Category Archives: Bible

Strange and Beautiful

Forgive me for name dropping, but I went to dinner with a New York Times best-selling author earlier this month. Twice. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and a number of other wonderful books is a visiting scholar at Providence College this academic year and occupies an office that is literally across the hall from mine.kathleen I have known Kathleen for a number of years, but she was responsible for changing my life before we ever met.

I am currently in my final semester of teaching before a year-long sabbatical—it is still unclear exactly how it will all shape up and shake down, but I’m pumped. It seems like only a few months ago, but eight years ago I was in exactly the same situation—a sabbatical semester (the second of my career) on the horizon. During my first sabbatical, all the way back in 2002, I didn’t go anywhere; instead, I holed up in my office and wrote the first draft of a book that was published two years later. As I began to think about my second sabbatical on the horizon, I wanted to go somewhere for at least part of the semester (that’s what normal academics on sabbatical do), but my career has been shaped to fit the campus where I have now taught for twenty-one years. I didn’t even know where to begin.

the cloister walkA few months earlier I had picked up a book called The Cloister Walk while wandering around Borders. I liked the picture on the cover, a cover that also announced that the book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and contained the following review excerpt from The Boston Globe:

This is a strange and beautiful book . . . If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’s book becomes lectio divina, or holy reading.

The Cloister Walk became my bedtime reading—a book that defies description or summary. Following Norris’s quirky faith through the liturgical year was both strange and beautiful just as the NYT reviewer promised; as another reviewer wrote, “she writes about religion with the imagination of a poet.” I had no idea before I picked the book up that this was exactly what some unknown part of me had been looking for, nor did I know that on a practical level it would point me toward where I would spend my sabbatical semester a year later.Institute

Kathleen’s experiences that frame The Cloister Walk occurred during two separate residencies at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. While there, she immersed herself in the daily Liturgy of the Hours with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey about a ten minute walk away; she writes that the Benedictines refer to their daily office as “the sanctification of time.” The Cloister Walk is the fruit of that liturgical immersion—a “strange and beautiful book” written by a woman who I would come to know as equally strange and beautiful. As I read, I unexpectedly resonated with the eclectic spiritual vision of a fellow traveler steeped in Protestant tradition as I am—rule of benedictexcept that she was strangely attracted to the Benedictines and their ancient Rule.

An important aspect of monastic life has been described as “attentive waiting.” A spark is struck; an event inscribed with a message—this is important, pay attention—and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook.

I was familiar with the notion of “attentive waiting” from Simone Weil, another strange and beautiful person whose work had been the focus of my own spiritual journey as well as academic research and writing for at least fifteen years (Simone would have loved the Benedictines), but embedding such activity in the pressures of the “real world” had pretty much escaped me.

Kathleen describes in The Cloister Walk the frustration that her fellow resident scholars at the Institute felt with the poetic and decidedly non-academic energies she brought to their collective work, a frustration that I must confess I as an academic also occasionally felt when wandering through the intuitively organized labyrinth of her book. buberBut then, those who seek God must learn that there are as many paths to the divine as there are persons following a path.

When it comes to faith . . . there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O’Connor once wisely remarked that “most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow,” and Martin Buber implies that discovering that means might constitute our life’s work. He states that “All [of us] have access to God, but each has a different access. [Our] great chance lies precisely in [our] unlikeness. God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one [person].”

I had no idea at the time just how badly I needed to hear that. On a deep level I had ceased hoping to find my unique spiritual path over the years, weary of running head on into what a monk described to Kathleen as “the well-worn idol named ‘but we’ve never don’t it that way before!’ And people wonder how dogmas get started!”

At the time I did not trust my ability to hear a possible word from God—I entirely relied on my intuitively attuned wife to do that for me. 209 inaugurationBut as I worked my way through The Cloister Walk I realized that something more than my usual resonance with a fine writer’s craft was going on—I wanted what she was writing about. Literally. I contacted the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, applied to be a resident scholar for my sabbatical semester during the first five months of 2009, and on the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th President, a crystal clear Minnesota day with a high of zero degrees, I found myself in a tiny apartment situated in the very same complex and on the shores of the very same lake I had read about eighteen months earlier. my apartmentWhat on earth was I doing here away from Jeanne and my dachshund Frieda, all alone surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? The only good answer was that I wanted what I had read about. And the rest is (my recent) history.

Professionally what I carried from that sabbatical was a new way of writing (that a few years later turned into this blog) and a bunch of academic essays that as of yet have not been published (because I haven’t sent them out). But I was changed from the inside out. I immediately tested the waters of daily noon prayer with the monks up the hill at the Abbey, a commitment that within a few weeks became a three-times-a-day habit. The prayers were important, but inhabiting the Psalms as a collective body opened a “deepest me” space that I have come to recognize as the place where the divine in me hangs out. Every possible human emotion and every possible encounter with the divine is in those ancient poems.

God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless.

[The Psalms’] true theme is a desire for the holy that, whatever form it takes, seems to be a part of the human condition, a desire easily forgotten in the pull and tug of daily life, where groans of despair can predominate.

One day at noon prayer one of my friends from the Institute nudged my attention toward the row behind us. “That’s Kathleen Norris!” my friend whispered in a slightly too-loud-for-noon-prayer voice.beatles I don’t know what I was expecting a famous author to look like, but it wasn’t this. That evening Kathleen—on campus for a university board meeting—visited the Institute for dinner. For many of us it was like a visit from the Beatles. Like any groupie I made sure Kathleen signed my copies of her books (I had them all in my apartment) and we spent three or four minutes in one-on-one conversation (which I was sure she would not remember). But just meeting the person whose book had brought me to this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere was enough. A year and a half later, while I was back in Collegeville for a writer’s workshop at the Institute, Kathleen and I were both staying at the Abbey Guesthouse (I forget why she was on campus). We had several breakfasts and lunches together, enjoyed some conversation on the guesthouse patio overlooking the lake, and a friendship was formed. I particularly enjoyed the envious looks on my workshop colleagues’ faces when they observed me lunching with a world-famous author in the cafeteria one day. randall lectureAnd now, several years later, she’s our current endowed scholar on campus and inhabits the office across the hall.

When my birthday came a couple of weeks ago, Jeanne and I took Kathleen out to dinner—she’s a great conversationalist and we had a wonderful time. Our plan had been to include our good friends Marsue and Robin (Marsue is also a Norris groupie), but our umpteenth snow storm of the season made that impossible. So the next week we did it again, and this time Marsue got to meet one of her literary heroes in person. It’s strange how things work out. Last August, just a few days before the beginning of the new academic year, I was sitting in the atrium of our student center minding my own business and I heard a voice from the stairs behind me—“I know you!” It was Kathleen. “And I know you too,” I thought. “You’re the person who changed my life.”

oil change

In a Nutshell

John 3 16

 

Sports fans old enough to remember the 70s and 80s will recall that a regular occurrence at baseball or football games either in person or on television was, when the camera panned the stands, to see a person—often wearing a colorful fright wig—holding up a large homemade poster board sign with a cryptic reference that made sense only for initiates: John 3:16. John 316I often imagined the confusion that many might have felt at this ubiquitous, almost subliminal communication, especially in a pre-Google world. John 3:16? What does that mean? But for those in the know, it was no mystery, for John 3:16 is the address of perhaps the most familiar of all Bible verses, the first one (followed by hundreds more) that I learned as a young Baptist boy.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

In our fundamentalist, evangelical world, the whole gospel was summed up in this verse, often followed by its less quoted companion John 3:17:

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

It really does have it all—a God of salvation rather than condemnation, of love rather than judgment, the incarnation, and—most important in the religious world of my youth—the promise of eternal life, which we interpreted as going to heaven and avoiding hell. It really is the gospel in a nutshell. Really. gospel in a nutshellI remember a crafts event during summer Bible camp when we inserted the text of John 3:16 in tiny print rolled up like a paper towel inside the two halves of a walnut shell which we then glued together with the end of the John 3:16 roll sticking out of a convenient slot. When completed, the text could be rolled out and admired, then snapped back in like a window shade.

Typically, but unfortunately, the textual context of this gospel in a nutshell was usually ignored. John’s gospel is strange and (for me, least) somewhat off-putting. It was written last of the four gospels, at least twenty years later than Matthew and Luke, perhaps thirty years later than Mark. The Jesus of John often sounds more like a theology professor than the no-nonsense man of few words and mighty deeds in Mark’s gospel. In John chapter 3, Jesus is visited secretly at night by Nicodemus, setting up one of the strangest conversations you’ll ever hear.

laurenceNicodemus, described by John as “a ruler of the Jews,” was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—a significant player in the religious and political structure that Jesus was clearly challenging. For me Nicodemus will always be the bearded and aging Sir Laurence Olivier as he played the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s  Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus undoubtedly comes by night because he does not want his colleagues to know of his fascination with Jesus. It’s sort of like John Boehner checking in with President Obama in the middle of the night for budget-making advice—Boehner wouldn’t be able to live it down if word got out. Nicodemus gives Jesus an opening which Jesus takes by saying cryptically “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We Baptists took this to mean that “unless you accept Jesus into your heart as your personal savior, you don’t get to go to heaven” (although Jesus doesn’t say this), but the “eternal life” business isn’t what catches Nicodemus’ attention. Taking the “born again” line literally, he wants to know “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born”? Debates were raging in Jesus’ world between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether resurrection of the dead is possible—Jesus and NicodemusNicodemus, familiar with those debates, thinks Jesus is taking a position. But he’s not. He’s talking about something else entirely.

As the conversation continues, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the strange story from the history of the children of Israel wandering in the desert that was the focus of our first reading this morning from Numbers. In response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and their penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”   bronze serpentApplying the story to himself thousands of years later, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Which sheds a whole new light on the gospel in a nutshell passage just two verses later. Jesus is not talking about crawling back into your mother’s womb, nor is he talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about importance of what we choose to look at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that human beings are creatures who make pictures, then over time come to resemble the pictures they have made. And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. Two years ago when standing in this pulpit I talked about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” a tale about a secluded New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hung some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.” Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_4-26-03In the valley there is a legend that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.”

Ernest, a young man born and raised in the valley, was obsessed with the story of the promised great man his whole life, spending hours per day staring at the Great Stone Face and sharing the villagers’ disappointment as numerous visitors failed to live up to expectations. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime. Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to them all, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and is telling us, that the possibility of transformation and renewal is right in front of us—but our attention is focused elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that John 3:16 does not require us to do anything but believe. No deeds need to be performed, no special words need to be said, no special prayers need to be offered, no sins need to be confessed. Just believe. I spent many years trying to figure out what I needed to do to gain God’s favor—I suspect I’m not the only one in the room who has tried to figure this out. As it turns out, belief is about focusing my attention on the right thing. Not on my shortcomings and failings, nor on my strengths and what I think I have to offer that God might be able to use. lookJesus’ message to Nicodemus is “don’t act—LOOK.” In our consumer society we want solutions that we can make our own, that we can add to our list of useful things we have consumed. But Simone Weil writes that “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” The gospel in a nutshell.

Nicodemus’Michelangelo_Pieta_Firenze conversation with Jesus clearly had an impact; we see him two more times in John’s narrative, once when he reminds his brethren in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, the second time when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial after the crucifixion. He did not drop everything he was doing and start following Jesus, but he did begin to see things differently. As we travel the Lenten path we would do well to wonder the same things that Nicodemus must have wondered about. Where do I usually focus my attention? What would it mean to shift my gaze toward something different? What would it mean to stop looking at the shortcomings, failures and sins in my own life and the lives of those around me? What would it be like to stop staring a few inches in front of me as I sleepwalk through my days and weeks and look up? What difference would it make if I looked at the promise of life rather than the inevitability of death? The bronze serpent lifted in the wilderness. The Son of Man hanging on a cross. Both are iconic images of God’s love and forgiveness, promising that new life can be ours now, that the kingdom of God is available now, and eternal life begins now. All we need to do is look.

Your Heart’s Desire

fortune cookie“This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. F. Chang’s fortune cookie. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding last fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” sabbatical proposalI’m surprised they didn’t add “Sorry for the inconvenience,” since that phrase has been on mind lately.

Sorry for the Inconvenience

This sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I sent out last fall, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. The other proposal involves a semester residency at a think-tank on the campus of a prestigious university who shall remain nameless but whose name rhymes with “Voter Game.” The email I received from the think-tank confirming receipt of my full proposal application contained the following throw-away line at the end: “Please note that ***** Fellowships are very competitive, with past annual acceptance rates of 4 to 9%.” Nice.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent twenty-one years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire is to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires?” Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. I’m not so sure I even know what my heart’s desire is going forward, but I do want to tune my inner receptors more and more carefully so that I will recognize it when it crosses my radar screen. I have had two sabbaticals in my career so far. I wrote a book during the first, and the second changed my life. Even a disappointing letter from ##### Foundation can’t deter a new heart’s desire from wandering into my life during this upcoming one. I just wish I knew what it looks like.

When It’s Over

Although I regularly find myself immersed in things medieval with a bunch of freshmen around this time every year, I am not a medievalist. I must confess that I often find medieval literature, philosophy, theology, and just about everything else medieval largely boring, inscrutable, or both. hellStill, it’s hard to go wrong in the classroom studying Dante’s Inferno with eighteen-year-olds. Sin, violence, torture—what could be better? Is suicide worse than lying? Is adultery less problematic than treason? How do gluttony and simony compare? Does sloth trump cowardice? Great discussion material.

Every time I descend into Hell with the Pilgrim and Virgil, my attention is drawn to something different. This time I took special notice of the first bunch of folks Dante encounters. Squeezed into Canto III, Dante - La Divina Comedia - Canto VI - Doré - Descontexto-2between a trio of threatening beasts and the virtuous pagans, we find “those sad souls who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise,” lives so non-descript that neither Paradise nor Hell wants them. These are “wretches who had never truly lived” whose sins or faults don’t even rise to the level of getting a name. Call them the hello-my-name-is-whatever“Whatevers” who never committed themselves to anything. Their actions were neither good enough to earn praise nor bad enough to require mercy or justice. These are “wretches who never truly lived; the world will not record their having been there.” The Whatevers remind me of the Laodicean church in the Book of Revelation, about which God says “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spit you out of my mouth.”thoreau1a

It was the fear of spending eternity in the land of the Whatevers that motivated Henry David Thoreau to shake things up in his life. He begins Walden with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreaus_Walden_BandB_Lincoln_Massachusetts_1120A couple of summers ago Jeanne and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast—furnished with a wonderful hostess, hundreds of feeding birds and at least a half-dozen Chihuahuas—literally across the road from Walden Pond. On the other side of the lake, about a half-mile from where we were staying, Jeanne and I got to see the foundation and stone chimney of the tiny hovel Thoreau built for himself when he went to the woods. But Thoreau had the luxury to go to the woods in the first place, hardly a wilderness, since Walden Pond is only three or four miles from Concord, where Henry David could get a free meal at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house any time he chose. 400000000000000220639_s4These are luxuries that most of us do not have. Is it possible to learn to live deliberately without removing oneself from real life?

In his very interesting novel Putting Away Childish Things, theologian Marcus Borg frequently drops favorite book titles, excerpts and poems into the lives of his various characters. One of the poems is Mary Gordon’spsu11_gord_9780307377425_aup-528f73a7869d8ffa19e2691985af84ff573f6a23-s6-c30 “When Death Comes,” portions of which resonate with me more strongly than Thoreau’s more famous lines on the same theme.

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut . . . 

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness . . . 

When it’s over, I want to say; all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument. 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

            I have yet another birthday coming this week, a good reason to wonder how I’m doing with this business of “making my life extraordinary,” as deadpoetsaltMr. Keating challenges his young students to do in my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society. On the first page of Walden, Thoreau writes that he wants to “suck the marrow out of life,” something that never sounded particularly attractive to me. “Suck the marrow out of life” sounds a lot like “Be all that you can be,” or “Go for the gusto”—a call to fill my life with as many various and diverse experiences as possible, never stopping for a breath until I don’t have any breaths left. I guess I’m not the “marrow-sucking” kind of person. An extraordinary life need not be bursting at the seams with things purchased, places visited, or frequent flyer miles—although there is nothing wrong with any of these. be where you areMy mantras for an extraordinary life have become “Be where you are” and “Do what you are doing.” Pay attention. Be aware. In the busyness of the day don’t forget that each moment in class might be the moment that transforms someone’s life. Take notice that every “like” clicked on my blog means that someone, somewhere, read what I wrote and liked something in it. Be thankful every day for the gift of spending so many years of my life married to an extraordinary human being. Don’t ignore the multiple signs that my sons have become wonderful men.

Those who profess the Christian faith, of course, have all sorts of stories concerning what happens “when its over.” But as I’ve noted on a number of occasions on this blog, I have never found the promise of eternal life to be particularly compelling when compared to the question of how to live this life. The older I get the more I find myself drawn, when thinking about my mortality, to Psalm 90. I first consciously encountered this Psalm five years ago during noon prayer with a bunch of Benedictine monks; the time must have been right, because it has wormed its way deeper into me ever since. grass_dark_wallpaper-hdAfter spending the first several verses reminding us that humans are “like the grass; in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered,” the Psalmist drops the hammer. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” imagesThanks for bumming me out with the truth. But the suggested response in verse twelve makes all the difference. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” I’ve come to realize that numbering my days is not about trying to guess how many I have left. Rather, it is about treating each day as the unique gift that it is—that opens the door toward wisdom. Be where you are. Do what you are doing.

When it’s over, I will have been more than a visitor to this world if I have taken attentive ownership of the small piece of it given me during my lifetime. I only ask what the Psalmist asks at the end of Psalm 90: “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.” And please deliver me from the land of the “Whatevers.”

puppet[1]

The Designer God Project

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

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

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

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

Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics:

Forgiving

Trustworthy

Understanding

Fair/Just

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

Powerful

Dependable

All-Knowing

Not a micromanager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cromwell and more

Wolf Hall

Jeanne’s and my evenings are often organized around which of our favorite television series’ latest episode is on, bemoaning the end of a series’ current season, and anxiously awaiting something new that promises to be of high quality. CromwellThe next upcoming television event I am anxiously awaiting is Masterpiece Theater’s airing of the BBC’s “Wolf Hall,” a promised several week immersion in late April and early May into the world of Henry VIII as seen through the eyes of his consigliere Thomas Cromwell. The series is an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the first two parts of a projected trilogy (the third part to be published this year) that have each won the Man Booker Prize (the British version of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). She is only the third author to win the prize twice, and the first to win with a sequel, Bring up the Bodies in 2012 following Wolf Hall’s victory in 2009.wolf hall It promises to be great television. In preparation I started rereading Wolf Hall a couple of weeks ago and, as often happens, am finding both that I had forgotten how good it is and that there are many great passages I missed the first time around. Early in the novel, Cromwell provides us with a flashback to when he was a young star in Cardinal Wolsey’s orbit, a firmament containing another, brighter star—Thomas More—who in Mantel’s treatment becomes one of Cromwell’s opponents and competitors for the attention of the great and powerful. But more importantly, Cromwell reveals a fundamental difference between him and More that raises issues transcending this particular story:

He [Cromwell] never sees More . . . without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? cromwell and moreWhy does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Or, someone might add, show me where it says “liturgy” or “dogma” or any number of other things that are staples of Christian tradition even outside Catholicism. I have no idea whether Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell and More is accurate (neither does she, for that matter), but I am so strongly aligned by nature with fictional Cromwell in this passage that I share his utter astonishment with the fictional Mores among us. Wolf Hall is set during the early decades of the sixteenth century when the revolutionary impact of the Protestant Reformation is already making itself known in England. Thomas More is the epitome of religious certainty, imagined by Mantel as a vigorous, devout, hair-shirt-wearing and frequently inflexible defender of Catholic orthodoxy.

wolseyAlthough Cromwell rises to influence as the right-hand man of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, he is far more comfortable with situational flexibility than with pre-established beliefs and principles. When Wolsey falls from grace because of his failure to facilitate the king’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell’s ability to quickly adjust to changing circumstances and maneuver creatively brings him into the king’s inner circle. But he always keeps the Mores of his world in view, simultaneously envious and wary of anyone’s unflinching commitment to principle.

I hedgehog and foxfrequently find myself inadvertently dividing my fellow human beings into various categories (introvert/extrovert, high-maintenance/low-maintenance, Platonic/Aristotelian, hedgehog/fox, and more); Cromwell/More is another important distinction, especially when religious belief is under discussion. The older I get, the more Cromwellian I become, finding that even my most fixed beliefs not only are regularly under scrutiny, but that constant adjustment and change is a symptom of a healthy faith. Christopher Wiman puts this insight better than anyone I’ve read:

WimanIt is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.

I am frequently reminded in a number of ways by various Mores that a Cromwellian embrace of change is dangerous in that it leads to the brink of the worst of all abysses, a relativistic world with no absolutes and no fixed points. I admit that it can be disconcerting to find that one’s most reliable cornerstones have crumbled or shifted, but I have learned to find stability in commitment rather than in content. Within the well-defined banks of commitment to what is greater than us, the river of faith sometimes flows swiftly, sometimes pools stagnantly, and always offers the opportunity to explore uncharted waters. The terrain of commitment looks very different from various vantage points, and in my experience spongseldom provides confirmation of what I have believed in the past without change and without remainder.

I remember several years ago that I came across one of John Shelby Spong’s books in Borders with the provocative title Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I read the book and found that the changes that Spong, the liberal retired Episcopal bishop of New Jersey was calling for were not changes I was willing to make then—or now. But I fully resonate with the energy of his book’s title. The Christian faith that I profess has not only changed greatly over the past few years (and promises to change even more going forward), but the Christianity I was taught in my youth would have died long ago if it had not changed. And this is as it should be. As James Carse writes,

carseThis is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is to stop criticizing or belittling those who build their belief systems in the manner of More, shaping all new experiences and information in the image of their most fixed and unchanging commitments. There are a number of Mores among my friends and family, and I’ve learned not only to appreciate them (usually), but find myself occasionally envying them. But at heart I’m happy being Cromwell as I watch the corners get knocked off my certainties.

angel repair

Repairing an Angel

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

Hopeful Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

Deflategate and the Nazis

deflated ballAs I write this on the morning of this evening’s Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl, I am unfortunately thinking about deflated balls. The other day Jerry Rice, an NFL Hall of Famer and wearer of several Super Bowl rings, said that if the New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX (that’s “49” for the Roman numeral challenged) there should be an asterisk next to their win in the record books. Why? Because of “Deflategate,” the tizzy arising from the possibility that someone on the Patriots reduced the ball pressure in the footballs they used during their 45-7 dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago in the AFC Championship game. cialisI’m a New England sports fan and am anything but objective, so I won’t weigh in on the controversy other than to say that I doubt footballs deflated 1.5 pounds psi can fully account for a thirty-five point win. My favorite of the thousands of media comments on the tempest in a tea pot came from “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on NPR, when Peter Sagal asked “What made people suspect that the football was underinflated? Probably when after scoring a touchdown, instead of spiking the ball, one of the Patriots just folded the ball up and put it in his pocket.”

In the world of sports, asterisks are placed next to team and individual records that are suspect for some reason or another. Barry bondsSuch as Barry Bonds’ single season and career home run chemically enhanced records. Like the record-breaking home run numbers put up by McGwire and SosaMark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, a steroid-pumped contest that is largely credited with re-energizing interest in baseball. The 1919 World Series. An asterisk is affixed in order to draw our attention to the fact that things aren’t as they seem, that someone did something out of the ordinary that makes the numbers suspect. An asterisk means that things are not as they seem on the surface. But as a matter of fact, nothing is as it ever seems on the surface. The students in my “Grace, Truth and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium are finding out during the early weeks of the semester that this applies even to those persons we think we know everything about that we need to know. People like Adolf Hitler.

truthRoughly the first half of the Development of Western Civilization colloquium I am team-teaching with a colleague and good friend from the history department is dedicated to immersing thirty-seven sophomores in the world of the Nazis, from their rise to power in the years after World War One through the devastation of World War Two and the horrors of the Holocaust. My colleague and I premiered this colloquium last spring and are back by popular demand—both times we have offered the course it has been the most requested colloquium of the twenty-five offered, with less than a quarter of the students seeking to get in actually making it onto the student roster. When another colleague asked me about the popularity of “Nazi Civ,” as the students came to call it last year, I replied that apart from the obvious spectacular reputation for teaching excellence established over the years by my teaching partner Ray and me, the real reason for the colloquium’s success is that you can’t go wrong with the Nazis. Any course with “Nazi” in the title will immediately sell out. Nazi accounting, Nazi calculus, Nazi social work, Nazi basket-weaving—there’s just something about those Nazis.devil nazis

I’m convinced that the “something” about the Nazis that makes them a guaranteed pedagogical draw is that here we are dealing with something that everyone can agree on. The Nazis were evil monsters, diabolical aberrations in apparently human form. We can all feel comfortable in despising the Nazis in the same way we could all comfortably despise flesh-eating twelve-foot green aliens from Mars—they aren’t like us. The Nazis are, as the philosophers might say, in a different ontological category than regular human beings. By considering the Nazis as evil monsters, we are able to dismiss them as horrific invaders from Planet Awful who tragically and inexplicably took control of a highly cultured and civilized nation and almost ruined human history. It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck—it’s terrible and destructive, but we can’t get enough of it. evil naziPut it on YouTube and you’ll get several million hits. There is, so to speak, a huge asterisk in our imaginations next to “Nazi”—they weren’t really like us. And it is this asterisk that my colleague Ray and I seek to start peeling away on the very first day of class.

We started with Patrick Hicks’ devastating novel The Commandant of Lubizec, a work of “documentary fiction” based on the real-life Nazi extermination camps Bełżec, Treblinka and Sobibór. The Commandant is Hans-Peter Guth, who by day administrates the murder and disposal of over fifteen hundred Jews per day, returning home in the evening to his wife and two children with whom, by all accounts, he has a strong and deep relationship. Last week’s readings focused on Adolf Hitler’s childhood and early adulthood. Hitler wwiThe product of an emotionally and physically abusive upbringing, Hitler served as a messenger in the trenches during World War One, recognized twice for bravery. An aspiring artist and architect, he was refused entrance to a prestigious Vienna art and architecture school twice in the years after the end of the war.

The various articles we read offered the above facts not as an excuse, but rather as at least partial explanation for the man Hitler became. My students found this information both important and challenging, recognizing that abuse and rejection are part of the human experience and often shape both one’s history and future. While all insisted that this information did not excuse Hitler’s actions in the least, it did something even more problematic—it humanized Hitler. As one of my students wrote perceptively in her intellectual notebook, “I learned that Hitler was not a monster, but rather was a human being who did monstrous things.” Hitler architectWith this realization, it becomes much more difficult to put an asterisk next to Hitler—he is one of us. It also becomes much more difficult to avoid the question “could I do such things in similar circumstances with a similar history?” It is an important insight to realize that, as Albert Camus wrote, “The plague is in each of us.” It is also uncomfortable and disturbing.

At the other end of the behavior spectrum we also tend to place an asterisk next to human beings who we wish to set aside as special in a positive, saintly sort of way. Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dr. King, Jesus—they all receive the saint asterisk both to honor their excellence as well as to excuse us mere mortals from the moral challenge of striving to be like them. The temptation to excuse ourselves from moral excellence is particularly strong when reading the gospels. dillardIn her essay “The Book of Luke,” Annie Dillard reflects on just how challenging it is to find out that the disciples and early Christians were just like we are—no haloes and imperfect to the core.

What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians. . . . What a pity, that here come the Christians already, flawed to the core, full of wild ideas and hurried self-importance. . . . They are smug and busy, just like us, and who could believe in them? They are not innocent, they are not shepherds and fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like us, in polyester. Who could believe salvation is for these rogues? book of lukeThat God is for these rogues? For they are just like us.

            Unless, of course—

Unless Christ’s washing the disciples’ feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture. . . . Unless those pure disciples themselves and those watercolor women—who so disconcertingly turned into The Christians overnight—were complex and selfish humans also, who lived in the material world, and whose errors and evils were not pretty but ugly, and had real consequences. If they were just like us, then Christ’s words to them are addressed to us, in full and merciful knowledge—and we are lost. There is no place to hide.

In the end, either we all are asterisks in our uniqueness or there are no asterisks in our common humanity. We are each formed by our histories, shaped by our limitations, inspired by our possibilities, and responsible for who we are and what we become. And Annie is right—there is no place to hide. Especially from ourselves.asterisk

Zombie Jesus

A bit over year ago, as I prepared for the depression sure to occur upon the end of “Breaking Bad,” I ruminated on just how great television is these days–except for zombies. I hate zombies. But they get me to thinking . . .

Breaking-Bad-1[1]We are living in the golden age of television. I grew up on sitcoms, westerns, and sports—when we were allowed to watch television, that is—subjected to a three network, pre-cable fare that made the term “idiot box” entirely appropriate. That has all changed. Without ever having to check the basic networks other than for news and sports, viewers today are offered options rivaling anything on the big screen in both production value and quality of acting. Thanks to the wonders of on demand viewing, I can keep up with “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,”imagesCA3I36MA “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Newsroom,” or something from across the pond like “Downton Abbey” or “Broadchurch” with no scheduling conflicts while fast-forwarding through AMC or FX commercials, Downton_Abbey[1]descending just a notch or two lower to “Boardwalk Empire” or “Game of Thrones” when I feel like slumming it.

When Jeanne and I discover a series that’s been going on for a while, we can use Netflix to catch up on several seasons in short order, swept up in a viewing frenzy that is limited only by our inability to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning. This most recently happened when we discovered the great BBC series Inspector-Lewis[1]“Inspector Lewis” which eventually made its way to PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater,” watching six seasons worth in little over a month, and then descending into temporary television depression when realizing that we would no longer be swept up into the underbelly of Oxford with DCI Lewis and DC Hathaway because the sixth season was the final one. I was sucked similarly into “Breaking Bad” a couple of springs ago when my oldest son kept pestering me into watching. “You’ve got to watch ‘Breaking Bad,’ Dad!” Caleb insisted. “The main character Walt reminds me of you!” After using my Amazon Prime account to watch the first two episodes on my computer, I called him back. bryan-cranston1[1]“The only reason Walt reminds you of me is he’s a teacher and so am I! You don’t see me making a bit of extra money on the side by cooking meth with a former philosophy student, do you??” But I was hooked and literally watched five seasons of “Breaking Bad” in two weeks of extended evening viewing on my computer sitting in bed with a dachshund on either side while Jeanne was on the road. I am now preparing for an extended period of withdrawal from the adventures of Walt, Jesse, Skylar, Marie, Hank and Walt Jr. once the current final season concludes in a few weeks. I’m not over the withdrawal yet.

One of the side benefits of the current fabulous fare on television is how it regularly works its way into conversations with my colleagues on campus, conversations that in the past might have been focused on the intricacies of Descartes’ cogito or Hegel’s Logic rather than the unexpected bloodbath at the conclusion of season three of “Game of Thrones.” imagesCA1LUVQZOften these conversations turn into a confessional of just how much time each of us spends watching TV, as well as (usually) good-natured debates about which series is the best. “What do you mean you never watched ‘The Wire’??” a fellow philosophy professor sputtered as we were having a beer or two the other afternoon. “That’s the greatest television series ever!” he claimed, implying that I would forever be stuck in the television-viewing minor leagues until I graduated to the big show of “The Wire.” Things calmed down shortly after when we agreed that regardless of the current “Greatest Series Ever” title holder, it was soon to be replaced by “Breaking Bad” when its final season ends. Following my colleague’s advice, I watched one episode of “The Wire” on my tablet per visit to the gym this past summer. Great show.

banner_stargate_studios_the_walking_dead_952px[1]There is one show that has been touted and recommended to me by at least a dozen people as the best out there, a show that I guarantee I will never watch. “Have you ever watched ‘The Walking Dead’?” I frequently am asked. “Man, you’ve got to see that! Acting, storyline, suspense—there’s nothing better!” Let’s suppose, just for argument’s sake, that “The Walking Dead” is the greatest show ever to grace the small screen. I still won’t be watching it. I don’t like zombies.

As a philosophy professor I should be both familiar and comfortable with zombies, since in philosophy of mind the analysis of zombies has been somewhat of a cottage industry for at least a couple of decades. Really. Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures used to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. issue96[1]Unlike those in films or witchcraft, philosophy zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave just like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness. Lest the non-academics among you take this philosophical zombie obsession as evidence that the ivory tower needs to be torn down or blown up, it gets worse. I have been at large philosophy conferences where more than half of the papers presented were focused on the philosophical analysis of zombies. I did not participate—zombies creep me out.

I really do not get the general infatuation, academic or otherwise, that our culture has with zombies. A few weeks ago, as Jeanne and I were riding with our friend Michael and his eleven-year old son Sam to the grocery store during our annual Florida trek, we rode past a sign on the side of the road advertising a “5K Zombie Run” in downtown Tampa a few days later. I’m not sure how zombies could run five kilometers without falling apart, but my question was more general. “What the hell is the big obsession that people have with zombies??” I wanted to know. In short order Sam started to talk about zombies in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, zombies in books, in movies, in video games. “Really,” he concluded, “all a zombie is is someone who was dead and now isn’t any more. Hmm–Jesus was a zombie!”

zombie-zoom[1]I thought Sam’s “Zombie Jesus” connection was original—boy was I wrong. Just Google “Zombie Jesus” and see what happens, but don’t do it until you have taken your gross-out pills and fortified yourself with a main-line injection of irreverence and stupidity tolerance. The image to the left is the most tasteful one I could find. Zombie Jesus day (Easter, in other words), Zombie Jesus Facebook pages, a short film called “The Passion of Zombie Jesus” loaded by someone called “championofhell” on YouTube and described as “the most sacrilegious film in human history” (I didn’t watch it)—you  get the point. I find this laughably weak if intended to be a critique of Christian belief; certain believers might be outraged, but something tells me that the divine does not fall off its throne or lose any sleep over such things. But there it is again—the zombie meme has a viral life of its own, and I just don’t get it.

Unless, of course . . . unless the zombie thing is just another way in which the human desire to believe that there is more to our existence than just our short-term physical presence on earth pops up. Beneath the crudity and lack of imagination of the zombie obsession lies that deep human need to believe that this is not all there is. The-Walking-Dead-S3-Mid-season-1[1]It says something about the limitations of the human imagination that a bunch of almost-dead, decaying corpses staggering around and eating the flesh off fully alive humans is the best “life after death” scenario we can come up with, especially since a much more exhilarating and inspiring story is available.

“He who believes in me will never die.” That’s a pretty shocking and “out there” promise, but the prospect of taking it seriously enough to try to figure out what it means and how it might transform a life is far more attractive than wasting time with the undead. Sam’s attraction to zombies is understandable—things that were once dead do not generally come back to life, even in a half-baked, decaying form. But a full-fledged resurrection from the dead, new life awakening in a soul left for dead?  “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst . . . It will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Someone should make a television show about that!

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