Category Archives: Bible

The Right Niyyah

As I wait impatiently for my sabbatical that is under contract with a publisher to return from the editor, I’ve been thinking about some of my blog essays that “made the cut” in some sense to appear in revised form in my book-to-be. One of these essays is about the challenge of cultivating the right attitude with which to enter the world on a daily basis. I learned a lot about this from Rami Nashishibi when he was interviewed a year or so ago on Krista Tippett’s “On Being.”

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 Christian 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.

the onion

Repairing an Angel

I love The Onion. A couple of weeks ago they reported on a sad event at the Vatican:

Angel flies into window at the Vatican

The story reminded me of another damaged angel who I wrote about not long ago . . .

As I sat at home last Tuesday, doing the things I would normally have been doing in my office on a Tuesday (thanks Winter Storm Juno for coming on a day I don’t have classes), I managed to avoid checking Facebook until early afternoon. When I did, I saw that my daughter-in-law Alisha had posted a link to a white aura“What Color is Your Aura?” personality test. I hadn’t taken one in a while (they used to be a mindless and fun obsession) so I bit.

What Color Is Your Aura?

I had done this one before a while ago (I think I got yellow) and was pleasantly surprised by the following: A white aura means you are intensely spiritual, possibly surrounded by angels. You are good, honest, quiet and a bit shy, but full of light. Congratulations! You are an amazing person. The usual on-line personality attempt to “pump you up”—but I like it. Of most interest was that I am “possibly surrounded by angels.” I’ve always found the very idea of angels, especially guardian angels, strangely attractive yet entirely outside the reach of reason and logic. Strangely this reminded me of a place that I not only don’t like much but is about as different from Juno-invaded Providence as possible: memphis in mayMemphis, Tennessee.

One of the few things I remember fondly about the city of Memphis, where we lived for three years in the middle nineties, is “Memphis in May.” This is an annual event in Memphis during which the city celebrates the culture, food and history of a country selected in advance. It was (and I presume still is) a big deal, providing us with a welcome window into the world beyond the Mid-South parochialism and Southern “hospitality” that we found so challenging. We arrived in Memphis in August 1991, just in time for the beginning of the 91-92 academic year at Christian Brothers University, the place the inscrutable gods of academics chose for me to begin my career as a philosophy professor. We were not amused. But a couple of months into 1992, we started hearing about “Memphis in May”—and the country of choice met with our strong approval.

Italy. I knew nothing about Italians or things Italian until Jeanne and I met; once we were together permanently by the end of 1987 (we had met a month earlier), it was a quick education. bensonhurstA girl from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—Italian father, Irish mother. Youngest of five, with three older, large Italian brothers and one older sister. Jeanne often describes herself by saying “I look Irish but I act Italian;” the latter part of that description is true of all of her siblings as well. The nature of an Italian father together with the nurture of being raised in a Sicilian neighborhood pretty much clinched the deal. By the time we made it to Memphis, our stepfamily was still relatively new; none of us liked Memphis at all (with the inexplicable exception of my older son), and we gladly anticipated seeing what Southerners might do to celebrate Italy.

The celebration must not have been that great, because I remember absolutely none of it—except the poster.011 The central figure is a Raphael-esque angel in gold and earth tones, contemplatively smiling and holding a garland as she walks down stairs containing the notes of “Spring,” the opening movement from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” There is also a lute on the second stair and a random, oddly shaped chair at the top of the steps with a palm, fruit tree, and cedar trees in the background. It thought it was pretty, particularly because I thought the angel with its curly, reddish hair looked something like Jeanne. I spent more disposable money than we really had available to get it framed for Jeanne’s birthday—it has hung somewhere in our home for the last twenty-four years.

Our Italy-poster angel is not the only wall-hanging angel in our house. A few years ago (even elephant-memory Jeanne can’t remember when), we purchased a ceramic angel who has hung on our dining room wall ever since. Let’s call her Hannah. 005Hannah hung happily for a long time attached by one of those wonderful Velcro contraptions that both hold things securely and can be removed from the wall without leaving a mark when necessary. One evening as I watched television in the close-by living room, I heard a crash. Usually such a noise is the effect of something one of the dogs has done, but not this time. Hannah had decided that she had hung in her particular spot long enough and fell five or six feet to the floor (she hadn’t flown for a while so was out of practice), shattering into five or six pieces. Fortunately she did not shatter into dust—fitting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle I thought “this is fixable.” “I’ll fix Hannah with Super Glue,” I told Jeanne when she returned home. This was a bold prediction.

I super gluehave a checkered history with Super Glue. Given Jeanne’s obsession with all things bovine, a decade or so ago I frequently purchased ceramic miniatures of the various “Cow Parade” cows that popped up in city after city. Soon we had more than a dozen of them; we even had a three-tiered display stand in the corner of the living room upon which these ceramic cows lived and grazed. That is until the day that Stormy, my son’s cat who was living with us while Caleb and Alisha were residing in the basement for a few months after they moved to Providence from Colorado, did a typical feline thing and knocked the display stand over just for the hell of it. cow paradeTiny horns and legs snapped off each Cow Parade treasure (they weren’t cheap). I gathered the parts and said “I’ll fix them with Super Glue.” As it turns out, Super Glue is great when you can clamp the things being glued together for thirty seconds (impossible when one of the items is a couple of molecules in length.) It is also great when the gluee’s fingers are not larger than the tube of glue and the things being glued. After many mishaps in which the only things being glued effectively were the tips of my fingers, I despaired as a repair failure. Jeanne took pity on me and put all the broken bovines into a box and put them into the attic where they still reside. Two of the less damaged ones are still in the living room, one missing a horn and one missing a hoof.

So my plan to repair the fallen angel with Super Glue was contrary to my past. But Hannah is larger than a Cow Parade figure, and her five or six pieces fit together nicely. Amazingly enough, the glue held, Hannah was deposited back on the wall (with more Velcro devices), and there she hung for a year. Until we decided to repaint the dining room over Christmas Break a month ago. I detached Hannah carefully in one piece from the wall and laid her, along with a number of other items (including the Italy angel poster) in the book room while we painted the dining room. It turned out beautifully; the day came to put everything back on the wall. hannahThat morning as I arose from reading in a book room chair next to where Hannah was lying, my clumsy foot touched her just directly enough to snap her trumpet and both of her hands off, each severed hand holding half of her broken trumpet. “No biggie,” I thought—“I’ll fix Hannah with Super Glue,” as I had the last time. But the detached pieces were eerily reminiscent in size of the tiny bovine items I had failed to repair in the past, and all of a sudden I was reliving the frustration of trying to repair midget cows. After several failed efforts, I said (loudly) “I’M ABOUT READY TO SHOVE THIS TRUMPET UP YOUR ANGELIC ASS!” and started thinking about what an angel with no hands and no trumpet might look like on the wall. Maybe nobody would notice.

Then I remembered that between my cow failures and now I have learned something about peace, avoiding frustration, and things angelic (sort of). Repeating the phrase that regularly calms and centers me when needed—“Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace”—I returned to the handless and trumpetless Hannah. Suddenly it didn’t seem so impossible to hold two tiny ceramic pieces together solidly without wiggling for a full minute. 004Suddenly it occurred to me to slide a book of just the right thickness under her newly attached trumpet and hands so they could meld with full Super Glue strength to the rest of Hannah without being threatened by gravity. I calmly left the room and did not check on her until the next day. Sure enough, Hannah was once again whole, a cooperative effort between Super Glue and peacefully centered me. Hannah now presides over the archway between the dining room and the kitchen. I don’t know if real angels ever need repair. But if they do, I recommend Super Glue and lots of Psalm 131.006

Invading the Impossible

A couple of Sundays ago the gospel reading from Luke prompted our rector and my friend Mitch to suggest that Jesus is not someone you would ever want to invite to dinner. Why? Because Jesus’ behavior and the stories he told indicate that he had little interest in or patience with the way things are “supposed to be done.” For instance, he suggests that when you throw a dinner party, everyone is welcomeyou should not invite your best friends and closest family, the people who you know and love the most and whose presence is guaranteed to make the evening a success (they also are the people who are likely to extend a return invitation to you in the future). Rather, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind . . . because they cannot repay you.” In Providence, and I suspect in many locations, it has seemed over this past summer that every busy intersection has a person or two standing with a container and a homemade sign that says something like “Homeless—anything helps. God bless you.” There has been a lot of chatter in various places about where all these people came from, are they really homeless or is this actually an organized scam, and so on. Jesus not only would not ask those questions, homelessbut he would also bring all of these folks along to your house for a meal if you invite him to dinner. So think carefully before you invite him—there’s no telling what he might do or say.

A few days later at the opening of the semester mass that also officially kicked off my college’s 100th anniversary year, the gospel for the day was from earlier in Luke. This time Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a high fever, Jesus heals her, “and immediately she arose and served them.” The word gets around town, of course, that the healing man is here and as evening falls everyone with anything wrong with them either makes their way or is brought to Jesus. Throughout the night he heals them all. As one might expect, he’s exhausted by the time morning arrives and, as introverts will do, “he departed and went into a deserted place.” But showing a typical lack of respect for an introvert’s need for solitude and battery recharging, “the crowd sought him and came to him, and tried to keep him from leaving them.” Just a normal twenty-four hours in the life of the Son of God.

So what are we to make of such stories if one professes to be a follower of Jesus and to at least be on the fringes of Christianity? My natural and immediate reaction from my earliest years has always been twofold. First, this guy was strange. Second, his being both human and divine equipped him to do stuff that normal human beings can’t do. Neither of those reactions is profound or unusual; it’s difficult to know what one is supposed to make of the gospel stories, particularly if they are intended to provide us with guidance for how to live a human life. global awakeningsBut not long ago I came across an “out of left field” observation about Jesus in action that jerked me up short.

Jeanne spent three weeks in June at an extended conference and workshop in Pennsylvania at a place called “Global Awakenings,” returning with much to be thankful for and much to share. All of the speakers and teachers she spent the weeks with can be listened to on-line, so over the summer I spent a good deal of time listening to and becoming acquainted with what these folks are up to. I’ve enjoyed and learned a great deal from my listening, but I resonated particularly with one fellow named Bill JohnsonBill Johnson. A few days after we listened together to one of his talks, Jeanne said “I have something from one of Bill’s books that I want to read to you.” Here’s what she read:

Jesus could not heal the sick. Neither could he deliver the tormented from demons or raise the dead. To believe otherwise is to ignore what he said about himself, and more importantly, to miss the purpose of his self-imposed restriction to live as a man. Jesus said of himself, “the Son can do nothing.” He had no supernatural capabilities whatsoever. He chose to live with the same limitations that man would face once he was redeemed. He made that point over and over again. Jesus became the model for all who would embrace the invitation to invade the impossible in his name. He performed miracles, signs, and wonders as a man in right relationship to God . . . Johnsons booknot as God. If he performed miracles because he was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if he did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue his lifestyle. Recapturing this simple truth changes everything.

“Wow!” I said—“Holy shit!” I thought—“That’s really out there.” One of several endorsements at the beginning of the book describes the author, Bill Johnson, as “one of the nicest persons I know, and one of the most dangerous.” That’s not an overstatement. Because if what he writes about Jesus is true, then there is no place for those who profess to follow Jesus to hide.

One of the great theological and doctrinal debates in the early Christian church had to do, not surprisingly, with how we are supposed to understand Jesus. Human? God? Both? The winner in the debate, as embedded in the Nicene Creed that Christians in many churches recite every week, was “Both.” Which is, of course, very confusing. Various groups have tended to emphasize one aspect over the other ever since. nicene creedMy own tendency has always been to embrace the human side of Jesus rather than divinity, a tendency that over the past several years has evolved into a strong resonance with incarnation, the divine choice to be in the world in human form. I’m convinced that this was not a one-time deal. God continues to be in the world in human form, in you and in me. The passage from Bill Johnson’s book resonates fully with a strong embrace of incarnation. So far so good.

But as many, I tend to waffle when it comes to the miracles of Jesus. Amazing things happen in his wake everywhere he goes; all he has to do is show up. It’s easy simply to say “Well of course—he was the Son of God.” Bill Johnson’s argument is controversial, first and foremost, because it takes this “out” off the table. His argument also makes a lot of sense—it’s just that most followers of Jesus, including me, aren’t ready to hear it. AthanasiusAthanasius provocatively once said that “God became man so that man might become God,” exactly what Bill Johnson is arguing. Jesus is an example and model of what a human being attuned to the divine is like, of what is possible for those of us who take our faith seriously. The idea of incarnation, of God working in the world in and through human beings, is a beautiful one—but it is also intensely challenging. Jesus told his followers that they would do greater things than he did, and that includes us. Are we sure that we are ready to “invade the impossible”?

Good Morning, Psalms

Last Thursday, in just our second class of the semester, I had the opportunity to introduce my ethics students to the master of all things ethical. The key to Aristotle’s understanding of the life of human flourishing is that such a life depends on the formation of the best habits—Aristotle ethicsthe virtues—to guide one’s life. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, good habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. Habits are established by repetition and, once formed, are often very difficult to change. Accordingly, one should take great care that one’s moral habits are the right ones (virtues) and not the wrong ones (vices), since the wrong habits, once entrenched, will be next to impossible to replace with better ones.plato footnote

I have taught Aristotle’s ethics for many years and believe that although Alfred North Whitehead was probably correct when he said that all of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, the best thinking about ethics begins with Aristotle. And his insights concerning the importance of habits are relevant beyond the ethical realm. I find myself in the best physical shape of my life now in my early sixties because several decades ago my grudging daily trips to the gym somehow turned into a habit that I no longer had to talk myself into. Reading psalms with 100_0670Benedictine monks in Minnesota three times a day during my 2009 sabbatical established a habit of reading the three or four psalms appointed for each day in the Book of Common Prayer that continued for several years after my sabbatical ended. Between my alarm at 5:15 AM and getting to the gym by its 6:00 opening time I read the day’s psalter aloud (or murmured it, lest I awaken the dogs and Jeanne). I am convinced that this simple habit both helped transfer important changes in my life from sabbatical to real life, and also contributed to the preservation of my sanity as I juggled full-time teaching with the additional full-time duties of running a large academic program for four years.

But then I lost the habit, under the strangest of circumstances. My next sabbatical arrived, and with the prospect of unlimited time to rest, re-center, read, and write in front of me, somehow the daily regimen of early morning psalm reading fell by the wayside. I no longer needed to arise at 5:15, I rode my new bicycle obsessively instead of daily workouts at the gym, I applied myself energetically to my sabbatical writing project, and somehow my simple ten to fifteen minutes alone with the psalms every morning didn’t make the cut. habitsI made no conscious decision to end the habit—I just did. If Aristotle is correct in saying that well-established bad habits are very difficult to break, it turned out—in my case at least—that good habits can be broken very easily. I didn’t even realize consciously that my psalm reading habit had gone by the wayside for several weeks; once I noticed its absence, I made a few half-hearted attempts to start again over the following months. But they didn’t take.

I returned to the classroom for the first time in fifteen months a week ago, and decided that along with a return to a 5:15 wake-up call, I would attempt to re-establish my psalm reading habit. With only a week under my belt, the returns are promising; coming back to the psalms has been like becoming reacquainted with very wise friends who have been away for a while. My renewed acquaintances include:

Monday, August 29: Psalm 139

The opening psalm on the list for my first day back was one that, depending on my mood and what’s going on in my life, has been either very disturbing or deeply comforting.

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away . . .

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast . . .

big[1]For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Sometimes this Psalm reads like a description of a divine stalker, but more often the mere improbability that the creator of the universe cares about lil’ ole me is overwhelming. If I were inclined to be an atheist, or at least an agnostic, it would probably be because of this very point—the idea that God cares about human beings in any specific sense at all. Most of what we observe and experience screams against it. Our obvious insignificance screams against it.

Psalm 139 offers hope in the face of insignificance. Perhaps there is one place where I do not need to be an impostor or be overwhelmed by my insignificance, a place where I am known better than I know myself and am valued more highly than I could ever manufacture. The other day at convocation, NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist kristofNicolas Kristof told the hundreds of students and faculty in attendance that at those times when one feels insignificant, like a single drop of water in a very large bucket, a drop that can’t possibly make a difference, we should remember that buckets are filled by one drop of water at a time.

Tuesday, August 30: Psalm 146

The final entries in the collection of 150 poems are praises of various sorts—noon prayers at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the place where I first learned to inhabit these ancient poems, include one of the final five psalms in rotation. I always looked forward to Psalm 146, which for me summarizes what God—and therefore those who profess to follow God—cares about the most.

It is the Lord who keeps faith forever, who is just to those who are oppressed.

It is God who gives bread to the hungry, the Lord, who sets prisoners free,

the Lord, who gives sight to the blind, who raises up those who are bowed down,

the Lord, who protects the stranger and upholds the widow and orphan.john the baptist

When John the Baptist sends some of his followers from his prison cell to ask Jesus whether Jesus is the Messiah, “the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus responds in the language of Psalm 146. Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are being fed, strangers are being welcomed, and those imprisoned are being set free. That’s how you can tell when the divine is in the house, when human beings are in tune with what is greater than themselves. Imagine how different our nation, our world, would be if the above lines were the defining touchstone for success.

Thursday, September 1: Psalm 1

The compilers of the Psalms chose to kick things off with a description of happy people, those who “delight in the law of the Lord.”

They are like a tree that is planted bedside the flowing waters,

That yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all that they do shall prosper.

006I have always been fascinated with trees, but have come to love them in a deeper way over the past several years. Their stability, rootedness, and beauty have become iconic for me. I write about trees frequently in this blog: within the past few months I have written about Tolkien’s Ents, arboreal survival strategies, oaks of righteousness, and how the removal of a 150+ year old tree on campus this summer was traumatic for all involved. In an interview with Krista Tippett, theologian Ellen Davis said that “anything in our world now that slows us down is to be valued and maybe as a gift and even a calling from God.” The fact that the first analogy in the Psalms for the person who “meditates on God’s law day and night” is a tree silently proceeding through its seasons of fruitfulness and prosperity confirms Davis’ insight. I may not meditate on God’s law day and night, but fifteen minutes a day is doable.

hey-relax-buddy-im-working-on-it

I’m Working On It

Any caring human being asks the question What is the right thing to do? on a regular basis. As a philosophy professor who teaches ethics regularly, IrisI am aware that in the minds of many, the whole purpose of thinking systematically and rigorously about the moral life is to provide reliable and confident answers to that very question. Moral philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Iris Murdoch, from Aristotle to MacIntyreAlasdair MacIntyre, have provided frameworks within which to answer the question. But each framework is different, they are often incompatible with each other, and philosophers do not agree on which aspects of the moral life are most important in a moral analysis. Some focus on the consequences of an action, others stress the reasons behind one’s actions, still others argue that the character of the person making the choices and doing the actions is most important of all. In short, philosophy’s answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is, at least partially, “Which philosopher are you currently studying?”

Such disagreement among those who are supposed to be the experts often leads to the conclusion that moral certainty must be sought elsewhere—in religion, for instance. If one is convinced that God not only exists but has bothered to let human beings know the divine preferences for human behavior, then faith promises to provide a far more reliable foundation for knowing the right thing to do than anything pointy-headed philosophers might come up with.is god real But scratch the surface of the religious option and a whole bunch of additional questions pop up. Which God? Which sacred text? What about conflicting claims within the same tradition or the same text? Those from outside the camp of religious faith consider these awkward and essentially unanswerable questions to provide strong evidence that atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the way to go, while those who cling to their faith tend to get defensive and judgmental toward those who disagree.

I have spent the past several weeks preparing my syllabus, assignments, and lesson plans for the two sections of introductory ethics that I’ll be teaching this fall. In my twenty-five years of professorhood, I have taught at least fifty sections of introductory or upper division ethics courses, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than throwing students headfirst into the deep end of the “What is the right thing to do?” pool. By the time they are eighteen years old, just about every human being has been exposed just enough to a possible set or two of answers to this question to assume that they’re all set and have the moral life generally figured out. disturbing the peaceMy job as a philosophy professor is to disturb the peace starting on the first day of the semester. There is nothing more gratifying than to hear at the end of the semester, as I did from a student at her final oral exam two or three years ago, that “this course really messed me up—but that’s a good thing!” Mission accomplished.

But I’m not just a philosophy professor—I’m a regular human being as well. My professional training and natural disposition makes me generally skeptical of any claims to moral certainty—I frequently tell anyone who will listen, from the classroom to the blogosphere, that certainty is vastly overrated. (A quick search just revealed that I have used that very phrase eight times in blog essays). But I am also a person of faith, raised in a religious tradition that supposedly equipped me with the tools (scripture, prayer, authority, guilty conscience, and more) to provide definitive guidance when wondering about what the right thing to do is. working on itHow do I make being a philosopher and a person of faith work together, or at least not be in perpetual tension? As my youngest son Justin likes to say when challenged concerning important things: I’m working on it. This very issue is the central theme of this blog—after four years of hanging my struggles out for public display, I’m working on it. My sabbatical book that is under contract and will be out early next year is all about this. I’m working on it. When pressed for a summary of where my working on it stands in real time, two passages come to mind.

The first is from Simone Weil, the strange and beautiful woman who, for the past two decades has been a model for me of intellectual rigor as well as integrity to one’s faith commitments. In one of her dozens of notebooks, she writes:

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think “Thy will be done,”Simone the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.

There is enough in this passage to justify many essays—what currently strikes me most strongly is Weil’s conviction that the knowledge each of us seeks is within us. Philosophers and theologians err when they tell us, implicitly or explicitly, that seeking the answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is like a treasure hunt, a search that, if successful, will once and for all provide us with proper guidance in all circumstances. Rather, as both the Pentateuch and the Apostle Paul tell us, the word is within you. It is within me. Believing this requires an act of faith that, at least at first look, is astoundingly optimistic. What reasons are there to believe that the universe, God, reality, or anything, is so attuned to what Catherine of Genoa called “my deepest me” that I can trust that this deepest me holds the answers to my most pressing questions? No reasons that can fully stand up to logical scrutiny, but in matters this important perhaps logic is as overrated as certainty. I choose not to believe that my desire for bread will inevitably produce rocks, that my deepest cries will go unheard. So sue me.tutu

Then there is a similar sentiment from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When asked for his own insights concerning the will of God and how to know one is doing the right thing, he replied that

There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you “Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.” You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.

Morality by the skin of your teeth. Tenacity and hope, along with faith, love, goodness, and as many other desirables that you care to list, are essential for even rudimentary answers to “What is the right thing to do?” This is a lot more challenging, but also a lot more fulfilling, than looking it up in a book or memorizing answers. I’m working on it.

I Speak for the Trees

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psa 1:3)

Those who have been following this blog for it’s almost four years of existence know that I have an attraction to online personality tests that borders on the obsessive. I’ve learned many interesting things about myself from these tests, including that among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s immortal characters I am most like Lady Macbeth, my aura is yellow, and I would be Bach as a classical composer, Mr. Carson as a Downton Abbey character, and a Guinness if I were a beer.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

I haven’t taken one of these in a while—fewer of them seem to come across my Facebook feed these days than in the past—so I was pleased when a Dr. Seuss quiz came along the other day. I was even more pleased with the result.

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

the loraxYou are The Lorax. You are wise and intelligent. You have strong beliefs but are also able to see both sides of every issue and you understand that not everything is black and white. You are contemplative, kind, and reflective. You never rush into something but first consider it thoughtfully from every angle.

I know, these quizzes are intended to tell the quiz taker nothing but what she or he wants to hear (except my Lady Macbeth result), but I don’t care. I’m happy if any of this description fits me even ten percent of the time. But most importantly, I am happy to be the speak for the treesLorax because according to the text of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, the Lorax “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his multitude of books; he reportedly said that the book “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” The evil things Dr. Seuss was angry about included corporate greed and the threat of such greed to nature and the environment. The Lorax is full of the outrageous characters one expects from Dr. Seuss. thneedThe Once-Ler tells the story of how he made a fortune crafting an impossibly useful garment, the Thneed, out of the wooly foliage of the Truffula tree—a type of tree that no longer exists. The day the Once-Ler cuts down his first Truffula tree, a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” because they have no tongues, emerges from the tree stump and criticizes the Once-Ler for having sacrificed a tree for such a mercenary purpose. truffulaBut the Once-Ler soon finds that there is great consumer demand for Thneeds, a large factory is built, and he becomes fabulously rich. But animals who live in the Truffula forest and eat its nourishing fruit have to leave, and eventually the last Truffula tree is cut down. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS.”

I like trees. Of the dozens of creatures in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ents are my favorites. Trees adopt the general plant survival strategy of choosing a location that will provide sufficient food, water, and sunlight, then hunkering down in a permanent installation designed to stand up to all dangers for as long as possible—a very different plan from the animal strategy of being nimble, mobile, and capable of running away from danger. 100_0379A massive red oak outside the front door of my Minnesota sabbatical apartment several years ago became an iconic symbol of internal changes that I was experiencing; the introduction to my book that will be published early next year is focused on that oak, as was a blog post from a few years ago.

Oaks of Righteousness

So it is not surprising that I had a strongly negative reaction to the news earlier this summer from the administration that a beautiful old red oak on the lower part of my college’s campus—as large and spectacular as my Minnesota oak—had been marked as diseased during the annual evaluation of the hundreds of trees on campus and, sadly, would have to come down.

The oak in question is one of two massive oaks located directly in front of the building in which my philosophy department office was located for my first dozen or so years at the college. They stand at the top of a grassy and gradually sloping quad (that was a huge parking lot when I came to the college in the middle nineties)—our impressive performing arts building is at the other end of the quad. Shortly after I arrived on campus, several colleagues told me a story about these oaks. Howley OakThe story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates just how attached people on campus are to these two trees. Several decades ago one or both of the trees was scheduled for removal in order to make room for a parking lot. Faculty, staff, administrators, and students formed a human chain around the threatened trees and successfully forced the decision makers to change their minds about the future of the oaks and design the parking lot around them.human chain If true, I’ll bet it happened in the sixties—people did that sort of thing back then. The trees, which have been estimated to be 150-200 years old, would have been roughly the same size then as they are now.

Not surprisingly, the email announcing that one of the trees was coming down set off a collective WHAT THE FUCK??? reaction across campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up like Christmas trees. Why was this happening in the summer when the campus is relatively empty? What is the real reason this tree is coming down? What are the authorities trying to pull/? Shouldn’t the whole college community be involved in the decision? Push back from various persons (led by a colleague from political science who is our faculty Lorax) and a welcome willingness from the administration to delay the tree’s removal while second and third opinions were sought and discussion was opened up has preserved the tree to date—but what will eventually happen remains to be seen. die is castTwo arborist firms hired by the college recommend the tree’s removal, while the city forester thinks the tree can be saved but won’t insist on it, leaving the choice in the hands of the administrators responsible for making such decisions. An open forum was held earlier this week to allow various constituencies to chime in, but it is clear that, as Julius Caesar said, the die has been cast. Before long there will be a gaping hole where this glorious tree has stood for more than a century. And current efforts to save it will become campus lore.

I am very concerned about the preservation of our environment, but in truth my love of trees is more personal than general. We have two trees in our front yard—Blue and Chuck—who have been part of our family for most of the two decades we have lived in our house.

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

I love telling the story of how Blue started his life with us as a four-foot living Christmas tree in our living room during the 1996 holiday season. We were warned that there was only a 50% chance that Blue would survive the months he spent in our garage where he moved from the house after the New Year, biding his time until we planted him the next April; twenty years later, he is now a perfectly shaped 30-to-35-foot tree whose bottom branches I have to cut off every other year, lest he overwhelm the sidewalk. ChuckThank goodness I planted him far from any power lines—within a few years some of his upper branches will be touching the upper branches of the oak across the street.

Chuck joined us a year or so after Blue, a flowering miniature weeping cherry whose name comes from his similarity, as a one-branched twig when I planted him, to Charlie Brown’s iconic and sad-looking Christmas tree. I have to give Chuck, who sports lovely pink flowers in the spring, a significant haircut at least twice per summer—he rejects the “miniature” part of his description and would like to be as tall as Blue. I talk to these trees, as I do to all of my outdoor and indoor plants. As with the Ents, Chuck and Blue seldom say anything. But when they do, it is worth remembering.treebeard

One Nation, Under God

I’m troubled by those who say so much about what God says so little, and so little about what God says so much. William Barber

In early 2014, during an interview with the Global Evangelism Television Network, former Texas congressman Tom Delay had the following diagnosis concerning various problems facing the United States:

I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.tom delay

Tom Delay interview

Sigh. I vaguely remember Delay saying something like this but dismissed it as yet another ludicrous statement from any number of elected officials from the South to whom I pay no attention. But when I bumped into an article about the interview the other day on my Facebook news feed, I decided it would be entertaining to put the link on my wall, commenting only “And I always thought that God wrote the Ten Commandments.” Sure enough, in short order the comments started rolling in, none of them complimentary. Some suggested that Delay had been dropped on his head several times as a baby, others drew attention to the legal problems that led to Delay’s leaving Congress a decade ago. One person suggested that if God wrote the Constitution, there are some inexplicable passages.

  • Interesting that God put in the part about the government making no law about an establishment of religion, and the part about never having a religious test for any office or public trust.constitution

No need for Mr. Khan to lend that guy a copy of the Constitution—he seems to be familiar with it. Several others used the strategy I often use when pushing back against ideas such as Delay’s: looking at the historical evidence.

  • Delay has no clue about the confessional chaos that existed at that convention. Tell me with a straight face that a Catholic is going to trust an Anglican, or a Puritan is going to trust a Deist, to write laws for everyone?
    • Me: I thought everyone trusted Anglicans!
      • Only if you’re serving my ale, my friend . . .
    • At one point, Ben Franklin said “Hey, we forgot to open this convention with a prayer! We better correct that!” The motion wasn’t carried. Madison wrote that everybody was kind of annoyed.jefferson
    • Thomas Jefferson, for one, was a Deist. Delay wouldn’t know that from apple butter. And James Madison was no church lady. These were men of the Enlightenment who had a distrust of theocrats and religious governance and its bloody ruin in Europe’s Hundred Years’ War.
    • “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded in the Christian religion.” –1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by Founding Father John Adams.

To get a sense of the chaos, compromise, and principled hard work that went into the shaping of our Constitution, read James Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention of 1787. It should be required reading for all citizens of the United States. conventionFranklin, Washington, and Jefferson were all Deists, as were many other Founding Fathers; the tenets of Deism are pretty simple. There is a creating force we call God, what we do in this life matters, and we will be held responsible in some way for it. When one takes the traditional Christian God and strips away those characteristics that cannot be argued for using reason and logic alone, you get the Deist God—a God too disengaged with the everyday workings of creation to get involved with writing a founding document for a bunch of successful rebels.

So why do so many people, particularly various sorts of Protestants, insist in the face of a massive amount of contrary evidence that this country was not founded on secular principles but rather essentially as a theocracy? A comment from my cousin was most insightful.

  • Unfortunately, it is very common for fundamentalist protestants (the “born-again” crowd who simply call themselves “Christians” as if they were the only ones) to view all mentions of God or “the Almighty” within their framework only. For that reason, they actually believe that the US was founded as a Christian nation because of oblique references to the Almighty or the Creator in our founding documents. Given my fundamentalist background, I know whereof I speak.
    • Me: We were raised as insiders!
      • You’ve got that right!

Frnativismom seventh grade through high school, my cousin and I virtually lived in each other’s houses. We experienced together—and evolved from—exactly the sort of Christianity that sharply divides those who are in from those who are out, a religious form of the nativism that frequently rears its ugly head in our national discourse. This type of Christianity separates those favored by God from those who are not, just as nativism separates “us” from “them” in various ways. Tom Delay has simply taken the additional step of merging these two forms of exclusivity together.

Politicians often compete with each other as they seek to establish who is more “Christian” than their opponent. During my lifetime it is the Republican party that has owned the mantle of “most Christian,” particularly since the rise of the moral majorityMoral Majority during the 1980s. But during our current election cycle, it feels like an alternative universe. The Republican nominee for President said nothing about God, faith, or religious values during his acceptance speech at their convention, while the Democratic nominee referred explicitly to how her Methodist upbringing has shaped her life of public service. The patriotic energy of the Democratic convention was reminiscent of a Republican convention in any other Presidential election cycle.

And then there was this. William Barber, the head of North Carolina’s NAACP and leader of that state’s Moral Monday movement, demonstrated clearly in his ten-minute speech at the Democratic convention how it is possible to bring one’s faith-based values into the world without insisting that everyone must sign on to a particular religious worldview.

One person commented on YouTube: “I’m an atheist, but I’ll go to service every week wherever he preaches. Just amazing.” This is how one can bring whatever one believes God to be into the public square without assuming that every person in that square means the same thing by “God” as you do. Barber’s comments are an inspiring and eloquent expression of what I mean when I frequently say and write that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. In our nation dedicated, among other things, to the separation of church and state, ostumbling blockne should not bring one’s faith into political debates and become, as the Apostle Paul put it, “a stumbling block and an offense” to those who do not share your version of your faith or to those with no faith at all. Rather, one should enter the public arena as the person one’s faith has caused one to become.

P.S. for those who appreciate gospel music and good singing—Rev. Barber’s final reference is to two lines from an old Baptist hymn: “Revive Us Again.”

Revive us again, fill each heart with thy love

Let each soul be rekindled with fire from above

I know this hymn well—various church congregations in my youth sang it with gusto on a regular basis. If you’re interested in what a cappella singing is supposed to sound like, enjoy this recording of the hymn—the verse Reverend Barber quotes begins at 1:11. If you have no interest in or reject the theology in the lyrics (which I do, at least partially), at least enjoy the beauty of the human voice!

bj2

Those Effing Blue Jays

It has been hot this week—low to mid-nineties with high humidity. I know, for those of you living in Memphis or other summer furnaces, that sounds like a lovely spring day. But for those of us in New England, it’s hot.WIN_20160726_09_29_48_Pro One of my favorite things to do in the summer—early in the morning before it’s too hot—is to sit on our front steps with coffee, be as still as possible, and watch the birds devour their daily allotment of bird suet about ten feet away. As I was doing this a couple of mornings ago, a squirrel sauntered across the bottom of our steps about three feet away. He looked at me with a “what are you doing here?” glance, then headed toward the feeders in hopes of some leftovers on the ground. He was oblivious to a leaf and twig stuck behind his right ear. Then a good-sized blue-and-white bird flew inches from my head as it swooped toward the food. “I just got buzzed by one of those fucking blue jays,” I told Jeanne when I went inside.fucking blue jay

Although Jeanne has been known to drop an f-bomb or two, she is not in favor of indiscriminate profanity. She occasionally cringes when listening to her oldest stepson’s discourse; his go to adjective is “fucking.” F-bombs should be saved for the most appropriate situations, such as responses to Donald Trump’s latest tweet or describing the thirty-first person to cut you off in a given day on the road. One might think that dropping an f-bomb on an innocent bird taking a short cut to the feeder is a waste of an adjective that should be used sparingly, but Jeanne laughed at my description—she knew that I was referring to a story from a friend many years ago that has become iconic in our household.

Rodney Delasanta was one of best teachers and colleagues I ever had the privilege of knowing. One of my mentors when I first arrived at Providence College twenty-two years ago, Rodney was a true Renaissance man—rodneya Chaucer scholar, family man, sports fan (especially the Red Sox), award-winning accordion player (really), and classical music aficionado. The accordion business made him a regular recipient of the latest accordion joke from me. “What is the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play the accordion—and doesn’t.” Once Rodney responded with an even better one: An accordion player is trying to find the location of his latest gig in downtown Manhattan. He parks his station wagon on the street with his accordion in the back, locks it, and sets out on foot to find the address. Upon returning to his vehicle he is crestfallen to find that the back window has been broken—and even more crestfallen to find five more accordions in the back of the station wagon!

Rodney was a proud father and an even prouder grandfather. His wife Frances, and equally proud grandmother, often babysat her three-year-old grandson during the day while his mother, an elementary school teacher, was at work. Frances and her grandson frequently enjoyed sitting on the enclosed back porch, watching many varieties of birds visit the feeders in the back yard. One day a large and aggressive blue jay swooped in for lunch, scattering any number of smaller and less obnoxious birds in every direction. This set off a conversation.blue jay mourning dove

Grandson: Nana, why is that blue and white bird so nasty?

Grandmother: Well, blue jays aren’t very nice birds. They are bossy and pushy and don’t care very much about the other birds.

Grandson: (after some reflection) Those fucking blue jays!

Grandmother: WHAT DID YOU SAY??

Grandson: Those fucking blue jays!

Frances, of course, immediately reported the activities of her innocent but foul-mouthed grandson to his mother when she arrived to retrieve him at the end of the day. Aghast, she explained to Frances that her son must have heard a little too much of her exasperated monologue as she tried to get his snow boots and paraphernalia on that morning when she was running very late. darndest“Out of the mouths of babes,” as they say—it’s tough to tell your kid that he must never use such and such a word when the first time he hears it is coming out of your own mouth.

Rodney loved this story and, as a natural story-teller and ham, always reduced everyone who heard it to uproarious laughter. Rodney passed away a few years ago; at his wake, Jeanne and I met his grandson, now in his teens, for the first time. “Oh, you’re the grandson in the blue jay story!” Jeanne said, and he knew exactly what she was talking about. The story is one example of the wonderful randomness of day-to-day life and a reminder to appreciate the unexpected. The comment from Rodney’s grandson has provided me with yet another go-to phrase to use in my self-talk, a phrase whose meaning is known only to me. Someone is being a self-centered jerk? “Stop being a fucking blue jay,” I think. torontoThe baseball team from north of the border just kicked the ass of my beloved Red Sox? “Those fucking Blue Jays.” It’s worth noting, of course, that blue jays are beautiful birds. The vast majority of feathered creatures who visit our feeders are unremarkable—sparrows, wrens, chickadees, and other little birds that biologists sometimes refer to collectively as “little brown jobs.” A blue jay swooping in brings a welcome infusion of color and individuality, even though it is by nature a jerk. I’m reminded of the well-known hymn:

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

Even the fucking blue jays.

Type A and Type Not-A

type aThe stereotype of the Type A personality has become an entrenched part of cultural lore. Originally described by two cardiologists in the 1950s as the type of person who is most likely to experience cardiac arrest, Type As are familiar to everyone. Competitive, short-fused, action oriented, no nonsense, humorless, deadline driven, boundless in energy—these are people who not only don’t stop to smell the roses, but tend not even to notice the existence of the roses as they plow through their days, weeks, years, and lives. Type As are at risk of heart disease, stress related illnesses, and people just not liking them very much. Labeling someone or being labelled as a Type A personality is not necessarily a compliment, but we all know that we should thank the personality gods for Type As. They are the ones who get shit done.Types A and B

Then, of course, there are the Type Not-A (sometimes called Type B) folks, who are the opposite of Type As in every way. Laid back, less prone to stress that Type A people, Type Not-As can be prone to procrastination, type bbut also are good at stepping back and seeing the forest instead of just the trees, have a contemplative bent, and are just “smell the coffee” sorts of folks. Given Wikipedia’s report that Type Not-A people often are “attracted to careers of creativity: writer, counselor, therapist, actor or actress,” also noting that network and computer systems managers, professors, and judges are more likely to be Type Not-A individuals as well,” one might expect that I am a card-carrying Type Not-A. And in many ways I am—but it isn’t that simple.

It is undoubtedly ludicrous to suppose that all human beings are easily sorted into one or the other of two available personality types. What the A/Not-A personality distinction provides is yet another crude tool to use when one needs to get a handle on the infinitely complex features of human nature. I’ve written about such tools before:

This or That?

The Type A/Type Not-A distinction is just another item for the tool bag. Every human being has both a Type A and a Type Not-A person living inside; my recently completed year-long sabbatical provided me with an extended opportunity to observe my internal Type A and Type Not-A—call them Al and Nate—trying to sort out who’s in charge.in charge

Self-analysis tells me that my default choice as I go through life is to let Nate be in charge of my non-work life and put Al in the driver’s seat at work. I am naturally laid back, patient, reflective, in love with ideas, and so on. But at work I am ultra-organized, task-oriented, always prepared several classes ahead of where we are in the syllabus, know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing at every moment of the day—Al is in charge. I have a pretty good pattern of “Nate time” and “Al time”—mitchNate is responsible for the creative ideas and strategies that I bring to my teaching, while Al’s job is to make sure that it all comes off without a hitch in real time. Nate’s task is to prepare while Al’s assignment is to perform. I’ve had twenty-five-plus years to get Nate and Al to cooperate, and it usually works well. Until sabbatical, that is.

In his sermon last Sunday rooted in the well-known gospel story of Martha and Mary, a classic Type A and an equally classic Type Not-A, our priest Mitch drew our attention to two different kinds of time. Chronos time is measured time, the clock ticking in the background. Kairos is more reflective and intuitive, the sense of the “right” time for something. Chronos is quantitative, while Kairos is qualitative. To a certain extent, Al is about chronos time and Nate exists, at least occasionally, in kairos time. Throw them into a new situation—sabbatical—and here’s what happens.

First day of sabbatical

  • Al: I’m pumped! What are we doing today? What’s the schedule? What’s the plan?
  • Nate: We’re on sabbatical—there is no plan. We’re going to take things as they come—let the Spirit move.
  • Al: Oh. (ten minutes later) I’m bored. We’ve got to get organized here—we can’t just sit around all day, let alone for a year.
  • Nate: Why not?

On a bike rideWIN_20150701_150246-300x169

  • Nate: Bike riding is the greatest thing ever. Life at ten miles per hour—I’m noticing stuff I never see when Al’s in charge. The birds, the breeze, Narragansett Bay . . .
  • Al: Whatever. If we don’t pick up the pace, we aren’t going to beat our time from last week when we rode this trail.

Writing a book

  • Al: Okay, final draft is done and submitted, formatted according to the publisher’s specifications, and sent off to the publisher for editing. Scripture index, acknowledgements, and dedication are complete. What’s next?? I’m on a roll!
  • Nate: Nothing for several weeks until the editor sends the manuscript back with questions and suggestions. Until then, our book writing efforts are on hiatus.
  • Al: Now what are we going to do?
  • Nate: Let’s see what comes to us . . .
  • Al: AAAAGGGGGGHHHHH!

Overall, things have worked out okay between Nate and Al with the book project. There have been intense bursts of Al energy when the publishers are waiting for me on a deadline, and Al is (slowly) learning to let Nate lead when the ball is in their court.mary and martha

Al and Nate will enjoy being back to their familiar pas de deux once classes start again in a few weeks. But reflecting on their sabbatical interactions brings me back to the Martha and Mary story. The story is familiar: Jesus is a guest at the sisters’ house. Type A Martha runs around cleaning, preparing food, taking care of everyone’s needs, and getting more and more pissed at Type Not-A Mary who is gazing at Jesus with adoring eyes and hanging on his every word. Eventually Martha has had enough and asks Jesus to tell her sister (who is sitting right there) to get off her ass and help. Jesus’ response to Martha—essentially “calm down and take your medication—Mary has chosen the better part”—has gone down in the annals of classic put downs of Type A energies.kairos and chronos

But as Mitch pointed out in his sermon last Sunday, this is unfair both to Martha and Type As everywhere. Each of us has a Martha and a Mary, an Al and a Nate, living inside us. The question is not which is better than the other, but learning which should take the lead when. Maybe when the Son of God is visiting, Mary’s choice is “the better part,” and normal activities can be suspended. Learning when to move from chronos to kairos time is a skill worth developing. At the same time, Martha and Al deserve as much attention as Mary and Nate—otherwise, as I used to hear occasionally as a kid, one might turn into a person who “is so heavenly minded that she is no earthly good.” That would not be cool.

A Gnawing Suspicion

A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity. Lawrence Kushner

ebolaA while ago Jeanne and I were in the car listening to the hourly news update on NPR. As usual, they were trying to stuff as much horrible news as possible into a three-minute segment. Ebola, ISIS, Zika, Palestinians, Israel, Istanbul, Russia, illegal immigrants, racial discrimination— one of us said “they’re never going to figure this out.” I forget which of the above items the comment was referring to, but it could have been any of them. I know few people who are more naturally optimistic than I am, fergusonbut what evidence is there that we human beings are up to the challenge of solving our problems long-term in a sustainable way? The history of our species provides ample evidence to the contrary.

So what impact should this depressing and dour news have on a person not inclined toward cynicism or despair? I must admit that I would find it very difficult to avoid cynicism in general, overcome only by dogged attempts to make my little corner of the world a bit better on a daily basis, were it not that I am convinced that the often sad and grubby human story that is trumpeted at us 24/7 through multiple media outlets is not the only story in town. There’s something bigger going on. In other words, I believe in God. So sue me.

borg convictionsFor many the conversation stops right there. How on earth can an educated, relatively intelligent person with working senses possibly believe in the existence of God in the face of the massive evidence to the contrary that threatens to overwhelm us daily? Please note, though, that I said that I believe in God, not that I believe in the existence of God. This is a gradual, seismic internal shift that has been going on for a while, one that I have frequently taken note of in various ways during the almost-four years of this blog’s existence (and for a lot longer than that). KabbalahTwo short books, Marcus Borg’s Convictions and Lawrence Kushner’s Kabbalah: A Love Story, have crystallized this shift in unexpected ways. Let me explain.

The “does God exist?” question never had much philosophical interest for me (I don’t think any of the arguments designed to answer the question positively actually work very well); does god existover time I have lost interest in it just about entirely. The God whose existence is almost always in question is a being separate and distinct from the universe, a supreme being who created the universe a long time ago. This description usually goes on to add personality traits such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence to God’s resume; God thus described is often imagined with authoritarian and parental attributes, with all of the positive and negative baggage accompanying. Marcus Borg calls belief in the existence of this being “Supernatural Theism.” For non-theists who deny the existence of God, it is almost always the God of Supernatural Theism whose existence is being denied; it is this God that is the target of the impassioned attacks of the “New Atheists.” supernatural theismBorg notes that when someone tells him that she or he does not believe in God, he “learned many years ago to respond, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ It was always the God of supernaturalism.” Borg professes that he stopped believing in that God when he was in his twenties (he passed away in his seventies about a year ago). I don’t believe in that God either.

It isn’t that I now believe in the existence of a divine being with a different resume. It’s rather than I think “does God exist?” is the wrong question. Because the issue of God for me is not existential—it’s not about whether there is another being out there in addition to the universe. The issue of God is experiential. Scripture says “taste and see that the Lord is good,” and tasting and seeing are not arguments, rationalizations or proofs. Borg describes the shift I have in mind well:

borgThere is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience, not a hypothetical being who may or may not exist and whom we can only believe in.

Both Borg and Kushner call this orientation “mysticism,” and both refer to experiences that might be described as “mystical” that helped bring them to this experiential conclusion. I’m not crazy about calling myself a “mystic” for a number of reasons, but I do resonate with Kushner’s definition at the beginning of this post, just as I resonate with Borg’s adjustment of what the word “God” refers to:

A theology that takes mystical experience seriously leads to a very different understanding of the referent of the word “God.” The word no longer refers to a being separate from the universe, but to a reality, a “more,” a radiant and luminous presence that permeates everything that is.

KushnerKushner refers to the “gnawing suspicion” that there is a hidden unity underlying all of the mess that we find ourselves in. “Suspicion” is a well-chosen term, because a reorientation from Supernatural Theism to Mystical Theism (as Borg calls it; Kushner calls it “mystical monism”) is difficult to talk about and impossible to provide convincing arguments for. Words fail me, although I keep trying to find them. More often than not I fall back on the evidence of a “changed life” and “come and see,” finding strength in the fact that those who have also experienced the sacred and have not just thought about it resonate with me on a level deeper than words. They just “know” what I am trying to convey.

Working out the implications of where this takes me on all sorts of issues is a continuing effort in these pages. Returning briefly to where I began, what might mystical theism say about the fractured and disjointed world in which we live? problem of evilTrying to square such a world with the God of Supernatural Theism gives rise to the problem of evil, perhaps the most intractable philosophical/ theological problem of all. But as Kushner suggests, there is a different orientation available.

If you are a mystic, saying you believe in God means that you have an abiding suspicion that everything is a manifestation of God, and no matter how horrific it might be, it is still, somehow, filled with holiness.

The only evidence for that is experiential, and even such experience is iffy and enigmatic. I have not had the “road to Damascus” sorts of experiences that have changed the lives of many. My reorientation has been more gradual, which for me means it is likely to have the permanence that a “once for all” experience might lack. 100_0331As I sat for many weeks in daily prayer with Benedictine monks several years ago, the reorientation began as I noticed a slow opening of peaceful spaces inside and a new way of seeing what is around me. This does not conflict with my intellect, my mind or my philosophy—it holds them in place. And when I run out of convincing words, I plan to remember this that I just read from Lawrence Kushner:

Why is it that you cannot simply tell someone a great religious truth without a whole rigmarole of questions and hints, allusions and mysteries? It is because that is the way God made the world.dostoyevsky