Category Archives: Bible

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.

wicked

The Wicked

debateThe morning after the recent Fox News-hosted debate amongst candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the appointed morning psalm in the Anglican monthly cycle of “read through the Psalms in a month” was Psalm 37. Usually there are three or four psalms each morning and each evening, but this is a long one. Subtitled “Reflections on Good and Evil” in the Grail translation that I use, the psalmist is focusing on the good guys and the bad guys, the “upright” and the “wicked.” The wicked are mentioned fourteen times in forty verses—clearly the psalmist is living in a world in which the wicked are prospering and upright folks (like the psalmist) are waiting for the day when the scales of justice will realign and the wicked will get what they deserve. There is little of the impatience with the divine’s apparent lack of action in this psalm that one finds in others with similar themes; here, patience, commitment, amalekitesand trust are the prescriptions for the upright as they wait for the wicked’s fifteen minutes of fame and power to end.

As she occasionally does, Jeanne joined me for my morning psalm, so I read it aloud. When finished, I asked “who do you think the ‘wicked’ are in this psalm?” “Probably the Amalekites, the Amorites, the Jebusites—one of those ‘-ites’ that the children of Israel were always worried about.” The people living in Palestine when the wandering Israelites showed up, claimed that Yahweh had given them the land that the “-ites” had lived in for generations, then proceeded upon divine authority to try to wipe the “-ites” out, in other words. I’m sure she’s probably right, but strangely the psalm got me to thinking about the debates I had seen the previous evening (I watched both the happy hour and main event debates). Just replace “upright” and “just” with “Republican” or “conservative,” then replace “wicked” with “Democrat” or “liberal,” and it all sounds very familiar.

It was clear that everyone on stage, for instance, was convinced of the truth of the following verses toward the end of Psalm 37:

I have seen the [liberals] triumphant, towering like the cedars of Lebanon. I passed by again; they were gone. I searched; they could not be found.vanish like smoke

In just a bit over a year, candidates promised in various ways, the accomplishments of the liberals will be no more. The Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, the proposed treaty with Iran—“they shall vanish, they shall vanish like smoke.” There was no doubt that many on stage suspected the bad guys of not only poor judgment but also of deliberate treachery.

The [liberals] make plots against the [conservatives] and gnash their teeth against them; but the Lord laughs at the [liberals], knowing that their day is at hand. . . . The [liberals] are watching for the [conservatives] and seeking occasion to destroy them. wicked and justThe Lord will not leave the [conservatives] undefended, nor let them be condemned when they are judged.

Although there was significant disagreement amongst the candidates about exactly how it will happen, all on stage agreed that before long, our long national nightmare will be over and conservative values will be restored.

See the [conservatives], and mark the [Republicans], a future lies in store for the righteous, but [liberals] shall all be destroyed. No future lies in store for the [Democrats].

Lest you think I am picking on Republicans and conservatives (and I am), Psalm 37 can work for liberals too.

The few things owned by the [liberals] are better than the wealth of the [conservatives]; borrowingfor the power of the [Republicans] shall be broken and the Lord will support the [Democrats].

Liberals don’t tend to describe the perceived truth of their beliefs as sanctioned by the divine, or at least not as often as conservatives do, but they could. Look around a little bit in your favorite sacred text and you can find something God says or does that will support your favorite thing. In addition, liberals suspect that in the reality many conservatives desire in their heart of hearts, there is no room for those who disagree.

wicked violenceThe sword of the [Republicans] is drawn, the bow bent to slaughter the [Democrats]. Their sword shall pierce their own hearts and their bows shall be broken to pieces.

My point is psychological rather than political. The discourse of Psalm 37 is of the same sort as the discourse in our current political climate, even our culture at large. It is one thing to disagree strongly with someone—that’s what discourse and debate are all about. But when the disagreement takes on a moral tone so that the person you disagree with is not only mistaken in your estimation, but also wrong in a moral sense (wicked or evil in biblical terms), then discussion and (God forbid) compromise become impossible. Simple listening becomes impossible. Positions become entrenched, opponents become vilified, and soon the stakes have become cosmic. The triumph of truth, justice, and the American way becomes dependent on my being right and those who disagree with me being dismissed as wicked and ungodly.

rubioThe problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to engage and discuss for very long in conversation with people whose beliefs and opinions are radically different from your own. As I listened to yesterday’s debates kasichI frequently managed for several minutes at a time to listen objectively and make some informed judgments about the various players. Rubio and Kasich seemed better prepared than Walker or Cruz, Paul chose to be combative while Bush did not, carsonCarson had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look to him, and so on. But then someone would state their position on some issue that matters to me and I would immediately fall into “You fucking moron! How the hell can any human being with a half-dozen working neurons actually believe that?” mode, from where it is but a short journey to the just vs. the wicked all over again. The offending person has morphed from someone I strongly disagree with into someone who the world would be better off without. It’s going to be a very long fifteen months.

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:

http://www.damworld.dk/9986264

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.

WIN_20150801_142942

Smith’s Pasture

Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Isaiah 12

Several years ago, during an infrequent return to northern Vermont where I grew up, Jeanne and I took a quick detour from Route 5 South to drive past the old homestead, the house in which I lived until age eleven. It was in poor repair, and seemed far smaller than when I was a kid. Most surprising was that Smith’s pasture, the cow pasture across the road that was the site of many childhood adventures, was gone. A tangle of trees and underbrush now grows where the gate to the pasture was. I’m hoping that if I had pushed through the brush I would have found Smith’s pasture on the other side, sort of like finding Narnia on the other side of the wardrobe. Because it was magic.

Growing up in the sticks has some definite plusses—how many city kids have a cow pasture at their disposal? Smith’s pasture was one of several unofficial playgrounds for my brother and me. Many were the summer mornings when my mother would pack us a lunch and we would climb over the fence into the pasture, limited only by the general directive to be back before dark. The generous Mr. Smith, whom I never met, gave my family free access to his pasture, while the evil Mr. Cole, who owned the adjacent pasture just down the road (and whom I also never met), refused such free access. Hiking, war games, superhero exploits—Smith’s pasture was the natural stage for just about anything two kids reaching double digits in age could come up with.

Vermont cow pastures bear little resemblance to the idyllic, flat pastures that bovines in other parts of the country enjoy. Smith’s pasture was a hill—a mountain in my childhood imagination—that  rose sharply from the road to a high plateau whose back boundary my brother and I never found. Large boulders and innumerable trees of all sorts were thickly spread across the hundreds of pasture acres. The slopes in portions of the pasture were steep enough that I often wondered what the dairy cows, not generally known for their mountain climbing abilities, thought of having to eke out their bovine existence in a less than congenial landscape.

Smith’s pasture was more than the regular locale for boyhood adventures. It was also the source of our annual Christmas tree. Each year in early December my brother and I would trudge up the hill in snow that was often waist deep, searching for the perfect tree. One year we returned at dusk with a tree so wide that it took us close to an hour to stuff it through the front door and so tall that our living room ceiling bent the top foot and a half over when we stood it upright. Only a special early infusion of Christmas spirit kept my mother from having a fit as we sawed off the bottom two feet in the middle of the living room rug.

It was only many years later that I put two and two together and figured out why Mr. Smith was so generous with access to his pasture. He may or may not have had a soft spot in his heart for children needing a place to explore—the real reason we had access to his pasture was the artesian well, located several hundred yards past the fence, which provided water for our house. A well-understood task accompanied our frequent treks into Smith’s pasture—don’t forget to check the well. It was my brother’s job to lift the hinged lid as high as he could—I was too small to do it—while I peered into the dim recesses below. “It looks fine!” “It’s a bit low!” or, one fateful afternoon—“It’s empty!!” This was distressing news, producing visions of no baths, no clothes or dish washing, and general aridness. The spring had widened a minor crack in the well wall into an exit route—it was many dollars and dry days later before the water was coaxed back into its proper location. When wells misbehave, life changes significantly.

One does not get very far reading in the Bible without encountering a well. In a largely desert landscape, of course, wells were both the source of life and the center of community activity. Isaac and Rebekah met at a well, as did Jacob and Rachel as well as Moses and Zipporah. Joseph’s older brothers threw him into a dried up well after he offended them one too many times. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4  is one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament. Battles were fought over wells. They are so prevalent and necessary in stories from a nomadic, arid land that it’s easy to imagine that they are natural parts of the landscape. But they aren’t. A well is a human attempt to harness the power of something very necessary but also very powerful—a spring of water.

As I learned at an early age in Smith’s pasture, springs do not always cooperate with our attempts to control and tame them. In ancient texts, springs and sources of water are sacred. This is not surprising, because water is necessary for life. A spring—an oasis—stands for life, for rest and refreshment. But it is the random power of a spring that most directly brings the divine to mind. Springs are as resistant to our attempts to control them as they are to our expectations.  Just when we think that we have the water under control, it decides to go somewhere else. This is the deepest secret to its living water: it transforms every obstruction into a new expression of itself: It turns every apparent barrier into a new channel..

This would be a good thing to remember every time I think I have God figured out, whenever my path to a frequently visited well becomes a bit too frequently traveled. But the divine spring has a mind and will of its own, apparently, and if I don’t pay attention, I will find my well, so carefully built to contain the spring, empty one day. And this is not a good thing—as Peter wrote, “these are wells without water . . . to whom the gloom of darkness is reserved forever.” It is easy to forget that the divine spring was never intended to be contained permanently in any external well, whether a building, a book, or any specific location. The good news, as Jesus told the woman at the well, is that the divine spring is “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And that well is me. And you. It’s a great idea—portable wells containing the most life-giving water ever imagined. I need go no further than where I happen to be to find out what the divine spring is doing.

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isa. 58:11

The Right Niyyah

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being,” a show that I frequently catch several minutes of on Sunday mornings as I drive the fifteen minutes from our house to the early show at church. A few weeks ago, her guest was Rami Nashashibi, Founder and Executive Director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, in Chicago. He’s also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology of Religion and Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.nashishibi

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

Graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he’s the leader of a globally-emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in post-9/11 America.

Not surprisingly, the conversation was wide-ranging, fascinating, and introduced me to a number of matters and issues that are well outside of my usual frame of reference. What particularly grabbed me, however, was a brief exchange toward the end of the interview, just as I was pulling into my usual parking spot at Trinity Episcopal.

Krista Tippett: I told you I was on your Twitter feed, and I love this. I think it was really recent. You wrote: “My 4-year-old discovers the spiritual power of her name as she looks over and seriously asks, ‘Daddy, do you have the right niyyah?’” What does niyyah mean?

Rami Nashashibi: So niyyah — in kind of Arabic-Muslim parlance — is spiritual intention. niyyahAnd oftentimes — it’s both the Swahili and Arabic word. And oftentimes, Muslims are always asked before they pray, before they do any act of service, before they engage in anything that has any kind of sense of worship associated with it, is it being done for the right niyyah? Is it being done for the right purpose? Are you attempting to get fame or credit? I think, yes, there was a song that had used her name in that way and the light went off in the middle of it and turned over to me on the couch and asked me that question. Honestly, I looked at her and I didn’t have an answer for her for I think a good 20 seconds. She nodded her head and she said, “No, probably not.”

And I said, “What?” We then had a conversation. I said, “Well, at least keep me in your prayers that I have.”

This four-year-old’s simple question—Do you have the right niyyah?—has stuck with me ever since. So has her response to her father’s lack of response—“No, probably not.” It’s hard enough to figure out what the right thing to do is on a daily basis; adding in that it should be done with the right intention, for the right reasons, seems like piling on.intentions and actions As a philosophy professor who has taught introductory ethics courses more times than I care to count over the past twenty-five years, I have thought about this a lot. When I ask my students “What is more important—what you do, or why you do it? Actions or intentions?” they usually split roughly down the middle.

And so do the great moral philosophers. There is the tradition of those who say that only results matter (since they can be observed and measured publicly) and intentions are irrelevant. Then there is the other tradition (spearheaded by Immanuel Kant) who say that results are irrelevant—the true measure of the moral life is internal. Were your intentions pure? Was your heart in the right place? If so, then you are morally in the clear, even if the results of your intended action go “tits up” (to quote my brother-in-law).

VgMKgyZMy students are pretty smart, and it doesn’t take very long before they realize that the “results or intentions” question is a false dichotomy. Because in truth, normal human beings care about both. If morality is just about doing the right thing, then the person who identifies the things that should be done and does them—even if for all of the wrong reasons, such as self-righteous smugness or the praise of others—is morally in the clear. But Nashashibi’s four-year-old daughter is right—we want not only the right thing to be done, but for it to be done with the right niyyah, the right intention or reason. And that sucks, because it takes things straight into the human heart. For those who profess the Christian faith, it also takes things straight into the world of grace.

The first thing I ever learned from Scripture about the human heart as a young boy was from JeremiahJeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked—who can know it?” Far less attention was paid to the Psalm that is recited in liturgical churches during the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” Straight from the Jewish scriptures is both the problem of and the solution for right intentions. As a flawed human being, I am incapable of doing things for the right reason, but help is available. Through divine grace the heart is changed and turned toward the good. Rami Nashishibi’s daughter is right when she doubts that her dad has the right niyyah, so long as that depends on his own energies and strength. But when the divine gets involved, everything changes.

The mystery of grace is exactly that—a mystery. Divine grace enters the world through flawed human beings, strangely enough, and there isn’t enough time to try to figure it out. Grace is something to be channeled, to be lived, not systematized and turned into dogma or doctrine. My bright abyssThe poet Christopher Wiman writes beautifully about this. Through many years of cancer treatments, he learned to hear God, then to channel God, in the most unlikely places, the very places where divine grace apparently lives. Wiman writes that

God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is composed of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. . . . All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

The right niyyah is not the result of struggle, training, or calculation. And as the author of Deuteronomy tells us,deuteronomy

Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

All I have to do to have the right niyyah is to open my heart, open my mouth, and let it out.

To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.

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.

It Must Be A Miracle

Today’s gospel reading is John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand–the only one of Jesus’ miracles recorded in all four gospels. Three summers ago I had the opportunity to give a sermon on this text. Here’s what I said.

582184_10102003755170495_50935280_n[1]My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as my good friend Marsue says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?” I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”6012827422_f194ba4e9c[1]

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human explanation. Or at least my explanation, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

Today’s gospel text engages us with perhaps Jesus’s most famous miracle—feeding 5000the feeding of the five thousand men (plus women and children). This miracle is reported in all four of the canonical gospels and, for once, they pretty much agree on the details. As is the case with all miracles, including Jesus walking on water in next week’s gospel reading, we are presented with a straightforward story of something happening that simply cannot have happened. What are we supposed to do with such a story, when we all know that thousands of people cannot be fed with five loaves of bread and two fish? How are we to think about, to be with, miracles?

I suggest that we begin with humility. Once a number of years ago—fifteen to be exact—while a still untenured member of the philosophy department at Providence College, I participated in a symposium on the late fides et ratioJohn Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) which had been released the previous year. The symposium was a shared event between the philosophy and theology departments. One member from each department would present a 20 minute paper, and a panel of four philosophers and theologians would present brief comments. Sounds like a lot of fun, huh? The original presenters would have a chance for response, then the whole thing would be turned over to audience questions and interaction.

I was asked to present the longer paper for the philosophy department. In it I did what philosophers do—I raised what I considered to be some critical problems with the encyclical, suggesting that the Pope might even have gotten some important things wrong—for instance his conclusion that reason must always submit to the authority of faith when they are in conflict. I knew from the start, of course, that this might be a bit controversial at a Catholic college—I was right. The audience that evening was impressive in size, exceeding what I’ve seen for any academic event in subsequent years at the college.Pius The larger community, particularly the parishioners of St. Pius V church across the street, had been invited and came in droves, expecting I’m sure to hear a cheerleading love-fest for their beloved Pope. Instead they got me raining on their parade. A colleague reported afterwards that one woman complained during the paper to her neighbor in a stage whisper: “I can’t believe they let people like him teach here!”

Rumblings during my paper exploded into direct challenge during the Q and A. After defending and clarifying my position—pretty well, I thought—for a few minutes, an exasperated older gentlemen in the front row asked “Dr. Morgan, is there no place in philosophy for humility?” I responded, honestly but perhaps a bit uncharitably, with a guffaw of laughter (if introverts ever guffaw). “The longer I do philosophy, the more I realize how much I don’t know!” Now I understood where the man was coming from—a place where honest challenges to pronouncements from authority, especially authority supposedly representing God, are viewed as prideful or worse. Furthermore, philosophy has the reputation for trying to logically explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. This reputation, unfortunately, has a good deal of evidence to support it.hamlet_yorick[1]

From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

Along with humility, the other ancient starting point for philosophy is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” Wonder is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility. Woven together, they turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. bubble_croman[1]Psalm 8 gets this connection exactly right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what is greater than us (“When I see the heavens . . .”), while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what is greater than us (“What are we . . .?).

I once heard a homily on a different gospel’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. The homilist, a Benedictine priest, struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. miracles“We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of fools that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So as a spirit of generosity spreads through the crowd, gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, angenerosityd no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why was the homilist, and why are we, inclined to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the miracle of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.imagesCASHIO2A

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine defines a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding thousands with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

Facts, Words, and the Word

TheHobbit_Sdtk_Cover_1425px_300dpi1[1]The day after Christmas a few years ago I went with my son to see Peter Jackson’s movie version of “The Hobbit,” Part One. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I knew I would. I have been a Tolkienphile since my early teens, when The Hobbit was assigned by Mrs. Lord (a great name for a teacher) in my high school honors freshman English class. I loved it, and innocently said to Mrs. Lord “I like this—has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact he has,” she replied, and turned me on to the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. It set off a love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien that has lasted for over forty years. Although I have strayed in the past few years, my first encounter with hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and humans in Middle Earth caused me, going forward, to religiously read all four books once every three years. And I suspect that had Mrs. Lord not assigned The Hobbit, I might not have discovered Tolkien for many years after, if ever. It was one of my first examples of the joys of unexpected literary discoveries. It probably also explains why I have never read a word of the “Harry Potter” series”–the next generations Tolkien, I suppose.

muriel_barbery_personnalite_une[1]I still enjoy the unforeseen pleasures of a new literary find. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked myself, upon finishing, a Mrs. Lord question: “I wonder if she’s written anything else?” Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, I found out in less than a minute that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is gourmet-rhapsody3[1]Barbery’s second novel, that she studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and worked for a number of years in France as a philosophy teacher. I immediately ordered her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, to read during the break between semesters.

It’s a short novel—a novella, really—that can easily be read in one day, especially if you have a cold and are resisting the siren call of work-related emails that you want to ignore until after New Year’s Day. In the midst of the story about a world-famous food critic who has been told that he has no more than two days to live, I read a sentence that has stuck with me over the past several months, even as the details of Barbery’s story drift away. “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis between words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress.”

As I get older and become more able to put years of teaching experience and continuing personal transition and process into some semblance of context and perspective, I find myself placed often at the intersection of words and facts. Facts, the one damn thing after another that provide the stuff of reality, are naked and uninteresting until shaped by a context, energized by a story, or illuminated by narrative light. Yet we live in a world which often insists on just the facts. As the insurance investigators tell Pi Patel in Life of Pi, after listening to his story of survival involving a hyena, an orangutan, a tiger, and a carnivorous island, “for the purposes of our investigation we want to know what really happened.The-Life-of-Pi[1] We want a simpler story for our report, one the company can understand and that we can all believe.” But the notion that the truth is nothing more than facts properly assembled in appropriate order is itself the result of a particular narrative structure, a structure guaranteed to produce stagnation and mediocrity. “I know what you want,” Pi responds. “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

If I have become convinced of anything in the twenty-five years that I have been teaching, it is that true learning only happens in the company of the desire to see higher, further, or differently. Accordingly, in the narrative of teaching and learning the atomic facts of reality are dressed up in various styles. Sometimes the dress is formal, sometimes casual, sometimes liturgical, and sometimes humorous. Occasionally learning happens best when facts are dressed as for a masquerade, deliberately seeking to conceal what is underneath. Almost never are facts served up naked, except to illustrate how dull and lifeless facts in the raw are, compared with what we might find in the word wardrobe to dress them in.

story_iStock_000015344866Small[1]Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that humans are story-telling animals, and as such we package the facts of our lives for ourselves and for each other in word-woven stories. But just as facts are, of themselves, incapable of conveying truth, so also it is often impossible for even the most skilled storyteller and communicator to encompass the highest truths with words. Human beings know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever tried to express the depths of real love finds that the reality always exceeds what can be expressed in words. As Reverend Ames says in Gilead, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.“ “Actions speak louder than words” is more than a truism or sound bite—it is an acknowledgement that the truth often must be shown rather than spoken or written about.

The inadequacy of both naked facts and the words we dress them in is shockingly apparent when entering the realm of religious conviction. This is especially the case when the religion in question involves sacred texts, words that supposedly carry divine weight in some fashion or another. inerrancy_Gerstner[1]I am a product of a version of Christianity that treats the Bible as literal fact—this leads to shallowness, agnosticism, atheism, or at worst, rigid self-righteousness. When the “facts” are dressed up in ornamental dress, the product is stories, metaphors, doctrine, or dogma, depending on the style and the word-fashion designer. But embedded at the heart of the Christian narrative is a challenge both attractive and provocative. As with all of the greatest truths, the most dynamic aspects of the relationship between the human and the divine cannot be reduced to words.

ChristmasB-in-the-beg[1]There is a reason why the writer of the Gospel of John begins by considering divine wordplay. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What sort of ceremonial dress is this? Alfred Korn puts it this way: “God is spirit, but at some point in history God became Word. This process of finding words for what cannot be expressed is incarnation.” As the Gospel writer tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The depths of divine love cannot be exhausted by words, by speech, by texts, by facts dressed up in even the fanciest garb. www-St-Takla-org--Coptic-Saints-Saint-Athanasius-03-01[1]These depths must be lived in and inhabited. And so the story goes—we are the continuing incarnation. As Saint Athanasius provocatively said, “God became human so that we might become God.” The Word continues to become flesh and live with us, because the Word is us. The life of faith is the life spent exploring what that amounts to and living it out.

Books that Changed My Life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Not long ago I posted the following on Facebook: What books have changed your life? I don’t mean which books do you think are “greatest” or at the top of the “Great Books” canon, but which books came along at just the right time in your life and changed something significant? The response was fascinating, with dozens of my Facebook acquaintances (and theirs) listing interesting and eclectic offerings from Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of my own life-changing titles—please share yours and let’s keep the conversation going!patc

At a writer’s workshop several summers ago one of the writing coaches gave us writer wannabes a terrific question to ask every time we write. “With Middlemarch and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the world, why would anyone be interested in this?” Over the twenty years or so since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time, I have occasionally mentioned to friends whose opinions I highly respect how the book has influenced me. More often than not, my friend has replied that she read it years ago and didn’t finish it, or he confesses that “I just don’t get it.” One said “I didn’t like it much when I read it, but I’ve never been able to forget it.” I understand these reactions—Dillard’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner is odd, quirky, eclectic, and one-of-a-kind. And it has helped me to see the world around me and myself differently.

leaf minerOur life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Annie Dillard is an intense observer of details, capable of seeing things that escape the notice of just about everyone. She finds worlds of complexity and interest in the tiniest matters—I often think of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who when I read Dillard. But I have encountered skilled natural observers before—Hortonwhat makes Dillard different is that she invites the reader into a new kind of seeing altogether. Given, as she writes, that most of us “waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves,” how do we learn to get out of the way and see what is actually there instead of what we expect to see?

There is another kind of seeing, which involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

And what Dillard sees is that “Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” Dillard Frog and Bug 3From the slow-train-wreck horror of watching a giant water bug paralyze a small frog then suck the frog’s insides out through a puncture hole to the gratuitous beauty of a mockingbird free-falling from a five-story roof only to swerve and land light as a feather just a couple of feet before crashing into the earth—just because it can—Dillard finds that we are surrounded by endless details that belie our constant attempts to categorize and “figure out.”

Dillard is not the least bit hesitant to ask the big questions that arise from her intense attention to detail. As she describes it in another of her books, she continually participates in “unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” tea cupOur attempts to understand the big picture, however, must always begin with what is the case rather than what we would like to be the case. This requires learning how to see unfiltered.

What we know, at least for starters, is here we—so incontrovertibly—are. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die. In the meantime, in between time, we can see. The scales are fallen from our eyes, the cataracts are cut away, and we can work at making sense of the color patches we see in an effort to discover where we so incontrovertibly are. It’s common sense: when you move in, you try to learn the neighborhood.

Practicing this sort of seeing was an “eye opener” for me (pun intended), opening previously undiscovered pathways I had always longed to follow. They led to ways of thinking about God that blew me away.

We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet. praying mantisThere is not a people in the world who behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is packed with page after page of excruciatingly detailed observations of violence and ugliness in the natural world, to the extent that my students sometimes wonder why Dillard finds it necessary to pound her readers over their heads with a basic fact: Nature is both violent and beautiful, deadly and life-giving. “Enough already!” they complain. Dillard’s point is not to fill up pages but rather to force us to face the implications of what we are seeing, including what these truths tell us about what is greater than us. What sort of being or process is responsible for this?

How many people have prayed for their daily bread and famished? They die their daily death as utterly as did the frog, people, played with, dabbled upon, when God knows they loved their life. AlgonquinsIn a winter famine, desperate Algonquin Indians “ate broth made of smoke, snow, and buckskin, and the rash of pellagra appeared like tattooed flowers on their emaciated bodies—the rose of starvation, in a French physician’s description; and those who starved died covered with roses.” Is this beauty, these gratuitous roses, or a mere display of force? Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

Dillard knows full well that such Job-like challenges to the Divine are “out of bounds” in many circles, but she isn’t having it. “We are people,” she writes, “we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!” As she asks elsewhere, “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” The fact is that what we are seeing is not what we would expect to see in a natural world created and overseen by a benevolent deity. dome of heavenSetting aside traditional constructs and concepts, Dillard freely explores other possibilities.

Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?

I had wondered about this since my early years as a young Baptist boy, but this was the first time I found it in print. And it inspired me to fearlessly track what I see to what might be behind the scene—regardless of where it might take me.

But as Dillard regularly reminds her readers, terror and beauty are intertwined in our world, so intimately that our attempts to separate them will invariably fall short.

No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax—how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek? . . . Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

When I remember to get out of my own way, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek serves as a standard for me, a standard of how to see differently. pearlThis theme of learning how to truly see weaves through many of the texts that have influenced me over the past several years—Annie Dillard was the first to introduce me to it.

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. . . . But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

Achieving Disagreement–in real time

God is in favor of same sex marriage because God placed a rainbow in the sky when the Genesis flood was over. QED. Me on Facebook

On the day before Independence Day I posted an appeal for a patriotic commitment to learning how to achieve disagreement on controversial issues.

Patriotism and Achieving Disagreement

I wrote that post a week earlier; little did I know that the very next day I would have the opportunity to work on this myself! I have often told anyone who would listen that the only reason I am on Facebook is that it provides an excellent vehicle for the dissemination of my blog (as do Twitter and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn). But on the Saturday after writing about achieving disagreement I was having Facebook fun. scotusIn the wake of two Supreme Court decisions in which the majority of the justices had the good sense to agree with my own beliefs, and with only three days remaining before the official beginning of sabbatical, I was feeling good. With a bit of time on my hands I started throwing some things out there for Facebook consumption. Here are a few:

      • I’ve been reading a lot of bad arguments today in which people use the Bible to support their position on same-sex marriage. noah rainbowNot wanting to be left out, here’s mine: God is in favor of same sex marriage because God placed a rainbow in the sky when the Genesis flood was over. QED.
      • I think the President enjoyed being President this week–perhaps for the first time in six and a half years.
      • For anyone still worried that same-sex marriage threatens the institution of marriage, meet two of those threatening people. Buster and Donna
      • As usual, I am proud of my Episcopal Church. I offer this statement from the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island as an alternative to the religious outrage over yesterday’s SCOTUS decision being expressed by Catholic leadership and conservative Evangelicals. Episcopal Bishop welcomes Supreme Court’s decision on marriage
      • I posted a link to this very cool map: States where same sex marriage is legal
      • I put rainbows on my Facebook picture:11148764_894263030653625_8472445222747219276_n
                And finally:

For those who are inclined to quote (or misquote) the Bible to support their anti-same sex marriage position, one of my all-time favorite television scenes:

This one produced one of the most interesting Facebook conversations I have ever participated in on Facebook, BINEa conversation with a man I knew as a teenager during a year at Bible school more than four decades ago and with whom I connected on Facebook just a few months ago. Here is that unedited conversation.

  • XXX: The important emphasis should never have been and shouldn’t now be Gay or not Gay but rather Saved or not Saved. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Emphasis should always be Jesus Christ. The rest will sort itself out.
  • ME: I agree with your sentiment about the emphasis on Christ. I find the Evangelical “saved/not saved” language to be as problematic as the Roman Catholic “extra salus nulla ecclesiam [no salvation outside the church].”
  • XXX: Saved/not saved problematic? Is there a third option? Perhaps the mark is missed when the saved forget 1 John 1:6….” the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”
  • ME: The obvious third option is to refuse to use the “in/out” binary altogether. Christianity is one way to seek God–one of many. As a good friend of mine who is also a fine Catholic theologian says, “I fully expect to see my Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers in heaven.” Assuming there is a heaven, that is.
  • XXX: Hmmm what we expect and what we get are two very different things. So either the Gospel of Christ is true or it is false and thus the plan of salvation is either true or false and thus the words of scripture are either true or false. Yes there are many perceived ways to seek God. Death will bring the true answer for each one of us.
  • ME The good news is that God loves us and has made it possible for us to have relationship with the divine. above my pay gradeMaking definitive judgments about which ways of seeking that relationship are legitimate and which ways are not is well above any human being’s pay grade.
  • XXX Really?.. even when scripture says that the only way to the Father is through Jesus Christ? How does the Muslim get around that? Allah? Seems scripture is very easy to follow and understand unless as I said above that the scriptures are false to begin with.
  • ME You and I are working within very different frameworks, XXX. You’re assuming that I accept the Bible as the exclusive word of God, God’s only way of communicating with human beings. assumeYou are assuming that I accept the judgmental, narrow version of Christianity that I was raised in and that my father spent his adult life breaking free of. You are assuming that a God who is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance is willing to send the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived to eternal damnation. And you assume that “scripture is very easy to follow and understand.” I share none of those assumptions.
  • XXX I do appreciate you being very candid. You are correct–two very different frameworks of thought. And I apologize– Yes my assumptions were incorrect. We all choose the roads we travel on. Only death will prove whether or not those roads were the right ones.
  • ME I have appreciated the exchange, XXX, and agree with your final sentiment. I’d like to continue the conversation in the future.
  • XXX agreed.

I congratulated my friend on the birth of his latest grandchild a couple of days later when he posted the news on Facebook and we promised to continue the conversation soon. I’m looking forward to it.

achieveAfter our exchange, which spread over a couple of hours, was finished I thought “wow—maybe we just achieved disagreement!” It’s most unlikely that either one of us will nudge the other very far away from our very different frameworks of thought and belief relevant to same sex marriage, engagement with the divine, or what happens after we die. But it was a civil, even friendly, conversation between two people who significantly disagree on important issues because we began by finding some places where we agree. Imagine that.