Category Archives: books

The Right Niyyah

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

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

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerance on Steroids

What happens when a perfectly good virtue gets turned into not only the most important virtue, but in many cases the only virtue? I have come face to face with this question in the signpostsearly weeks of this semester with fifty juniors and seniors in two ethics classes. I chose this past summer to organize my General Ethics course, usually a tour of several of the notable moral theories in the Western philosophical tradition (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Sartre, etc.) that are then applied to the details of human experience, by starting instead with those messy details themselves. We find ourselves in a world of competing religious, moral, and political claims shouting at each other across various divides, claims that are both incompatible with each other and resistant to compromise. How in the midst of diverse perspectives that too often lead to violence are we to find a place of stability from which to plot the way forward?

I have discovered both from early class discussion and student writing reflections what I suspected—most of my young adult students have been taught for as long as they can remember that the “go-to” virtue that must be cultivated in order to wend one’s way through the minefield of incompatible beliefs and commitmaristotleents is tolerance. It’s interesting that the granddaddy of virtue ethics, Aristotle, did not include tolerance in any of his lists of virtues—apparently such a virtue was not particularly useful in fourth century BC Athens. Tolerance is also rejected by many contemporary people as a sign of weakness, of lacking commitment to one’s beliefs, and of a willingness to compromise too quickly. But for many in our culture, particularly those who might consider themselves as “liberal” in some sense, tolerance is the proposed remedy for many of the things that ail us.

Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with tolerance as a virtue. As a matter of fact, it probably plays as regular a role in my life on a daily basis as any virtue you could name. My concern about tolerance arises from intimate facebookfamiliarity with how it often works in my own life. When I remove myself from an email list on campus because I’m sick to death of being inundated with what I consider to be the often petty concerns of my colleagues, it feels like tolerance. “Let them continue emailing about anything they want,” I think. “I just don’t want to be part of it.” When a Facebook conversation wanders into areas that I find either offensive or seriously different-strokesmisguided, my tendency is to withdraw from the conversation rather than insert my concerns. Tolerant, right? Not really.

I find in my own life, and I suspect I’m not unusual or unique in this, that “tolerance” is an umbrella term for “whatever.” “Different strokes for different folks.” “I disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” (although I almost certainly wouldn’t). In other words, one of the best safeguards against being judgmental and ethnocentric, a check against our natural human tendency to negatively judge those who believe, think, and act differently than we do simply because they are believing, thinking, and acting differently than we do, turns into a placeholder for laziness and a reticence to engage even with what one most strongly disagrees with. When writing on topics related to diversity and difference, my students regularly include phrases such as “we all just need to accept people as they are” and “the world would be a better place if everyone would simply be more tolerant of differences.” Tolerance is not only the first virtue that gets mentioned in class discussion and assignments, but is often the only virtue in play. But is tolerance suitable as the primary virtue in a moral framework or ethic? And what if there are some things that must not be tolerated?

herodotusA brief but familiar story from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus provides a useful jumping off point for asking uncomfortable questions about tolerance. In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of King Darius of Persia, a (somewhat) enlightened ruler who was fascinated by the various customs of the different groups of people from the far-flung reaches of his empire who were part of his extended court. Darius noted, for instance, that two different groups of people—the Greeks and the Callatians (a tribe of people from what is now the Indian peninsula)—had strikingly different methods of dealing with the body of a person who died in their community. The Greek practice when someone died was to burn the dead body, while the Callatian practice was to eat the dead body.

Intrigued, Darius first asked representatives of the Greek community what he would have to pay or give them, what honors he would have to bestow on them, so that the next time someone died in their community they would eat the dead body instead of burning it, as was their custom. Appalled, the Greek representatives told Darius that no amount of riches or honors could possibly convince them to do such a horrible and immoral thing. Darius also asked a similar question of the Callatians—could I convince you to burn the next dead body you have to deal with in your community rather than eating it, as is your custom? Hell no! the Callatians said, insisting that nothing could convince them to do such a disgusting and immoral thing. Herodotus’s conclusion? callatians“Custom is king.” What a person or group of people considers to be “right” or “moral” is what they are accustomed to, the practices of their family, their community, or their culture that they have been taught since their youth. Humans nature causes us not only to embrace what we are most familiar with as morally right, but also to assume that it is right for everyone.

If “custom is king” and moral values are culturally defined, then the most important attitude to cultivate, the habit most likely to put up a firewall against unwarranted projection of one’s parochial practices and values on others, is undoubtedly tolerance. As Herodotus’ story is intended to illustrate, the best answer to the question “Who is right about the best way to dispose of a dead body—the Greeks or the Callatians?” is “Both, within the parameters of their culture.” Furthermore, there is no way to step outside one’s own culturally defined moral stance and be “objective.” There is no such objective standpoint. The only proper response to differences between groups, or perhaps even between individuals, is tolerance—the habit of accepting differences without judgment.tolerance

The problem, as a student quickly pointed out in each section of my ethics course, is that tolerance as an exclusive or primary virtue is not sufficient to account for many of our strongest moral intuitions. What if, for instance, the difference is about something more serious than the difference between eating or burning a dead body? What if the difference is between a culture that practices female circumcision and our culture that does not? Is tolerance appropriate in this instance? Are we to say “wow, I’m glad I don’t live in that culture, but for them that practice is morally right”? If our intuitions say that some practices cannot be tolerated, no matter what cultures adopt them, is this because our intuitions have been shaped by our own culture or because our intuitions are resonating with a moral absolute that transcends cultural differences?moral-values

Of such questions a great General Ethics class is made. But it appears that if we raise tolerance to primary virtue status, we at the same time take any commitment to moral principles that transcend cultural differences off the table. And that may not be a price worth paying. As I told my students the other day, a moral theory that does not account for our strongest moral intuitions is like trying to cover a queen-size mattress with a twin-size fitted sheet. It covers some of what needs to be covered, but not all of it. I, for one, am not ready to tolerate a theory like that.

Disturbing the Peace

Last Friday I attended a talk on campus by civil rights lawyer and and law professor Greg Lukianoff on issues of free speech, trigger warnings, and a related host of matters on college and university matters that are regularly in the news. He is the co-author of an article in The Atlantic a bit over a year ago that raised a lot of eyebrows and generated a lot of conversation. I wrote about it in the early weeks of my sabbatical last August: 

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

Ine 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 new fall semester is just three weeks old–here’s a bit of advice related to safe spaces and learning for the incoming freshmen:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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 zone.it 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

Invading the Impossible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing the Barbarian Invasion

Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.”  Hannah Arendt

One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. images[6]Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”

rays[1]The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.

Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, yowl-380x190[1]a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.

Conan-the-Barbarian[1]The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our 196834_112520205494582_3062546_n[1]dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.

And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. conan-barbarian-04_510[1]Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.

Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. Title[1]One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”

So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief.collegeville-lecture-31[1] During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?

As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. JCarse3YT1.2c_000[1]As James Carse writes,

This 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. 

Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.

more than the syllabus

First Day of Classes

Today is the first day of the semester at my college. I have been anticipating it even more than I usually do because I have been on sabbatical and have not been in the classroom since May 2015—my longest stretch away from school since the mid-1980s. charlie-brownEveryone has stories, many of them of the horror variety, about the first day of school—mine were full of cognitive and emotional dissonance from my earliest years. On the one hand, I couldn’t wait for school to start—I’ve loved just about everything about the life of learning ever since I can remember. On the other hand, there was all that non-learning stuff that I was not good at. Meeting new people. Sports. Leaving my mother and my dogs at home every morning. Riding the bus for a half hour each way. Come to think of it, I probably would have loved home schooling. I doubt my parents would have.

For a college professor, the first day of the semester requires answering an eternal question—what to do with students whom you have never met, who are coming off either summer or Christmas vacation, who probably just met their roommate and hate her or him, who might have spent the previous night getting in a final party before attempting to get serious about their education for at least a week or so, and who are assuming that all we are going to do during our first class meeting is go over the syllabus and leave early? quizI have some professor colleagues who, assuming that all the above is true, descend to their new students’ expectations and dismiss class after a brief overview of the syllabus and the upcoming semester. I am not one of those professors. At the beginning of the first day of school, I give a reading quiz.

This, of course, means that my students have a reading assignment that they are required to complete for our first meeting of the semester. This is easy enough to arrange—I have the class roster available several weeks before the semester begins, so a simple email, followed by at least a dozen reminders in the following days before the semester begins, provides my students-to-be with the course syllabus, other pertinent data, and the first day’s reading assignment (with the promise of a quiz). I often notice a drop of five or six students in my class roster in the day or two after sending this email, which is a good thing (see below).game of thrones I usually receive a bit of email pushback from my students-to-be (“My other classes aren’t requiring a reading or having a quiz on the first day”), so why do I do this? For a number of reasons.

  • One advantage, as noted earlier, is roster control. Unfortunately, because my classes tend to fill up quickly and are often of the core curriculum variety that students have to take, every student who leaves my roster for a more palatable first day experience is immediately replaced by someone else (who doesn’t necessarily know about the first day reading and quiz—hence the multiple email reminders).
  • The amount of classroom time I have in a given semester with my students is limited. This semester we meet for seventy-five minutes twice per week for a total of twenty-seven meetings. Throwing away the first of those meetings sends the message that either our time together is unlimited or that it isn’t important enough to squeeze value out of every scheduled moment. Neither of these is true.
  • Many of my courses (half of them this semester) are filled exclusively with freshmen. Nothing says “this isn’t high school or Kansas anymore” to a first-week college student than for them to hit the ground running—hard.

I’m happy to report that in the interdisciplinary course I teach in every fall, my teammates have been happy to join me in assigning significant work for the first class. Two years ago, my colleague and I assigned the entire Iliad for freshman summer reading, building on it through the first two weeks of the semester. The first meeting of this year’s interdisciplinary course freshmen met today—penguinsmy colleagues and I assigned fifty pages or so and gave a quiz. Amazingly, everyone survived. It’s amazing what you can get freshmen to do without complaining.

Other than making the first day of school a difficult one for my students, what really am I up to as I return to the classroom this week? I reflected on this just before as my sabbatical began sixteen months ago; as I get back into the teaching saddle I return to what I was thinking then. As a professor, I am a facilitator of lifetime learning, a person who points students in fruitful directions, helping them identify and become skillful in the use of tools that will help them construct their own moral frameworks intelligently. The liberally educated lifetime learner is equipped both to seek and create meaning throughout her life. I take pride in playing a part in this process. I have thought a lot over the past twenty-five years about the day-to-day dynamic between professor and student; I continually return to the difference between an idol and an icon.

Idols and Icons

virgil and danteThe point of a professor is to be Virgil to the student’s Dante, guiding the educational journey, relying on knowledge and experience to point out the pitfalls and attractions of a journey that each person must encounter individually. The professor helps the student learn to identify what is important and what is not in the perpetual sifting process of education. The professor is not the main attraction at any point in this process. The professor is an icon—something to look through or past, in other words—rather than an idol—something to look at. second commandmentThere is a reason that the Second Commandment is a prohibition against idolatry. Human beings are inveterate idolaters, more than happy to pattern themselves after someone or something else rather than to take on responsibility for themselves. For those who are interested in creatively addressing the undoubtedly real shift in higher education toward preparation for a good job and financial success that has been going on for a while now, I highly recommend iconography.

They’re Baaack . . . .

We are in the business of believing in, and promoting, things that don’t yet exist. Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

RI summerAfter the most beautiful June in my Rhode Island memory, July was warm and August has been abnormally hot. I hate heat—I will take zero over ninety-five degrees any day of the week. But August is one of my favorite months because I am a college professor. August is very quiet on campus—no classes, few hosted events, few visitors other than prospective students and their parents taking tours. I can work out at the gym without competing for equipment and enjoy observing the various construction sites on campus without dealing with tons of people.  It’s all a wonderful period of solitude; but just as Louis XV reportedly commented in anticipation of the Revolution that would cost his grandson Louis XVI his head, August says to the academic Apres moiaprès moi le deluge.” Before long, the floodgates will open. They’re baaack . . .!

Actually, this is great news. I can’t wait until next Monday when classes start–after a year-long sabbatical, I’m more than ready to be back in the classroom. I’m not one of those professors who regularly moans and complains about their students; they are the reason I am in the profession to begin with, they keep me young (at heart if not in outward appearance), and let’s be practical: for an academic, a world sans students would be a world sans paycheck. I got a fictional look at the dark side of academic attitudes about students, fellow faculty, administrators, and reality in general when reading DCMJulie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members not long ago. Billed by Amazon as “A novel that puts the pissed back in epistolary,” it follows Jason Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing at Payne University, from the beginning to the end of an academic year through the exclusive lens of letters and emails of reference and support written for current and former students, colleagues, and acquaintances from graduate school days. Billed by reviewers as “funny as hell,” “hilarious,” “fun-as-heck,” and “funny and lacerating,” I must confess that although I smiled occasionally, I found the novel more sad than anything else. Sad because I know that the never-ending bureaucratic and pedagogical challenges of the academic life can turn someone into a jaded, sarcastic, and cynical curmudgeon like Jake Fitger (he’s four years younger than I am), and even sadder because it doesn’t have to be that way.

owaFitger is the graduate product of what he calls the “Seminar,” a graduate writing program that sounds a great deal like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (which produced a few of my friends and colleagues—and none of them are like Fitger). After a reasonably successful first novel, followed by a couple more that fell still-born from the press, he finds himself in the final decade or so of a mediocre career at a mediocre public university in an English department whose infrastructure, both psychological and physical, is falling apart. As lines are closed down and the plumbing in the men’s bathroom fails, the Economics Department on the floor directly above is being treated to a complete upgrade of facilities. Fitger is the embodiment of what is actually happening across the country in more universities and colleges than I care to consider—the neglect and downsizing of the humanities while departments and programs perceived as job-producers and money-makers receive the lion’s share of funding and attention.

I am extraordinarily fortunate and privileged to have spent the last twenty-two years (and hopefully the next fifteen or twenty) at an institution that consciously attempts to swim against that tide. pcAccordingly, Fitger is for me the fictional embodiment of what could have happened had I not been as fortunate. I have few cynical and dedicated negative bones in my body, but some might have been created had I lived the professional life of Jason Fitger. Of course, many of the most problematic aspects of Fitger’s life are self-created. He is hated across campus for various justifiable reasons, his marriage to a fellow professor on campus fell apart when she became aware of his continuing infidelities with an administrative assistant, and his affair with the administrative assistant ends when he accidentally hits the “Send All” button on an email intended for one individual in which he expresses his continuing sexual attraction for his ex-wife that remains strong even after five years of divorce.

I don’t know anyone on campus like Jason Fitger (although he might be lurking somewhere). But hidden like buried treasure underneath page upon page of sarcasm and nastiness are occasional and brief homages to the academic life that I was surprised and pleased to find. faculty on quadIn an email to a former colleague from the Seminar, an epistle drenched in anger, regret and bitterness, Fitger steps back for a moment.

The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus square is already fading; and, though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that I believe our mission and our way of life to have been admirable and lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending.

Amen to that. I only get to wear black robes a couple of times a year—although it would be sort of cool to wear them all of the time—and I agree that the eccentricities of the academic process and of academics themselves can be a pain in the ass. But what a wonderful profession. It’s the best thing going, not because of money, fame, or notoriety (which come to only a miniscule percentage), but because of the privilege of making a living in the midst of the most exciting environment imaginable—the life of continual learning. VM Ruane 1As I noted in my remarks at the dedication of our new humanities building almost three years ago, the Apostle Paul’s words ring true at this time of year for every academic: Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And Jason Fitger knows it, in spite of himself:

There is nothing more promising or hopeful than the start of the academic cycle: another chance for self-improvement, for putting into practice what one has learned—or failed to learn—during the previous year.

They’re baaack . . . and I can’t wait. Bring it on.

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

I’m Working On It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Speak for the Trees

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

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

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

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

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

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

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

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

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

Oaks of Righteousness

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

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

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

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

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

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

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

One Nation, Under God

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

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

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

Tom Delay interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revive us again, fill each heart with thy love

Let each soul be rekindled with fire from above

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