters, Rene Descartes tells the story of a king who refused to eat anything unless he could be convinced with certainty that it was not poisoned. And he starved to death. Some things—most things—cannot be established with certainty. Sometimes we just need to faith our way along. Faith in the realm of things divine is a case in point. I cannot know with certainty anything about God or even that God exists. But this does not mean that I am guessing or shutting down my brain when I faith. I can point to any number of past and present experiences that I count as evidence from which to take a faith leap in the direction of the divine. As I wrote in a Facebook discussion not long ago, facebook“Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” Faith in the spiritual realm involves applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. I can’t prove it, but neither am I guessing.

Where is the Gardener?

2011-03-22-the-unseen-gardenerOnce upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.

Yet still the believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensitive to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Skeptic despairs, ‘but what remains of your original assertion? bb8c4889389c165a36d352b8fde1d068[1]Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

This story, or “parable,” was offered at the beginning of an academic symposium by British philosopher Anthony Flew over a half century ago as a way to get people to thinking about their beliefs and the evidence that supposedly counts for or against those beliefs. The Believer in the story seems bound and determined to believe that there is a gardener that takes care of the flowers in the clearing, even in the face of no supporting factual evidence. The Skeptic is only willing to believe in the gardener along with the Believer if shown relevant evidence. “I agree that there are flowers and that there are weeds here, but there are many possible explanations for this in addition to your gardener hypothesis,” the Skeptic might say. “Let’s test your hypothesis.” When it turns out that the Believer doesn’t need evidence to support his belief, the Skeptic knows that the conversation has come to an end. For what can be said to a person who insists on believing something even when there is no supporting evidence or, worse, even when there is strong evidence contrary to the belief?

The symposium at which Anthony Flew provided this parable was entitled “Theology and Falsification”—in short, what is the relationship between belief in God and evidence that might count for or against such belief? The plot with flowers and weeds is an image of the world we live in, a world that contains both beautiful and ugly things. How to account for the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad, existing side-by-side in every corner at every level of our reality? The Believer says “God (the gardener) is responsible for the beautiful things,” responsibility-1and the Skeptic challenges “but why would a God interested in creating beautiful and good things allow these ugly and evil things to continue existing?” In other words, “Who is responsible?”

The Psalms in the daily lectionary this week have focused on the “Who is responsible?’ theme. If you ever want to get bummed out, to wonder what on earth God is up to, drop in to any Psalm in the 50 to 60 range and experience the silence and absence of God along with the Psalmist. In virtually every one of these Psalms, something has gone wrong and the Psalmist is looking for answers.

57843571_640My best friend betrayed me—what are you going to do about it?

Wicked people are prospering—what are you going to do about it?

My life is not working out the way I want it to—what are you going to do about it?

People I know are sick and need healing—what are you going to do about it?

Someone I love has been treated unfairly—what are you going to do about it?

Most of these Psalms end with an “I will worship and praise you anyways” sort of final verse, but they don’t sound particularly sincere. Tflannery hathroughout these Psalms is an energy and anger that reminds me of Ruby Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” who, when her expectations concerning God have been disappointed one too many times, shakes her fist at the sky and shouts “WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??

It’s a place that everyone who believes in the goodness of God will eventually arrive. And it’s all a matter of disappointed expectations. If God is God, why is this happening? If I can’t depend on God to be there when expected, to set things right when I don’t approve of them, to punish the wicked and reward the just, what’s the point of believing? As the skeptic asks the believer in frustration, what’s the difference between a God who cannot be detected, understood, explained or relied upon and no God at all.

These questions are the gateway to what one of my students in a colloquium focused on these issues this past semester told me the course had challenged her to develop: a more nuanced and interesting faith. There is abundant evidence that runs counter to the relatively simplistic divine model that many of us were taught to believe in, the model of a problem solving, prayer answering God who can be manipulated into acting by the proper procedures and pious intentions. A more nuanced and interesting faith, a faith that gets the believer out of the nursery of faith and into the arena of encounter with something far more challenging and disturbing, is a faith that neither ignores contrary evidence nor gives up on belief at the first sign of trouble. indexThe question is, do I want to believe in a God I can’t predict or control, a God who refuses to behave in the manner I would prefer? As Thomas Cahill asks in The Gifts of the Jews,

Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our amulets and scheming, the God who rains on picnics, the God who allows human beings to be inhuman, who has sentenced all of us to die?

Opening up to that sort of God requires both guts and a willingness to continually readjust and retool. But it is certainly interesting.

Tired of Hating People–Thoughts on the anniversary of 9/11

Everyone beyond a certain age can remember clearly what they were doing fourteen years ago today when they heard the news. I was in my college’s main cafeteria getting coffee and noticed something weird happening on the Today Show broadcast on a television hanging from the ceiling in the corner. first towerAt that point all they knew was that one of the Twin Towers was on fire, apparently because an airplane had crashed into it. I had scheduled office hours that morning, so I listened to live radio reports on NPR of the second tower being hit and the collapse of both towers. There was a surreal air to the broadcast—I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true, some sort of elaborate hoax along the lines of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast many decades earlier. But it was true.

Classes were encouraged to meet and decide individually how best to deal with the day’s events. Several students in my first class of the day at 12:30 had family and friends who lived and/or worked in Manhattan—it was clear that the best thing for these students to do was to continue their frantic attempts to contact their loved ones. About half the class stayed and shared their thoughts—what they said and the nature of our conversation is difficult to recall. I know that many students (as well as many of my colleagues) were understandably angry and wanted retribution; tower collapseas we gathered our things to leave about half way through the class period I said “the one thing I’m feeling right now is that my best response to what has happened is to become a better person. A better teacher, husband, father, friend. That’s all I’ve got right now.”

I’m sure that there will be any number of retrospective reports this evening on the various 24/7 news channels, although I suspect that the fifteenth anniversary a year from today will have many more of them. Neither Jeanne nor I lost any immediate family or close friends in that day’s terrible events, although in a few cases it was only “luck” that spared someone we know well. Almost a decade and a half removed, when I think about 9/11 and its aftermath as I have been over the past few days, I think of patriotism, wars that seem never to end, and the realization that with the swift passage of time soon I will be teaching students who, first, will not remember 9/11 and then, three years or so later, will not have been born when 9/11 occurred. But most of all, the lasting effect in this country of the terrorist attacks on that day has been a persistent atmosphere of fear and suspicion—as well as of the hatred that fear and suspicion  produce.

Just about a year ago the theme of the weekly “TED Radio Hour” on NPR was “Transformation—stories and ideas about becoming a completely different person.” The first story up that day was titled “How Did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?”untitled

How did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?

The story teller, Zak Ebrahim, is a peace activist and the author of The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice. Ebrahim’s father, El-Sayyid Nosair, for a number of years plotted with other radicals to attack a number of New York City landmarks, including tunnels, synagogues and the United Nations headquarters. These planned attacks were thwarted by an FBI informant, but one of the attacks—the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center–was not. Nosair and his fellow terrorists were convicted of placing a van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the sublevel parking lot of the North Tower; the subsequent explosion killed six people and injured over a thousand others. Ebrahim was seven years old at the time of his father’s conviction and incarceration—Nosair was sentenced to life imprisonment plus fifteen years.nosair and son

Ebrahim’s father had become radicalized in the early years of his son’s life; in his TED talk Ebrahim describes how shortly before his father was arrested he took Ebrahim, along with several of the men who turned out to be co-conspirators, to a shooting range for Ebrahim’s first lessons in using a rifle. Even after Nosair’s arrest, the impact of his worldview on his young son continued to be strong.

Growing up in a bigoted household, I wasn’t prepared for the real world. I had been raised to judge people based on arbitrary measurements, like a person’s race or religion. He would just talk about Jews being evil. And I would hear similar things from the men that were with him. You know, gay people being evil and them wanting to turn you gay so that you would go to hell too. And just gay people being all-around terrible people and a bad influence. And he used to say things like, a bad Muslim is better than a good non-Muslim. That’s pretty much what indoctrination is. You have authority figures around you telling you that the world is one way and you don’t get to see another perspective.

This radical indoctrination began to crumble when Ebrahim, as a teenager, began through school to be exposed to some of the people he had been taught to hate. PhiladelphiaOne of his fellow group members at the National Youth Conference in Philadelphia leading up to the 2000 Presidential election was Jewish. Ebrahim did not learn that his new friend was Jewish until several days after their friendship had started developing; he says that “I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that, for most of my life, I had been led to believe was insurmountable.” That summer he found a job at a Busch Gardens amusement park and for the first time had the opportunity to meet some gay people performing in one of the park’s shows. “I soon found that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met.”

One day I had a conversation with my mother about how my worldview was starting to change. And she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who’d experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said tired of hating“I’m tired of hating people.” In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.

On one level it’s easy to hate because a world made of “Us” vs. “Them” is simple to define and make judgments from within. On a deeper level, though, Ebrahim is right—the negative energy of fear and hate is psychologically exhausting, an exhaustion that is symptomatic of our culture. It’s almost as if it isn’t natural for humans to hate.

A few moments of attention to the level of discourse in the early months of the 2016 Presidential campaign are sufficient to hear the tones of fear and anger that pervade our national conversation about almost everything. stormer and trumpIt is a summer of intolerant and fear-mongering language—for the first time in decades various white supremacist groups have found a candidate who speaks their language of hatred and have publically endorsed him.

How White Nationalist Groups Found Their Candidate in Donald Trump

That such attitudes exist is nothing new; what is new is that we have reached the point where hatred and intolerance have found a new foothold in the public square and conversation. And even for those who seek a moderate position that avoids anger and fear, the current atmosphere is infectious. big enough lieA character in Eric Bennett’s new novel A Big Enough Lie explains the dynamic well:

There are people in the world whose opinions differ from yours so much that the difference implies violence, urges it, supplies a will for it. And if you stand on the side of moderation, this implication, this will to violence, upsets you even more than the mere difference of opinion itself. Because you are complicit in it—you become complicit in extremism by loathing extremism. You are reduced by your enemy to what you despise in your enemy. The world excuses only saints and lunatics from its economy of hatred, is what you realize. Pick a side.

On this fourteenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, my hope is that we as a nation, as a culture will decide, as Zak Ibrahim’s mother did, that we are tired of hating people. us-vs-themTired of dividing our tiny little universes up into “Us” and “Them” as we vilify those who do not look like, act like, or believe the same as those in our self-defined groups of specialness do, often in the name of rigidly dogmatic beliefs that cannot accommodate the complex and shades-of-grey world in which we live. As Zak Ebrahim discovered, the best cure for fear and hatred is simple experience. But such experience can only happen if each of us has the courage to step outside our ossified comfort zones and dare to meet the most frightening thing in the universe—someone who is not the same as me.

Behind the Curtain

Not long ago I led a seminar with a number of colleagues from the Honors Program as part of a two-day end-of-the-semester workshop. Our text was several essays from Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth-century diplomat, philosopher, and introvert who has become one of my favorite authors over the past few years. My general tendency, both as a philosopher and as a normal human being, is toward the details rather than grand, sweeping schemes, and toward skepticism rather than certainty. French wars of religionMontaigne speaks directly to both of these tendencies. He lived in 1500s France in the midst of the bloody French wars of religion that broke out between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation, and frequently comments on the absurdity of human beings claiming to know with certainty anything about the nature or will of God. He observes that “there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities,” arguing that “It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scales without their being trivialized.” He was a person of faith and considered himself to be a good Catholic, but sought to live the sort of life that he most admired: “The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measureOz, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.” Words of wisdom, I think.

But there is in many of us a seemingly incurable desire to peek into the mind of God. As Dorothy and her entourage in The Wizard of Oz, we want to know what’s behind the curtain. On the way to the early show at church one recent Sunday, Jeanne and I caught the last few minutes of Krista Tippett’s radio program On Being. She was interviewing Jewish theologian and prolific author KushnerRabbi Lawrence Kushner, who ended the interview with a charming story from one day when he was giving a bunch of preschoolers a tour of the synagogue.

I was leading a tour of the sanctuary, of the prayer hall with the children in the congregation’s preschool. And then I figured as a piece de resistance I’d have them come onto the bima, or the little prayer stage up in front of the room, where there was an ark where we kept the scroll of the Torah. It was accessible via a big floor-to-ceiling curtain. And I got them up on the stage, and I was about to call them—’Open the ark,’ but I saw the teacher at the back tapping her wristwatch, which as you may know, is an old Talmudic gesture, which means your time is about up, bucko. So, I said, ‘I tell you what, boys and girls. We’ll come back when we get together again in a couple of weeks, we’ll come back here and I’m going to open that curtain there and show you what’s behind it.’ It’s very special. You know, and so they all say, “Shalom, Rabbi,” and like little ducklings, follow the teacher back to the class.
Well, the next day, the teacher shows up at my office with the following story. Apparently the preceding day’s hastily-concluded lesson has occasioned the fierce debate among the little people as to what is behind the curtain. They didn’t know. And, the following four answers are given, which is I think pretty interesting.

FNAnswer One: The first kid guessed that there is absolutely nothing behind the curtain. As Kushner notes, this kid “is obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university.” I read recently in the NY Times that 68% of academic philosophers in this country describe themselves as atheists, with 13% more leaning in that direction. I had no idea that I am in such a minority amongst my peers—what do they know that I don’t know? Food for thought and another post, perhaps. I am reminded of a story Nietzsche tells—in a dream he once took the mask off a Greek sculpture and found himself “staring into the empty eye sockets of nothingness.”

jewish holy thingsAnswer Two: Another preschooler, playing a safe hand, thought that behind the curtain one would find a Jewish holy thing. This kid will probably turn out to be a nominal follower of Judaism, recognizing the existence of “holy things” and perhaps people like the rabbi who are strangely obsessed by “holy things,” but unlikely to be bothered by what they might represent and what Holy Thing might be lurking behind such “holy things.” Pretty much like the vast majority of children cranked out of Protestant Sunday Schools and CCD classes every year.

Monty HallPat SajakAnswer Three: A third kid, channeling his inner Monty Hall or Pat Sajak, hoped that a brand new car was behind the curtain. There are any number of televangelists who scream something similar from various media outlets on a daily basis. There’s something attractive about The Gospel of Prosperity, the notion that God wants the most faithful followers of the Divine Plan to be rich and prosperous. Too bad that there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea anywhere that I’m aware of.

Answer Four: The most fascinating answer came from child number four. As Kushner tells it, “the fourth kid said no, you’re all wrong. mirrorNext week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there will be a giant mirror.” Not only is this creative and interesting, I’m more and more coming to believe that this little boy or girl is right. What one expects or hopes for when engaged in faith-related activities may say little or nothing about God, but it says a lot about the person doing the expecting and hoping. Whatever God is—if God is—our thinking and believing about God always begins with what we want and need God to be. Somehow the four-year-old knew that whatever is hidden behind the curtain is us. The story of Incarnation, of God becoming human so that we might become God as Irenaeus put it, begins with this mirror.


The Return of Republican Jesus

Numerous polls report that as of today, Donald Trump is the preferred candidate of conservative Evangelical Christians for the Republican nomination for President. I don’t get it. As Frank Bruni wrote last week in a NY Times op-ed,trump-hair

Trump-ward Christian Soldiers?

I must not be watching the same campaign that his evangelical fans are, because I don’t see someone interested in serving God. I see someone interested in being God.

Last summer I wrote about the “Republican Jesus” phenomenon and wondered how a serious Christian squares her or his faith commitments with the conservative Republican world view. I’m still wondering.

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

Disturbing the Peace

SpinozaI do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace Baruch Spinoza 

            One of the lead articles in the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine is “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

Co-authored by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the teaser blurb for the article in the Table of Contents says “How a new strain of political correctness on campus is damaging higher education—and may be threatening students’ mental health.” It is an interesting read. Given Donald Trump’s current more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame, concerns about political correctness are in the news, safe spacebut in this article Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing our attention to what might be called “political correctness with a twist”:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . . It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.

The authors’ argument is largely anecdotal, relying either on their own experiences or on recent anecdotal stories and essays from various campuses across the country. seismic shiftThere is a great deal of speculation about the causes of this perceived seismic psychological shift among students over the past couple of decades, although virtually no data is provided to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

In the first column of the article readers are introduced to two important terms that “have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance: Microaggression and Trigger warnings. Microaggressions “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Examples provided include asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that she or he is not a real American. Mrs. DallowayTrigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”; examples of texts deemed as needing trigger warnings on various campuses include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault). The many examples of these and related problems in the article are chosen and presented with the clear intention of “triggering” the reader into concluding “well that’s just stupid—political correctness, like a hydra, rears a new ugly head.” One of the authors’ primary concerns, repeated frequently throughout the article is that such attention to words and actions that might possibly somewhere, somehow offend someone will leave students unprepared to live and work in a world that doesn’t give a crap about what makes them feel uncomfortable.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of a doubt?

Even though I have twenty-five years of college teaching under my belt,pc my experience on college campuses is deep but narrow, given that I have taught at my current college home for twenty-one years and have shaped my teaching and professional life within the confines of its “105 acre, park-like campus.” Serious conversations about the negative power of language on students in various groups defined racially, economically, by gender or by sexual preference have been ongoing on my campus for some time now. In my own philosophy department regular, continuing, and often heated debates occur about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language in the classroom, in job candidate interviews, and in basic conversation with each other. What strikes some as obviously benign, scholarly, and insightful strikes others as ill-advised, insensitive, and downright offensive. That said, the tsunami described by Lukianoff and Haidt as drowning campuses nationwide has escaped my notice where I teach—at least in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I have included this general “trigger warning” in every syllabus for every one of my courses for at least the past fifteen years:

In this course we will be considering some of the most important questions a human being can ask. Perhaps the most important feature of our considerations is learning to ask these questions clearly and precisely. Only then can possible answers be considered fairly. Although I have definite positions on the questions we will be addressing, my role as professor is not to tell you what to think. My role is rather to get you to think. Expect your assumptions to be challenged and comfortable ways of thinking to be disturbed. As the great 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

During an oral final exam a couple of semesters ago a student told me that “This class really messed me up—but in a good way!” Mission accomplished.mission accomplished

The fall semester starts in a week or so—even though I am on sabbatical, I am thinking about the incoming students, particularly the new freshmen. If I had the opportunity, here are a few pieces of advice I would give them:

  • Free speech dictates that everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are equal. right to an opinionOne of the purposes of a liberal education is to help you become skillful at using the tools of lifetime learning; some of these tools, used properly, will help you learn how to distinguish a good argument from bullshit—even when it is your own argument. I often say that a liberally educated person earns the right to have an opinion. The process of earning that right begins with realizing that your opinion is not special just because it is yours, and without challenge and analysis it means nothing with regard to whether it is true (or even a defensible position).
  • In the life of learning, comfort is vastly overrated. comfort zoneExpect to encounter people, ideas, situations and expectations that are both unfamiliar and well outside your comfort zone. You should be looking for these rather than trying to avoid them. If you manage to make it through your undergraduate college career without changing any opinion, belief, perspective or attitude, then your tuition dollars have been wasted.
  • The world of adulthood into which you are making your first, tentative forays can be a tough, nasty place. The world out there is full of people, ideas, things, and events that couldn’t care less if they lie within your current comfort is what it is As my wife would say, the world is what it is. Your years in college are not so much about your landing a well-paying job after you graduate as they are about the construction of a powerful and flexible moral and psychological framework of belief and commitment, from within which you will engage with what’s “out there” on a daily basis. It is not the world’s responsibility to provide you with comfort and security. It is your task to create and maintain a moral and psychological home for yourself in that world using all of the resources available to you, resources to sustain you on a life-long journey. By the way, you’ll be making significant renovations and additions to this home your whole life. Your professors are here to assist you in the construction of that home—good luck!

A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match. Christopher Nelson

The Poorest Deserve the Best

Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)

article_d62546f9c91b7ef2_1356881538_9j-4aaqsk[1]In his 2006 Christmas sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tells the story of a visit he made the previous week to Holy Family Hospital in the Palestinian West Bank as part of an ecumenical pilgrimage with the heads of several other Christian denominations in Great Britain. Holy Family Hospital has the best-resourced maternity unit in the whole of the West Bank, equal to the best in Israel. But because of the current storms of political conflict within Palestine, as well as the local Israeli and international economic sanctions against the Palestinian government, no one on the hospital staff is sure from day-to-day where funding for next month’s salary is coming from. neo1[1]Foreign donations pay for the state-of-the-art equipment, but making ends meet requires a daily seeming miracle.

As Rowan Williams held a new-born baby in his arms, an infant who had been abandoned by the side of the road by his mother and brought by a stranger to the hospital, he asked Dr. Robert Tabash, the medical director of the neo-natal unit, what keeps him and his staff going in the face of challenges that often must seem insurmountable. “What we are doing here is important,” Dr. Tabash replied, “because the poorest deserve the best.” Period. Simple as that. Continuing with his sermon after telling this story, the Archbishop asks those congregated in Canterbury Cathedral “When you hear that, I wonder if you can take in just how revolutionary it is . . . this is probably the most radically unique thing Christmas and Christians bring into the world.”

a-comic[1]As we begin yet another of the seemingly endless elecion cycles, as our elected officials threaten to allow the government to close down yet again–this time over the funding of Planned Parenthood, hamstringing or eliminating important social programs, it is more pressing than ever to ask what is to be done about our fellow citizens who are poor and disenfranchised, the ones upon whom the worst falls once again as we posture in favor of our preferred political and social agendas. As Rowan Williams points out, for those of us who claim to be guided by Christian principles, the Gospel message is clear. From the Beatitudes to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never wavers from the message that in the divine economy and social structure, the poor, the widows, and the orphans—the disenfranchised and those who continually fall through the cracks, in other words—are to be considered first. If there is one thing that guarantees divine judgment, imagesCAMKE8VSit is the failure to show paramount concern for “the least of these.”

And yet even Jesus, who himself was born into abject poverty and remained there his whole life, was fully aware of just how intractable these problems are. In the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus dining at the house of Simon the Leper, the very definition in that culture of an outcast. A woman arrives with an alabaster jar containing nard, a rare and expensive ointment. She breaks the jar and anoints Jesus’s head with the ointment, inviting well-aimed criticism from the disciples and others. “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And these critics were absolutely right—in their understanding of Jesus’s teaching, this was a violation of what has come be known as the “preferential option for the poor.”

Which makes Jesus’s response all the more shocking and confusing. “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.thepoor-1024x576[1]The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” Not exactly what the group at dinner expected, I imagine. What is he talking about? How to explain this apparent moment of self-centeredness? I have heard many theological explanations for Jesus’s dismissive comment about the poor; I have even heard this very scene twisted into a justification for not funding social programs intended to help those in need. And I don’t have a good explanation for why Jesus is throwing the very persons he raises to blessedness in the Beatitudes under the bus.

But there is a strange and powerful connection between Jesus’s “the poor you will always have with you” and the Palestinian physician’s “the poorest deserve the best.” Why do the poor deserve the best? welfare_two[1]In our world we so often connect help for those in need with a prior explanation of why they are in need. If you are in trouble through no fault of your own, then perhaps I’ll help. But if you are in need because of your own bad choices or laziness, then you’re on your own. Still, the call to raise the disenfranchised to primary attention does not ask why—it simply says “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” What makes the poor so special? Why do they deserve the best?

The very existence of the poor, and the stubborn resistance of poverty even in the face of our best efforts to make their situation better, is a continuing reminder that every time we attempt to address the intractable problems of the human condition with yet another economic/social program or redistribution, we run straight into our own poverty. ist2_1126926_building_walls_01[1]Every line we draw is partially drawn out of fear. Every wall we build to defend ourselves and keep out what we are afraid may destroy us is also a wall that keeps us in, a wall that will change us in ways we did not choose or want. Every human solution to fears and threats generates a new set of fears and threats. As soon as we try to sort out who we will empower and give the advantage to, we also identify who we are against; and that will undoubtedly create another round of poverty and anger and bitterness. Perhaps it is time to realize that the message of the gospel cannot be legislated or brought into existence through political action. What is required is far more personal.

Why do “the poorest deserve the best”? Not because they are in some strange way better than those who are not poor. The poorest deserve the best because, bottom line, all of us are incurably impoverished. Humanity itself suffers from poverty, the moral and imaginative poverty that time and again reproduces the same patterns of fear and violence. Despite our delusions of independence and self-made success, not one of us, not even the most financially secure and successful or confident law keeping and godly person, can in truth look after ourselves. The genius of the Christian narrative is that this is not only okay, it actually is the reason that God became human. In Deuteronomy, God tells the children of Israel that they have been chosen precisely because they are slaves and exiles, the most helpless community on the face of the earth. And this is why the poor are to be preferred—they are a constant reminder of the basic condition we all share.

This is also why we will always have the poor with us, why they will always stubbornly resist our best efforts to solve their problems. The poor will always be with us because we cannot escape our collective human impoverishment with exclusively human tools and strategies. Our giant goes with us wherever we go. The divine response? God does not let us have what’s left over from the grace given to holy and honorable people. God doesn’t look around for some small bonus that might come from the end-of-year surplus in the budget.118915129__368529c[1] God instead becomes one of us, an energizing force for change and reform that we cannot even imagine. As Archbishop Williams reminds us in his Christmas sermon,

The truth doesn’t change, “the truth sent from above,” about our own universal ruin and restoration and about what that lays upon us when we look at the various specific poverties we confront in our human family. We revert so readily to the idea that love must go where merit lies, that help must follow merit and achievement. But God apparently thinks otherwise.

My Imaginary Friend

From as early as I can remember, I had an invisible butler. My mother enjoyed laying my clothes out for the next day when I went to bed, but every laying out clothesonce in a while it was clear that someone else was stepping in to take care of my sartorial needs. I would wake up with unmatched socks laid out, or two shirts but nothing for the waist down, or no underwear, or shoes but no socks. Not wanting to insult my mother, I asked my father what was going on. “Oh, that’s your invisible butler,” he said. “Fancher Offenhowser Bullsmith.” “Since when have I had an invisible butler?” “Since he just showed up one day.” “How come I’ve never seen him?” “Because he’s invisible.”

It’s kind of cool but very unusual to have an invisible butler. My brother and mother—along with my father, of course—knew about it, but I didn’t tell anyone else. No one in first grade mentioned having an invisible butler, and I had already learned that I was different enough from my colleagues in school to negate the necessity of telling them about Fancher. He didn’t seem to work regular hours; I became suspicious when I put two and two together and realized that evidence of Fancher’s handiwork only showed up when Dad was home. WIN_20150716_185711But then at Christmas when I was five or six, amidst the usual paraphernalia under the Christmas tree was something entirely unexpected. Fancher had become visible. Not only did I now have a visible butler, but my butler was a troll.

Trolls have little cache these days—they are so stupid in the movies that they get turned into stone in “The Hobbit” by the rising sun, they fight on the wrong side of every fantasy epic battle, and they lurk on the Internet in order to mess up as many serious conversations as possible. But it wasn’t always that way. In the early 60s trolls were the thing. Thomas DamThe story of Thomas Dam, the Danish fisherman’s son who started carving trolls out of wood in the 1930s to support his impoverished family can be found on-line:

By the time the early 60s came around, Thomas Dam’s “Good Luck Trolls” were being machine produced to satisfy increasing demand and burst onto the international scene. Everyone wanted one. Soon there were cheap knock-off imitations everywhere, something that the Thomas Dam website warns against.

According to old fairytales trolls have magic powers. They love to make you smile and be happy. Some people say that Trolls also bring good luck. But be careful: only the ORIGINAL Dam Troll has magic powers. Therefore…look for the Dam logo and thereby be certain that you have the ORIGINAL GOOD LUCK TROLL.WIN_20150801_145305

Not to worry—Fancher has “Thomas Dam” stamped between his shoulder blades and “Made in Denmark” imprinted on the back of his neck. He’s an original. I apparently could get $200-$700 for Fancher on Ebay, depending on how close to mint condition he is, but that ain’t happening. He is my now retired butler, and he isn’t close to mint condition.

The arrival of Fancher kicked my father’s imagination into high gear as my cousins and brother now wanted trolls. They each received a small, cheap knock-off troll, each with unusual names. Dutch schultzJ. Arthur Flegenheimer for my brother (Dutch Schulz’s real name), Kempster Bloomville for one cousin (name taken off an exit sign on a Wisconsin interstate), and a temporarily nameless one for another cousin. My aunt kept pressing for a name, not wanting one son to feel inferior with a nameless companion. Speculation concerning the troll’s name was of the sort going on in the Gospel of Luke when friends and family wanted to know what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby’s name was going to be and Zechariah wasn’t saying anything. Zechariah and ElizabethSitting next to Aunt Gloria in the second row of church on a rare Sunday morning when he wasn’t preaching, Dad passed her a note in Zechariah-like fashion: “His name is Luman Lunchmonkee.” Gloria had a giggling and snorting fit entirely inappropriate for the director of the church choir—she had to absent herself from the sanctuary until she regained her composure.

In case you are becoming more and more worried about my sanity and that of my extended family, let me assure you that I can recall no moment at which I believed that Fancher was alive or could do anything other than stand pleasantly smiling with his arms outstretched wherever I placed him. Invisible friends who suddenly become visible are fun, just as long as you don’t cross to the other side and start thinking that they are real. This is a point that those proclaiming atheism love to make on a regular basis.

atheist imaginaryImaginary dovenapoleonYet there are billions of human beings who shape their whole reality and might even stake their lives on the premise that a certain invisible friend not only exists but plays an exceptionally important role in our understanding of ourselves and the reality we find ourselves in. I happen to be one of those billions of human beings. So have I simply transferred my childhood connection to my invisible butler to a far more interesting and complex imaginary friend who is no more real than Fancher? childish thingsDidn’t a text supposedly inspired by this cosmic imaginary friend suggest that when one becomes an adult, one is supposed to put away childish things?

So how do we gather evidence for the existence of something? When is it appropriate to believe in something whose existence you have not verified in the usual, direct sensory ways? This issue often arises in philosophy classrooms. When it does, I ask my students How many of you believe in the existence of Mongolia? All hands go up. How many of you have ever been to Mongolia? No hands go up. Then how do you know that Mongolia exists? My students generally provide a number of sensible reasons:

  • Because I have read about Mongolia in a book or on-line in stories written by people who have been there (although the authors of these sources might be lying).map of mongolia
  • Because I have seen pictures of Mongolia (even though we know that pictures can easily be misidentified or photo-shopped).
  • Because someone I know has been to Mongolia and told me about it (although this trusted source might be bullshitting me just for the fun of it).

The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate that we believe in the existence of thousands of things that we have not experienced directly. The testimony of others, although not perfect or entirely reliable, serves as a reasonably solid foundation for much of what we believe. Life is too short and human capabilities are too finite to limit our existential belief commitments to only those items that we have experienced directly ourselves.

For many, belief in the existence of what is greater than us—what some dismiss as an “imaginary friend”—begins in exactly the same way. The sacred texts of the great monotheistic religions are accounts of what people over the centuries have believed concerning the divine. This does not prove that something greater than us exists, any more than Wikipedia entries about Mongolia prove the existence of Mongolia,Notre Dame but they are a good place to start and there is no reason to dismiss them just because they are referring to something that we might lack direct experience of. For instance, I had believed in the existence of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for decades before I actually saw and experienced it for the first time a few years ago. But I doubt I would have eventually doubted its existence if I had never seen it myself. The indirect and second-hand evidence for its existence is too overwhelming. So it goes with God—it’s difficult to dismiss theism as a pervasive “imaginary friend” phenomenon when the reports are so ubiquitous.

But there’s nothing better than direct encounter. In my favorite book from the Jewish Scriptures, Job expresses it well. After decades of believing in God because of secondary evidence passed down over the generations, in the midst of intense pain and suffering he encounters the real deal.job “My ears had heard of you,” Job says, “but now my eyes have seen you.” First person contact trumps any number of secondary sources, but does not negate those sources—it gives them new meaning and energy. How do I know that God is not a figment of my imagination? As I have often written on this blog, the best evidence of divine reality is a changed life. I can organize the story of my life around the “before and after” of that encounter spread over several months a number of years ago. I’m not interested in proselytizing or evangelization—you should believe what your own experience can support. But as the formerly afflicted man in the gospels says, “I was blind, but now I see.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Candle in light

Books that Changed my Life: Gilead

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

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,

Gilead is as close to perfect as any book I have read.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?

There is that “seeing” thing again, the same attentive awareness that was on display in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last week. 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.