Category Archives: books

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

IOresteian the interdisciplinary program I teach in and used to direct, the first semester faculty have to make many tough choices. Iliad or Odyssey? What texts from the Hebrew Scriptures? The New Testament? What to use from Plato and Aristotle–or, God forbid, Plato or Aristotle? And no less challenging—which of the triumvirate of great Greek tragedians? Usually it is a toss-up between the profundity of Sophocles and the brilliance of Euripides, but last fall my teammate and I opted for the first of the trio, Aeschylus. We spent a week with sixty-five freshmen in The Oresteia, a trilogy with enough violence and dysfunctional family intrigue to hopefully satisfy the most scandal-hungry eighteen year old. Perhaps some of the playwright’s profound insights into the human condition seeped in as well.

RFKAlmost twenty-five years ago, early lines from Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis toward the end of a brief, impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated in Memphis earlier in the day. Kennedy, who would himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just two short months later, included these lines from the Chorus’ first speech in the play as a sobering piece of one of the great speeches in American history:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I was reminded of both Bobby Kennedy and these lines from Aeschylus as I was listening to “The Moth Radio Hour” on NPR the other day.

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

Sala UdinOne of the story-tellers at the Moth event was Sala Udin who told of how as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi fifty years ago he came within an inch of losing his life after being stopped and then viciously beaten by the Mississippi State Police. In his jail cell, as he looked at his battered and disfigured face in the mirror, he thought “I don’t know why they didn’t kill me, but they should have. Now I’m committed. I’m clear. I will never stop fighting racism and injustice.Kasisi-Sala-Udin-copy I’m going to be a Freedom Rider for the rest of my life.” Udin and thousands like him were some of those drops upon the heart that Aeschylus wrote of over two millennia ago. Because of persons like Udin, change in the direction of wisdom incrementally but inexorably comes “against our will,” a change that although real is nowhere near complete.

I was born in 1956 and was too young to be directly involved in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but have often wondered whether I would have wanted to be a Freedom Rider if I had been old enough and had been given the opportunity. I have no reason to believe that I would have, but take a small amount of comfort in the belief that once the habit is developed, courage tends to be available in the amounts needed by present circumstances. I have never been faced directly with the question of what I would be willing to stake my life on and possibly die for, amazing gracebut can at least hope that faced with the decision to act on what things are worth risking or even losing my life for, I would not immediately run away.

Jeanne and I recently watched one of our favorite movies—”Amazing Grace”—with a good friend who had not seen it before. The 2007 movie includes fine acting performances from various rising young actors who now are the hottest performers going—Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Romola Garai—the wonderful Ciaran Hinds (who knew that Julius Caesar was in the House of Commons?), and two of my favorite older actors, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney. images3FS0ITV3“Amazing Grace” is the story of William Wilberforce’s twenty year campaign to end the slave trade in England, finally accomplished in 1807 (the movie is a celebration of the bicentennial of that legislation). I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is, but as my good friend and colleague Rodney used to say, if it isn’t true it should be. It’s a great story.

Although there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” in the movie, no one is close to saintly or perfect. Wilberforce’s (played by Gruffudd) dogged attempts to end slavery meet with resistance for reasons that sound unfortunately familiar. Ending the slave trade will be devastating economically, there is “evidence” that the slaves in the colonies live better than the poor in Engwilberforce and newtonland, non-whites in the colonies are “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling will write decades later, and so on. As he encounters multiple defeats and disappointments, Wilberforce is on the brink of despair when he has a conversation with his childhood minister, John Newton (played by Finney). Before becoming a member of the clergy years earlier, Newton had been a successful captain of a slave ship; through various powerful and transformative experiences, he recognized the evil underlying his profession, and famously wrote a poem that he set to a familiar and popular tune. The result was “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most beloved song in the hymnal, in which the now-blind Newton wrote “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

In the middle of their conversation, Newton mentions he has heard that Wilberforce is returning to the faith of his youth; Wilberforce confirms the rumor, but says that while he badly needs divine inspiration and help, there have been no inspirational lightning bolts thus far. newton“Ah,” replies Newton, “but God sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms.” It is many more years before Wilberforce and his supporting cohorts from all walks of life land on a strategy that finally works, confirming Newton’s insight. The frontal attacks of previous years, energized by righteous anger, eloquent statesmanship, and the best of moral intentions have failed again and again. It is not until an obscure lawyer in Wilberforce’s entourage of like-minded persons suggests a new strategy—essentially “we cheat”—that success is finally won. Through behind the scenes manipulation and the use of a long neglected, virtually unknown set of maritime regulations, Wilberforce does a brilliant end run on his political opponents and slavery in Great Britain soon crumbles under its own weight. It will take more than another half century and a brutal Civil War for the same to happen in the United States.

gentle drizzleGod sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms. Ain’t it the truth? That certainly has been my experience, both in my own life and as I have observed the world around me for close to six decades. In its Latin roots, to “convert” means to “turn around,” but this turning is more often like a sunflowersunflower following the sun in its slow course across the sky than a dynamic and once-for-all event. I am an optimist at heart, something that is often difficult to sustain when I think about how much there is to be accomplished in my own life and in the world around me. But a steady rain, even a gentle drizzle, is better for my plants and grass than an inch-in-a-half-hour downpour. Beneath the layers of violence, hatred, ignorance and despair, something holy is lurking. Let the gentle drizzle and drops upon the heart release it.

Where is the Gardener?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

help someone

A Case of Mistaken Identity

costnerJeanne and I are great lovers of movies. As I have described in this blog on several occasions, my all-time favorite movie is “Dead Poet’s Society;” Jeanne’s is “Chariots of Fire.” But a different movie that appears on both of our “top ten” lists—a movie that I am thinking of frequently these days as politicians seek to attract the attention and support of the good citizens of the heartland—is “Field of Dreams.” The story is familiar to most everyone—pure magic with Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and Ray Liotta in an Iowa corn field. Toward the end of the movie, as Ray Kinsella begins throwing a baseball with his father who died years earlier and who Ray had rejected long before that, John Kinsella asks “Is this heaven?” “No,” Ray replies—“It’s Iowa.” its iowaEvery four years, Iowa is a place where the dreams of Presidential hopefuls come either to die or to live until the next primary, but the Iowa of “Field of Dreams” is a place where, at least for a time, the dividing line between this world and what lies beyond is blurred.

Joan Chittister tells the story of another case of mistaken identity. On a busy Manhattan street, hundreds of people per minute rush by a young woman’s fruit and vegetable stand; vegetable standher daily business depend on her produce being attractive enough as a quick lunch or snack to draw people away from their focused and determined travels to their next destination. Suddenly, everyone heard the crash. The produce stand teetered for a moment, then the baskets containing apples, oranges, pears, tomatoes and peppers fell off the stand onto the sidewalk. They rolled in every direction, under the feet of pedestrians and toward the sewer grates along the street. The girl behind the stand burst into tears, fell to her knees, and began to sweep her hands as far as she could reach in an attempt to gather in her produce. “What am I going to do?” she wailed. “It’s all ruined! I won’t be able to sell any of this!”

One man, rushing by with a few colleagues on his way to a meeting a few blocks down the avenue, upon seeing her distress stopped and came back. “Go on—I’ll catch up with you!” he shouted to his companions. He got down with the young woman on the sidewalk and started retrieving what produce he could. overturned fruitIt was only then, as he watched her sweep her hands across the sidewalk in every direction with her face pointed upward, that he realized the young woman was blind. “What am I going to do?” she kept crying.

After returning her cart to an upright position and putting the items he had been able to collect back in their baskets, the man took forty dollars out of his wallet and pressed it into her hand. “Here is forty dollars to pay for the damage we caused,” he said as he prepared to go. The girl stood up and reached in the direction of where she had heard his voice. “Mister,” she called out after him—“Mister, wait!” He turned around, returned to where she was standing, and looked into her blind eyes. “Mister,” she asked, “are you Jesus?”Where's jesus

Chittister doesn’t reveal the man’s answer to the question, but I know what mine would have been. Assuming, of course, that I had been good enough to stop and help the woman while hurrying from one place to another. I’d like to think that I would have helped, but the truth is that Jeanne is far more likely to have immediately gotten on her hands and knees to help and would have dragged me down to do so as well. My answer to the “are you Jesus?” question would have been first to laugh, then say something like “no, that’s well above my pay grade!” The blind woman’s question is understandable—this is the sort of thing that one can imagine Jesus doing, regardless of whether one is a Christian—above my pay gradebut we forget that all we have of what Jesus was like are vignettes, bits and pieces of the sorts of things the guy and his entourage were up to for three years as they wandered the countryside and towns.

It is very possible, though, that the gospels are a “greatest hits” sort of account; stories of the undoubtedly many times Jesus walked by someone in need or failed to recognize a person in distress aren’t likely to sell very well or generate many followers over the generations. But even in the gospels we catch glimpses of Jesus in a hurry, Jesus worn out by the crowds, and Jesus having a bad day. The young woman’s “Are you Jesus?” question is not inspired by a miracle performed or an eloquent sermon delivered—she asks because the man who helps is doing the sort of thing that human beings do when they are at their best rather than in a rush, self-absorbed, or unaware of what is right in front of them. In her mind “Jesus” is the name for the best that a human being can be. That is definitely not above my pay grade.

Within the context of my Christian faith, helping those in need is not only within my pay grade, it is according to the gospels a requirement of my faith. According to the texts, the one guaranteed way to piss God off is to fail to pay attention to the poor, widows, homeless, orphans, and all those who have fallen through the cracks. To be a follower of Jesus is, by definition, to be a person who is on the front lines of aid and protection for the less fortunate. Thelp someonehis is more than a moral directive—it is the direct outcome of the Christian story of Incarnation. God in human form, the divine clothed in mortal flesh—this is the heart and soul of the Christian faith and it how God continues to be present and work in the world. God made flesh is not just a moment in time that we celebrate two millennia later. As Chittister points out, the created world in which we live can only be completed when we take ownership of the divine within us and act accordingly.

Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyGod did not finish creation; God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood. Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

Sister Joan closes the story of the blind young lady with the shocking, but empowering truth;

Are you Jesus? people ask us silently every day. And the answer formed in us if we live it with constancy, with regularity, with fidelity, is surely, yes.

Behind the Curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disturbing the Peace

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

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

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

One of the required performances for a professor returning from sabbatical is a public talk on campus related to her or his research and writing during the months away from the classroom and campus.most interesting man During the first weeks of my current sabbatical, I’ve been looking at some of the results of my Spring 2009 sabbatical, including the talk that I gave in Fall 2009 once I returned. Here is the beginning and end of it—a reminder of where I was then and where I have been going since then.

Introduction: The student of Western philosophy confronts a series of either/or dualisms which apparently demands that a side be taken on a number of matters, ranging from metaphysical through epistemological to ethical. Although contemporary philosophers have frequently and successfully attacked dualism in all areas of philosophy, surface level dualistic descriptions of the playing field are sometimes helpful in getting oriented to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy. After more than twenty-five years as a student and teacher of philosophy, I find that my own orientation on the dualistic playing field reveals some important patterns.

In no particular order of importance, I lean toward Heraclitus rather than Parmenides, Aristotle rather than Plato, Locke rather than Leibniz, school of athensAquinas rather than Augustine but Ockham rather than Aquinas, Hume rather than Kant but Kant rather than Hegel, empiricism rather than rationalism, realism rather than idealism, virtue ethics rather than rule oriented ethics, plurality rather than unity, Darwin rather than any of his multifarious opponents, Nietzsche rather than the majority of his opponents, the late Wittgenstein rather than the early Wittgenstein, and, in most cases, the particular rather than the universal. I can make intellectual arguments in favor of all of these inclinations, but I can also make arguments in support of the other side of the dualism in each instance—that’s what philosophers do. I simply know that I am philosophically most “at home” in a framework within which knowledge is constructed piecemeal from the bottom up through sense activity and experience rather than top down through the intuition or imposition of universal principles and truths. under construictionIf there is such a thing as human nature apart from particular human beings, I believe it is, to use Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful phrase, “something under construction” rather than a fixed form. These preferences incline me toward doubt and open-endedness in epistemology, toward suspicion in metaphysics, and cause me to both embrace pluralism and venture close to the kingdom of relativism in ethics.

These preferences are also, at least at first look, in direct conflict with the religious worldview within which I was raised. In my conservative and fundamentalist Protestant upbringing, I was taught to believe in the literal inerrancy of the Bible, to accept dozens of statements and claims concerning God and His relationship to human beings as factually true and immune to challenge or question. To ask questions or to doubt, or at least to do these things publicly, was to reveal the weakness of my faith. born againThe primary reason for being a Christian, for being “born again,” was to be saved from hell and to go to heaven. The faith I was taught was largely a faith motivated by fear, resulting in a great deal of exclusivity toward and judgment of those who did not believe as we did.

I’m quite sure that one of the primary reasons I ended up in academia and the vocation of teaching was the working out of a very poor fit between the religion I was taught and the person that I naturally am. My natural resonance with questioning and doubt, as well as with what is particular, open-ended, provisional, “this-worldly,” and contingent prepared me well for the academic life and the vocation of teaching philosophy. It is, at the same time, at odds with the faith of my youth at almost every significant point. Yet my Christian faith is part of my heritage, my history, my tradition. It is not an item of clothing given to me as a child that I was free to take off once I “put away childish things.” It is part of my fabric, my DNA. And I have carried it uncomfortably for many years.

the nice and the goodA friend’s question from long ago—“How can you be both a philosopher and a Christian?”—has lurked below the surface waiting to be addressed. One of the characters in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Nice and the Good speaks of “the faculty of colouring and structuring [one’s] surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense.” Many of the tools used to build a moral habitation come from one’s tradition and history, including one’s religion. A few years ago, I began the exhilarating but uncomfortable process of bringing the details of my faith up from below the surface where they had lain dormant for years, in the hope of finding for the first time ways to use the tools of my faith along with the tools of my vocation in constructing my moral habitation. How is that project going?penguin sabbatical Conclusion Outside the windows of my sabbatical apartment, windows which stretch from floor to ceiling along the entire width of the south side of the apartment, is a beautiful lake. 1836660_604566519623279_291098012_oOver the months I lived there, I watched hundreds of birds of dozens of sorts alight on this lake, stay for a while, and then move on. Sometimes they just floated for a while before flying away. Sometimes they plunged beneath the surface for an uncomfortably long time, then popped up way on the other side of the lake. A few I saw only once; maybe they found a better, more private lake where people aren’t staring at them all the time. But the people who are permanent Minnesota residents rather than a visitor as I was say that there are some pairs of birds—all sorts of ducks, loons, grebes, Canadian geese, eagles—who come back every year. For at least a part of every year, Stumpf Lake in Collegeville, Minnesota is their home.

These days I think of faith as being like this lake. I spent time on this lake as a young child, and had no idea it was this big. The portion I thought was the whole world turns out to be the shallow part of one corner of the lake. Upon return, I’m discovering depths that no one’s ever found the bottom of. I’ve never been a big fan of the water, and I’m not a very good swimmer. water wingsBut I’m getting better at it, and I don’t need blow-up water wings to stay afloat any more. I’m not sure what I want to call this place where I’ve landed. It’s disturbingly new, yet absolutely familiar. I believe I’m entitled to call it Christianity; as my wife told me a few months ago, I can put whatever label I want on myself. The following from Annie Dillard describes this place pretty well.

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which God burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs.

If the stories in the Bible have any truth to them, apparently God has an inexplicable love for “purblind and clumsy amateurs”—amateursjust look at the disciples and others who followed Jesus. Just look at me and everyone else I know who is trying the Christian incarnational narrative on for size. The only people who regularly annoyed Jesus were the people who professed to be something other than clumsy amateurs in matters of faith. But the root of “amateur” is “amator,” the Latin word for “lover.” And that’s what I find here—a love that will not let me go. I find that to be amazing.

And I still do. Thanks to those of you who have been sharing this journey with me on this blog!

Saints and Warthogs

MLPPT_UncGratitude_1[1]Part of my incurable biblioholism is that invariably my favorite book is the one that I am currently reading. My favorite book one week not long ago was Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, a collection of essays from two of my favorite theologians, Sister-Joan-Chittister-pf2[1]Sr. Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Truth be told, they might not technically be theologians at all (I don’t know if their union cards are up to date), but I find each of them to be provocative and brilliant in their own unique ways. I purchased this book a couple of years ago, simply because of who wrote it, but am only now taking the plunge.

Irowan-williams[1]n one of Rowan William’s essays, “Saints,” he defines the term “saint” as “someone who starts a chain reaction of new perception in the world, who reinforces, even among those who don’t or can’t yet believe, the confidence that there’s more to us all than we have suspected.” I like that definition a lot, because it places the emphasis where it belongs—on creativity and iconoclasm—rather than where we tend to go when thinking of saints—ethereal religiosity and unapproachable moral rectitude. imagesCAIG1NYII must say, though, that I have a more difficult time thinking of persons who embody William’s definition than those who satisfy the more traditional saintly mold. What comes to mind more readily from my own history is experiences that have started the sort of internal chain reactions that reveal something new and unexpected. Usually these events have been incremental and small, only revealing their saintly characteristics after the fact. But every once in a while, I have been blown favorably off course by an event, a book, or an idea that changed things for good. Sainthood is in the air, if I only know where to look.

oates_1-040909_jpg_400x500_crop_q85[1]Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” is all about someone unexpectedly getting sucked into a vortex of holiness. In this story Ruby Turpin, one of O’Connor’s most memorable characters, has a very bad day. Ruby and her husband Claud own a small farm in 1940s Georgia—their livelihood is made from the yield of their acres worked by hired black workers and the raising and sale of a few cows,DirtRoad[1] pigs and chickens. The bulk of the story is set in the waiting room of a crowded doctor’s office where Ruby and Claud wait for the doctor to look at an infected area on Claud’s leg where he was kicked by a cow a few days ago. Ruby is a chatty, pleasant, overweight, confident Christian woman in her forties with, as she frequently says, a “good disposition,” and tends to immediately strike up a conversation with whoever is willing.waiting-room1[1] Other patients in the room include a well-dressed woman with a sullen, ugly teen-aged daughter, a grandmother, mother and son who are obviously “white trash,” and others who flit around the edge of the conversation.

It becomes immediately clear that Ruby has a strong sense of how things are supposed to work and of the proper hierarchy of persons in her world. She is thankful that God didn’t make her a nigger, or white-trash, or an imbecile—she is extraordinarily grateful that she was born with a good disposition, is blessed with enough food and money (although not too much), and is generally just thrilled to be herself. As she drops these tidbits into her conversation, as well as comments about why Negroes should perhaps go back to Africa, Ruby notices that the sullen young lady keeps shooting increasingly hostile glances in her direction. The girl’s well-dressed mother eventually reveals that her daughter,images[9] a student at an exclusive college “up north,” has been given everything by her parents but is an “ungrateful person” with a bad attitude who never does anything but criticize and complain. Mrs. Turpin remarks that “it never hurts to smile,” concluding that “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I’ve got, a little of everything and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting ‘Thank you Jesus, for making everything the way that it is!’” In response, the sullen college student throws the college textbook she has been reading across the room at Ruby, hitting her above the left eye, then leaps on top of Ruby and starts choking her.

Once Ruby is rescued by others and the young lady, “obviously insane,” is sedated, Ruby asks “Don’t you have something to say to me?” The girl responds in a vicious whisper 6030468896_4a5cb062b2_z[1]“go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!” As the day winds on Ruby, despite her good disposition, can’t shake this comment from her consciousness. Back on the farm toward sunset, as she hoses mud off the pigs, Ruby’s mounting anger ignites in a direct and explosive tirade aimed at the very God she had been thanking earlier.

What do you send me a message like that for? How am I a hog and me both? Why me? It’s not trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church. Three little pigsHow am I a hog? Exactly how am I like them? There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash so much, go get yourself some trash then. You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. Go on! Call me a hog! Call me a hog again! CALL ME A WART HOG FROM HELL. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??

When Ruby comes up for air, she raises her eyes to where the sun has just slipped below the horizon. And she suddenly sees for the first time that day, perhaps for the first time in her life.

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw . . . a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right . . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and respectable behavior . . . Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. . . . In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.purgatory_r1_c1[1]

And the story ends. Something has broken through Ruby’s safe and smug assumption that God’s behavior and expectations fit her comfortable world seamlessly. Did the vision change her life? Did she forget it in the next minute? O’Connor wisely leaves it to us to wonder.

God’s program is not ours—God’s priorities are upside down. But that’s the point. A transformed world requires transformed people. Only an entire rearranging of what is “natural” will suffice. Be on the lookout for saintly moments of holiness, the small but persistent ways in which the faith we profess turns everything upside down.

My Imaginary Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Right Niyyah

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

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candle in light

Books that Changed my Life: Gilead

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Gilead is as close to perfect as any book I have read.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. dillardYou don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

There is that “seeing” thing again, the same attentive awareness that was on display in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last week. For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.