Category Archives: books

What I inherited from Mad Eagle

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering my Dad with whom I had a complicated relationship but who I miss very much. He has undoubtedly made more appearances in my blog in its four years of existence than any other family member other than Jeanne. This post–originally titled “Tapestries and Quilts,” was one of the first posts I ever published–it reminds me just how much of who I am is due to Mad Eagle (one of Dad’s many nicknames).

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the seven-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, during a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar a couple of semesters ago, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper not long ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid

Here Comes This Dreamer

JoelYour old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. This, promises the obscure prophet Joel in the Hebrew Scriptures, will be one of the signs that God has “poured out [his] Spirit upon all flesh.” Exactly what I would expect a prophet to say. Unsaid, however, is that in the meantime “your old women, your young women, and your middle-aged men and women will roll up their sleeves and get shit done.” The tension between visionaries and realists, between dreamers and pragmatists, is a healthy part of the human condition—but only when each side recognizes the equal importance and necessity of the other side.

Some people confuse the dreamer/pragmatist difference with the difference between optimists and pessimists; these two distinctions are not the same. I, as an optimist and a pragmatist, am a case in point. 3 branches of govtI find that a closer parallel to the dreamer/pragmatist distinction actually can be found by remembering the differences between the three branches of government that we learned about in fifth grade civics lessons. The energies that drive the dreamer or visionary differ from those of the pragmatist in the same was that legislative energies are different from those of the executive. Not particularly being a political animal, I did not know about these crucial differences until core curriculum review began on our campus close to a decade ago. Although I participated in many focus groups and debated endlessly on line with my colleagues about the true purposes and value of a liberal arts education, I had no desire to part of the Faculty Senate legislative process that hammered out a new core curriculum that was finally approved by the college president. boots on the groundLegislators, in spite of appearances, primarily are dreamers and visionaries—persons who imagine what a better future might look like and how it might possibly best be organized, then turn the vision over to executive pragmatists to transform this vision into “boots on the ground” reality.

I am by nature one of those pragmatists and have spent the last three years leading the attempt to make a reality the central portion of the new core curriculum fashioned by the legislators, a revitalized and freshly imagined version of the large interdisciplinary program that has been the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum for four decades. This new program is not exactly the one I would have invented had it been up to me (it isn’t a radical enough change), but as a pragmatist and executive the question is no longercore curriculum “What program would I (we) have invented had it been entirely up to me (us)?” or even “Do I think this new program is a good idea?” Both of these questions are irrelevant—the horse is now out of the barn. The question now is “How are we going to make this visionary product happen?”

I recall an interesting conversation that I had no long ago with a faculty member teaching in the program who also happens have been his department’s senator during the Faculty Senate’s shaping of the new core. My colleague was not entirely in agreement with some of the new policies being developed as the new program went into real-time reality. “Vance,” he said, “These new policies don’t really reflect the vision of those who were debating the legislation a couple of years ago.” “I don’t care, Jack,” I replied (his name has been changed even though he needs no protection and is anything but innocent). “It’s one thing to plan something—it’s another thing entirely to make it happen.” Yet Jack and I are good friends, just as dreamers and pragmatists should be (hear that, politicians in Washington?).

Jacob wrestlingIn Genesis, we find the story of a classic dreamer/pragmatist clash that generated a great deal of conflict. Genesis is full of great stories, including the story of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and probably my favorite character in the Bible. Smart, manipulative, younger brother, momma’s boy, God-obsessed, believer in love at first sight—I find a lot of myself in Jacob. But then we move to “Jacob—the Next Generation” and are introduced to one of my least favorite guys in the Bible—Joseph. Joseph is son number eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons fathered by his two wives and two concubines (at least those are all Genesis tells us about). But he is the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, so it’s not surprising that as the first child of the love of Jacob’s life, Joseph is the favored son of the twelve. The subtext just below the surface of the Genesis account is that Joseph is a spoiled brat. He gets the best clothes, he doesn’t have to work in the fields doing farmer and shepherd stuff as his ten older brothers do, he probably hasn’t done a day of real work in his life—in short, his shit doesn’t stink. jacob lineageAnd he knows this, playing the superior, “special case” card with his older brothers every chance he gets. Furthermore, he has weird dreams that he interprets to support his general conviction that he is superior to his brothers in every way.

Jacob, who for a smart guy is remarkably clueless about family dynamics, sends Joseph off on his own to check up and report on his older brothers who are tending the family flocks some distance away and report back to home base. Upon seeing their “special case” brother approaching without Dad’s protection, the older brothers see an opportunity—“this time we’re going to get this little bastard.” And they do, first throwing him into a deep pit where they plan to abandon him, them deciding instead to sell him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants on their way to Egypt. This is just the beginning of Joseph’s story, carried on through the remaining twelve chapters of Genesis, but as horrific the beginning of the story is, the energies are very human and familiar. JosephThose of you with a brother and sister, be honest. Haven’t there been times in your life when you would have loved to abandon your sibling in a pit?

When the brothers see Joseph approaching, they don’t say “Here comes the spoiled brat,” “Here comes the special case,” or even “Here comes that little shit Joseph spying on us.” Instead they say “Here comes this dreamer.” As they plot throwing him into a pit, they say “We shall see what will become of his dreams!” In other words, “Let’s see how visioning visions, dreaming dreams and thinking great thoughts helps you at the bottom of this pit, you son of a bitch!” Underlying the horribly dysfunctional sibling dynamics in Jacob’s family is a classic case of dreamer vs. pragmatist. When push comes to shove, as it always does, the pragmatist wants to know just how the ethereal perspective of the visionary or dreamer is going to put food on the table, while the dreamer reminds us that, as the author of Proverbs notes, “where there is no vision the people perish.”

As the story unfolds, Joseph will learn how to turn his visionary abilities into a practical commodity, first saving himself from execution then saving his adopted country from famine and starvation. His strong intuitive abilities will manufacture a family reunion that is both just payback and unconditionally loving. grindstoneHis journey from “out there” dreamer to integrated human being is a long one, just as it is for all of us regardless of which direction we are journeying from. Just as the dreamer needs to get her head out of the clouds occasionally and find something to eat, so the pragmatist needs to lift his nose from the grindstone often enough to remember that without regular dream infusions, getting shit done will be just that.

A Liberal’s Worst Nightmare

One of my teaching colleagues and mentors used to love to tell the story of what happened one day after he and a colleague teamed up for a particularly impassioned lecture in the interdisciplinary course they were team-teaching. I no longer remember what he said the text or topic of the class was, but after class a usually silent back-row-sitting student came up from and said “Wow! You guys really take this stuff seriously!” Which raises the question: What would happen if we actually took the things we claim to believe and be committed to seriously enough to do something about them? Seriously enough to completely change our lives?nhs

Katie is a “good person”—doctor for the National Health Service, mother, wife, and socially aware—but is desperately unhappy with her life. Her husband David is angry and cynical; he writes a newspaper column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway” in which he pillories everything from old people who walk too slowly getting off the bus to overrated artists like Sting and The Beatles. Katie and David’s marriage is in trouble, their kids are spoiled and ungrateful, they live in an upper middle class neighborhood but know few of their neighbors, they are comfortable but are surrounded by poverty and homelessness, moral demands are flying at them from all sides. Katie is having an affair, which she blames on her overall unhappiness. She wants a divorce, which David refuses to agree to.hornby

This is the setup for Nick Hornby’s hilarious and insightful novel How to Be Good, which will be included on my General Ethics syllabus in the fall. What makes the novel particularly interesting is that within the first fifty pages, under circumstances better read about than described (you really should read the book!), David undergoes a mysterious moral transformation from a cynical and nasty piece of work to a dedicated moral and social activist. David and Katie have paid lip service to all of the appropriate liberal political and social positions ever since they met at university, but now David is sounding as if he intends to actually act on what they have always lazily claimed to believe. How is Katie to respond? How is she to cope with a husband who is suddenly attentive, pleasant, no longer angry, sharing his portion of the parenting burden without complaint . . . and who intends to turn their lives upside down? Katie is nervous, because “I can’t help but feel that all this sounds very ominous indeed.”

About a third of the way through the book, David lays it all out:

We don’t care enough. We look after ourselves and ignore the weak and the poor. We despise our politicians for doing nothing, and think that this is somehow enough to show we care, and meanwhile we live in centrally heated houses that are too big for us . . .homeless We have a spare bedroom, and a study, and meanwhile people are sleeping outside on pavements. We scrape perfectly edible food into our compost maker, and meanwhile people at the end of our road are begging for the price of a cup of tea and a bag of chips . . . We spend thirteen pounds on compact discs which we already own in a different format . . . We buy films for our children that they’ve already seen at the cinema and never watch again . . .

You get the point . . . and so does Katie. At the end of his diatribe, David sums up succinctly.

I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare . . . I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.

In short order David gives many of his children’s toys and one of the three house computers away, seeks to recruit families on their street to house homeless teenagers in their spare bedrooms, and generally disrupts house and home in an effort to walkwalk the walk. The problem is that David’s logic is unassailable. If this is what we claim to believe, then this is what we should be doing. Which monumentally frustrates Katie who, after all, has considered herself to be the “good person” in this marriage for years. “I want to destroy David’s whole save-the-world-and-love-everyone campaign, but I want to do it using his logic and philosophy and language, not the language of some moaning, spoiled, smug, couldn’t-care-less, survival-of-the-fittest whiner.”

I share many of Katie and David’s beliefs; while theirs seem to have been established primarily through education, peer pressure, and social class, I often trace most of my liberal moral and social commitments back to my professed Christian faith. Which raises disturbing to a different level, because a person of faith who actually put the fundamental tenets of the faith into daily practice would be a Christian’s worst nightmare. beatitudesI smack headlong into this every time I read or hear the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which the Sermon on the Mount came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. Throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is dwidows and orphansriven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate. Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the Ten Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. 10 commandmentsBecause of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m very grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God? Our worst nightmare.

A REAL Philosopher

Somebody put a drop of his blood under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses. George Eliot, Middlemarch

My sons have never thought that I look like a philosopher. This has been an issue for more than twenty-five years, ever since the late summer of 1988 when they arrived with Jeanne and me in Milwaukee, where I began my PhD studies at Marquette University. They were nine and six at the time—I’m pretty sure they didn’t know what doctoral studies amounted to, but I told them that when I was done they would forevermore have to call me Dr. Dad“Doctor Dad” and that we would be getting a license plate that read DRDAD. Neither of those things happened, but they gradually got the idea that this was important. After meeting some of my fellow students and some of my professors, they began to form an image of what “Doctor Dad” should look like. And it wasn’t me.

I never was clear about exactly in what ways I failed to live up to my sons’ imaginary philosopher until several years later. I was in my first two or three years of teaching at Providence College, where I will be starting year twenty-three in the fall. The college is set smack in the middle of a well-established residential area, and a number of the faculty (including me) live within a few blocks of campus. One day my youngest son Justin and I were driving down an avenue that forms the whole south border of campus from end to end; many faculty and student dwellings are located on the parallel streets that run away from campus off this avenue. On the opposite sidewalk Justin spotted one of my colleagues from the philosophy department who lived in the area—professorit was a breezy day and my colleague’s almost-shoulder-length hair was blowing wildly, as was his unbuttoned trench coat as he leaned into the wind. Papers were falling out of the briefcase clamped under his right arm, and he was gesticulating with his left arm and hand as he apparently tried to make an important point. To himself. Out loud. My colleague was akin to Voltaire’s God—if the philosophy department didn’t have him, we would have had to invent him. “Now that’s what a REAL philosopher looks like,” Justin commented. So now I knew.

I’ve inhabited the philosophy professor stereotype sufficiently over the succeeding years that no one is particularly surprised to find out that I am a college professor when we meet for the first time; knowing that, they are even less surprised to learn that I teach philosophy. In what other profession could a sixty-year-old guy sport a gray ponytail, dress as I generally do, and not get fired? There is a certain amount of truth at the root of every stereotype, including that academics look, act, and talk in identifiable ways—ways that normal human beings can’t get away with (and wouldn’t want to). middlemarchOver the last couple of weeks, I’ve enjoyed returning to my favorite novel and rediscovering one of the great academics in all of literature—and I’m getting to do it with a bunch of academics.

I have a colleague in the philosophy department who started a reading group a few years ago. I’m not a big fan of reading groups, but gave one of his early ones—War and Peace a few summers ago—a shot. Although I read the whole novel (first time since undergraduate days), I made it through only two reading group meetings—just not my cup of tea. A few years have passed since then; although I receive notice each semester and summer of the new reading group text, I always send it to the e-circular file. Until now. My colleague, who is an occasional reader of my blog, knew from a couple of entries that this summer’s reading group choice is my favorite novel. “Middlemarch, Vance!” he said at the copier the other in a seductive tone. “George Eliot! Middlemarch!” And it worked. I’m still technically on sabbatical, I just finished my current book—why not?

The assignment for the reading group’s first meeting last week was the opening six chapters, around 60-70 pages. In those early pages we meet Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of the novel, and her sister Celia. Both are in their late teens (Dorothea is a year or two older) and are the wards of their uncle due to the death of their parents several years earlier. Dorothea is idealistic, is already inwardly rebelling against the limited opportunities available to an intelligent young woman in 1820s rural England, and is seeking to make a difference in the world (in the Prologue, Eliot likens her to a young Saint Teresa). A young man with money, land, and aristocratic blood is courting Dorothea, but she is so uninterested and oblivious that she assumes the man is courting her sister Celia. CasaubonAnd then one day something extraordinary happens. Mr. Brooke invites Mr. Casaubon to dinner.

Mr. Casaubon is the county intellectual. He is a Church of England minister with money, land, and the best education available, high enough on the clerical pecking order that the only thing he has to do for his parish on a weekly basis is give the sermon. Mr. Casaubon dresses in black from head to toe, has steel gray hair, is at least twenty-five years older than Dorothea, and is the stereotypical academic through and through. Dorothea and Celia agree that Mr. Casaubon is the spitting image of the great seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke—as if that’s a good thing. LockeHis magnum opus is to be titled “The Key to All Mythologies,” in which he intends to show “that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed.” Not a word of this masterpiece-to-be has actually been written, but Casaubon has been researching it for more than twenty years. old libraryHis musty library, indeed his whole musty estate, is filled with papers, books, and dozens of notebooks that he hopes to turn into a finished product that will “fill a small shelf.” Everyone in town and the surrounding county agree that Casaubon’s intellect is god-like and are willing to bemusedly accept his strangeness—because he’s an academic.

Against all odds, Dorothea is smitten by Mr. Casaubon. She has been looking for her life’s purpose—it has been revealed in the form of being the needed partner who will help bring Mr. Casaubon’s life work to fruition. Nobody can believe that Dorothea prefers this guy to other suitors—including Mr. Casaubon. But as the prospect of not spending his remaining years alone grows on him a bit, he opens the door to his long-neglected feelings a crack. The first returns are not encouraging; key to all mythologiesEliot tells us that “he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was.” But hey, give him a chance! This is new territory for an academic.

Once Mr. Casaubon has proposed to Dorothea in one of the most painfully god-awful letters of proposal ever, and Dorothea has accepted his offer, this peculiar match is the talk of the town. Mrs. Cadwallader, the wife of one of the local curates, summarizes everyone’s concerns about the upcoming marriage.

He’s got no good red blood in his body. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses . . . semicolons and parenthesesHe dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brains. They say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of ‘Hop o’ my Thumb,’ and he’s been making abstracts ever since.

They do get married, and as they used to say in ads for sixties and seventies sitcoms, “hijinks ensue.” Hijinks of the sort that only an academic could encounter, that is; the sort of hijinks that only semicolons and parentheses provide access to.

As we went around the seminar table introducing ourselves at the first reading group meeting, my turn came last. I noted that I love Victorian fiction, and that Middlemarch is not only my favorite Victorian novel, but my favorite novel—period. “And I’m particularly looking forward to doing this with other professors,’ I continued, “because each of us knows a Mr. Casaubon.” There are thirteen members in the reading group, faculty from ten different departments ranging from philosophy and history to marketing and chemistry. Everyone nodded knowingly as they envisioned their personal Mr. Casaubon. I understand that some readers of Middlemarch consider Mr. Casaubon to be a somewhat over the top caricature, but those of us sitting around the table knew better. He lives among us—each academic on her or his worst day is Mr. Casaubon. As a former colleague and mentor commented once concerning the life of academe, “it’s a good thing that colleges and universities exist; what else would they do with us?”

Four Things to Remember

sureteMy past several reading weeks have been spent, for the most part, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide division of the Sûreté du Québec, Québec’s provincial police force. He’s just about my age (maybe four or five years younger), loves solving puzzles, poetry, good food, his wife, and the many inspectors and police officers who work for him. I wish I had met Armand before I spent four years directing a large academic program, since I could have learned a lot from him about how to lead people who don’t always think they need direction. I have only known Armand for a couple of months—the amount of time it took me to read the first ten volumes in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, set in Three Pines, Québec, just a few dozen miles away from where I grew up in northern Vermont.map

Gamache takes his position as a mentor for younger and less experienced officers very seriously, often imparting wisdom in a deliberate manner more appropriate to a professor than to a policeman. Penny takes her time filling us in on the back stories of her twenty or so repeating characters—Gamache is no exception. In one of the early books we learn of some unsolicited but crucially important advice that he received in almost mythic fashion from an old fisherman in a northern Québec diner early in his career. Each of Gamache’s protégé’s in turn have received this advice—four statements that every aspiring inspector should take to heart. “Get used to saying each of these on a regular basis and meaning it,” the old fisherman said.

I don’t know

I was wrong

I’m sorry

I need help

I suspect that the old fisherman’s advice is applicable to more than inspectors.I don't know

I Don’t Know. Many people believe that college professors think they know everything. I’m here to tell you that there are a few who actually would be surprised to discover that they don’t know everything. But for the most part, the academic life is one guaranteed to let you know on a daily basis just how much you don’t know. Twenty years ago, as a new, untenured assistant professor, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. The format was to begin with two twenty-minute papers—one by a theologian, one by a philosopher—then a discussion of the papers by a panel of four colleagues (two each from philosophy and theology). I got to do the lead twenty-minute philosophy paper. I was mildly (I thought) critical of some aspects of the encyclical, something that did not fly with many of those present, particularly the dozens of parishioners from the Catholic church across the street who were in attendance.q and a

During the question and answer period after the panel discussion, a guy in the front row directed the first question to me. “Dr. Morgan,” the fellow asked, “is there no room in philosophy for humility?” I responded to his question in a way I never had before and never have since—I laughed. “Yes, sir, there is plenty of room for humility in philosophy,” I answered. “The longer I do this, the more I realize on a daily basis how much I don’t know.” For more than twenty-five years, my primary goal in the classroom has been to help my students realize that certainty is highly overrated and that lifetime learning demands a consistent awareness that no one knows everything (or even that much). As Hamlet told his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”the Fonz

I Was Wrong. For someone whose father, like the Fonz from Happy Days, could hardly even pronounce the worlds “I was wrong,” I do okay with this one. I had great fun when my sons were little trying to convince them that I am always right. This, of course, set them on a quest to catch me being wrong about something—I managed to sustain the illusion of God-like rectitude for a few weeks, but only by practicing my obfuscation and logic-bending skills on a regular basis. I wasn’t that good at it—I have some colleagues in my department who are still convinced of their infallibility in their fifties and sixties, in the face of regular and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Makes for interesting department meetings.sorry

I’m Sorry.  I’m not sure how someone who can’t say “I’m sorry” without having a nervous breakdown can survive a marriage, parenthood, the workplace, friendships, a trip to the supermarket, or getting out of bed in the morning.

I Need Help. My dachshund Frieda, who is about fifteen inches long, has slept with Jeanne and me in bed every night we have been home for the past ten years. The going-to-bed routine is always the same. Frieda does not want to simply be picked up and deposited on the queen-sized bed that she cannot jump on herself. She first stands on her hind legs leaning against the bed hopping on her hind feet (each jump clears the floor by about one inch). She wants to do it herself. When a human grabs her around her portly middle to lift her up, I need helpshe makes one final great leap to assist the transfer. I’m sure Frieda is convinced that given enough time she could complete the impossible task of getting into bed by herself. She got that from me.

When I mentioned to Jeanne the topic of this essay (she has also read all of Penny’s Gamache series), I asked her which of the four statements she has the most trouble with. After a bit of thought, she told me; before she could say anything more, I said “my problem statement is ‘I need help.” “Obviously,” she replied. “I deal with your wanting to do everything yourself on a daily basis.” And she does. My general commitment to doing things by myself is not principled in the sense that I go around saying “If you want to get something done right, do it yourself” all the time. I’m not even a big fan of the American individualist stereotype. But somewhere early on, probably from my mother, I developed the habit of accomplishing as many tasks as possible by myself, rather than inviting others to work on the tasks with me.

For this reason, I hated group projects as a student, which is probably why I—in contrast to many of my professor colleagues—assign very few group projects as a teacher. I never wanted to put my grade for any assignment at risk by turning a portion of it over to some random hoi polloi member of my group. The idea of co-writing an article or book is about as attractive to me as root canal without anesthesia. DWCThis resistance to admitting that I can’t do everything myself influenced my day-to-day activities directing a large academic program for four years as well. Several weeks ago I ran into the secretary of the academic program and asked her how things were going with the new director. “Oh, things are fine” she said—“but I had no idea how much you did by yourself when you were director.” Apparently the new director is delegating portions of regular tasks such as scheduling and event planning, tasks that I did by myself when I was director, to the program secretary. Wish I had thought of that.

Incomplete knowledge, imperfect behavior, and a frequent need for the support of others—sounds like a human being to me. Remembering the Chief Inspector’s four statements might help remind us that, above all else, we are human.

Je me souviens Québec

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series has everything a lover of mysteries could want. Fascinating characters developed from book to book, psychological insights into the best and worst of human nature, a bit of humor, a lot of creativity, a quaint setting where nothing ever happens (other than a murder every few months), and plenty of dead bodies. GamacheOne of the additional selling points is usually an exotic and unfamiliar setting, but here Penny’s books are different from the P. D. James, Elizabeth George, Jo Nesbø, and Jussi Adler-Olsen series that I particularly like. Chief Inspector Gamache does his work on territory very familiar to me, only a few dozen miles from where I grew up. Accordingly, I feel that I am returning home every time I open one of Penny’s books.

Since we lived only forty miles south of the Canadian border, I saw many Québec license plates during my youth. “Je me souviens,” each plate said—to my great confusion. license plateI knew no French; my brother, who took two or three years of French in high school, was useless when it came to actually translating something in real time. He struggled reading a menu in French, but at least could translate the word “meubles” (furniture) on a Québec billboard. I remember my father’s uproarious laughter as my brother tried to explain how the word was pronounced in French—it sounded like a cow mooing through its nose. mooAs I got older I was equally useless translating French, since I spent four years in high school learning Latin—I didn’t learn any French until college, and then only French for reading classics in the original. All highly impractical, and all poorly fashioned for translating license plates. Tracing “Je me souviens” back to possible Latin roots (“subvenio”), I thought it might mean “I assist” or even “Follow me.” I knew that the “me” on the license plate made it a self-referential verb, but “I assist myself” or “I follow myself” didn’t make sense. I didn’t know anyone who knew French, never thought of asking the French teacher across the hall from the Latin class, so I left northern New England for college not knowing what the saying on Québec license plates meant.

Many years later I realized that “Je me souviens” means “I remember,” something that reading Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series has reminded me of. I’m not sure what Québec drivers are remembering—the province has a fascinating and convoluted history, both internally and with the rest of Canada (as well as the U.S.), so it could be most anything. But “I remember” matches my own thinking about Québec these days—as I live with the characters in each book (nine so far and counting) in their little town of Three Pines (which would be no more than fifty miles from where I grew up if it existed) and as they travel to Montreal and Québec City, the memories come flooding back.mee ho

I remember that Sherbrooke, a small city (or so it seemed to a country boy such as I) only a bit over an hour away, was the location of Mee Ho, our favorite Chinese restaurant (actually the only Chinese restaurant I ever ate at before I turned twenty). God forbid that we should ever explore our neighboring towns and find out whether Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom had any Chinese restaurants; once my father found something he liked, he never wanted to change. Our trips over the border were so frequent that the border guards at the Newport, VT crossing eventually started waving us through—we just needed to slow down sufficiently for them to realize who it was. Sort of like EZ Pass decades before its time. It was during these monthly excursions to Sherbrooke that I benefitted from Canada’s tolerant laws concerning when human beings are allowed to consume alcohol. As long as they are accompanied by an adult, a child could have an adult beverage at any age. I don’t doubt that the law is the same fifty years later.

The champlainI remember Montreal, the big city of my youth, much closer to our house than Boston to the south. The Chateau Champlain was our downtown hotel of choice; now Marriott, it was a Canadian Pacific hotel when we stayed there–the train station was right under the hotel. My cousins and I used to each take one of the four elevators, ride from the lobby to the thirty-fifth floor, then down to a random floor, jump on another elevator—and see how long it would take until we ran into each other. I watched my mother drink her first alcoholic drink (a Brandy Alexander) at L’Escapade, the circular restaurant and bar on the top floor (she didn’t like it). We always requested a room overlooking Mary Queen of the World Basilica. As a hardcore Protestant kid, I was both attracted to and repelled by St. Joseph’s Oratory, with devoted pilgrims climbing steep stairs on their knees as well as discarded crutches and canes hanging on the walls as mute testimonies to miraculous healings over the decades is imprinted indelibly on my memory more than forty-five years later.

chateau champlain restaurant

Queen of the World

 

 

 

 

 

oratory

I remember Québec City, especially its middle-of-the-winter Carnival, where I first experienced cold intense enough to freeze the tears in my watering eyes. bonhommeThe red-sashed snowman Carnival mascot Bonhomme, the toboggan run on the boardwalk along the Saint Lawrence River, and elaborate ice sculptures made the bone-numbing cold worth it. The spectacular Chateau Frontenac looking all the world like a medieval castle, with its pricey st. laurent barSt. Laurent bar where patrons can view the Saint Laurence River and the boardwalk through a semicircular glass wall. Aux Anciens Canadiens, the oldest house in Québec turned into a restaurant, with its servers dressed in period costumes, white exterior and red roof. The Plains of Abraham, where the English and French fought a landmark eighteenth-century battle for the control and soul of the territory and where Generals Montcalm and Wolfe both died. The Chateau Pierre, a small bed and breakfast where we always stayed. I’ve not traveled much outside of North America, but am told that the old, walled portion of Québec City is the closest one can get to old Europe without going there.

aux anciens canadienschateau pierre

 

 

 

 

 

frontenacAll of the above and more are woven into the Chief Inspector Gamache series; each book opens a different door in my memory. Even as an adult, Québec remained important in my life. My honeymoon as a barely twenty-year-old kid was spent in Montreal, then Québec City. We stayed in the Chateau Pierre—that marriage didn’t work out. Twenty years later I returned to both cities with Jeanne (her first time) and discovered just how limited my early experiences had been. I saw Old Montreal and the Lower City of Québec below the cliffs on which the Old City perches for the first time.lower town

old montreal

 

 

 

 

 

We didn’t stay in the Chateau Pierre. Jeanne has traveled to Montreal numerous times since then for work—I have not been to Québec for close to two decades. But with Louise Penny I am remembering a thread of my life tapestry that, although largely forgotten, has defined more of who I am than I realized. Funny how that happens.

The Burden of LIght

TDWCeaching for close to twenty years in an interdisciplinary program with colleagues from a multitude of disciplines has provided me with the best that academe can offer a professor—a continuing education. In an academic world which so often demands narrower and narrower research focus and specialization from its members, it has been a gift to spend the majority of my career thus far at a place that welcomes breadth and encourages—and sometimes requires—its faculty to regularly wander outside their comfort zone in the classroom. In my early years at the college, a few of the older faculty—some of whom had been part of the creation of this interdisciplinary program in the seventies—used to joke that the course was really for the enjoyment and edification of the faculty. Students were allowed in only to pay the bills. I have learned more about history, theology, music, art, and literature through my participation in this program than I could have in any number of graduate courses.Caravaggio

I learned, for instance, about chiaroscuro from the art lectures offered regularly by a colleague from the history department who was frequently a member of my teaching team during my early years in the program. This colleague, now an emeritus professor, is a specialist in American Presidential history—and also knows a lot about art and music, especially opera. In painting, chiaroscuro is a technique that uses strong contrasts between light and dark, bold contrasts that affect the whole composition. Many Renaissance artists used the technique; my colleague’s preferred examples came from the work of Caravaggio. My colleague’s go-to illustration of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro was “The Calling of Saint Matthew.”

Calling of Saint Matthew

There is some debate concerning who Matthew is in this painting. Is he the guy with the beard pointing at himself (“Who, me?”)? Or is he the young counting money and not paying attention, to whom the guy with the beard is pointing (“Who, him?”)? I prefer the latter interpretation, but there is no debate about the power of light and shadow in this painting. The light shining from a window outside the top right of the canvas illuminates just enough of Jesus’ modest halo to make clear who he is, as well as the expressions on the faces of everyone at the table. But this light also makes the shadows even darker and more pronounced. Light does not dispel the darkness, but it changes everything. This light has transformed the life of the man on whom it is directed—for better and for worse.hast_ox_yoke[1]

According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus once said that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jeanne told me recently of an “aha!” moment she had not long ago related to this “burden is light” business. She (and probably everyone else aware of the passage and its context) always assumed that Jesus meant that the burden of following him is not heavy—it’s light. And I’m sure that’s what the Greek text implies as well. But thanks to the wonders of the English language, this passage can mean something entirely different and much more interesting. What if Jesus means that it is our burden—our duty—to illuminate the darkness, to bring light into a world that badly needs it? What if we read “light” in “my burden is light” as a noun rather than as an adjective? There are all sorts of light-related references attributed to Jesus, including that we are “the light of the world.” And yet Caravaggio and others show us through their skillful use of chiaroscuro that being a light-bearer comes with a built-in price—illuminating the darkness also involves revealing the shadows, both in oneself and in others. Sometimes commitment and faithfulness come with a cost.

freedomwriters[1]Jeanne went on to say that her new reading of “my burden is light” reminded her of an important scene from one of her favorite movies. “Freedom Writers” is the story of Erin Gruwell, played in the movie by Hilary Swank, a young, idealistic teacher in south Los Angeles in the 1990s who finds her enthusiasm and creativity stretched to the breaking point by students divided into gangs along racial lines and an administration who refuses to let Gruwell give the students books to read because the books might be stolen or damaged. Her unorthodox teaching methods incrementally have a positive impact on her students, but there is a price to be paid. patrick-dempsey-hilary-swank-in-freedom-writers[1]Toward the end of the movie Erin is having dinner with her father and breaks into tears. Her husband has left her, due to her 24/7 dedication to her job and a lack of time for him and their marriage. She sits, weeping, asking her father “Has any of this been worth it? Does it even matter? Have I made any difference?” Her father, who up to this point has been less than supportive of Erin’s commitment, looks at her and says, “You have been blessed with a burden, my daughter. I envy and admire that.”

Jesus told his followers that “You are the light of the world.”  Persons of faith are also blessed with a burden—a burden of light. This is not a burden of things to do, actions to perform, positions to take, any more than light considers illumination to be its job. Many centuries ago, Aristotle resonated with this insight when he argued that the moral life is far less about what a person does than it is about that person’s character, about who that person is. Just as light changes everything it comes into contact just by being what it is, so the person of character reveals herself and introduces light into the darkness simply by being, by showing up. And this is the call to persons of faith. 23390200_9895fcc823[1]Be there; show up; remember that we have the divine within us. The light may be dim, flickering, all but invisible, but it is the way in which the divine invades the darkness. It doesn’t simply remove darkness; indeed, it reveals new shadows and dark places that could not be seen before the light arrived. But our burden, shadows and all, is to be what we have chosen to be—divine light bearers.

Tasmanian Dog

As I was cleaning out files last week, I came across an essay from a few years ago, a pre-blog world when I was just beginning to write short pieces. This one is about a dog who had an uncanny ability to mess my world up just by being herself. Amazing how such challenges just show up uninvited!

I live with a dog who is “special” (as in “special child”).  My son and daughter-in-law, who are responsible for this, have self-diagnosed her as “autistic”; I just think she’s nuts. She is inappropriately named il_570xN.235743883[1]Sophia. If this is wisdom, count me out. A partial list of Sophia-caused havoc since she arrived a few months ago includes two destroyed screen doors, a demolished back gate, a back yard where grass has been replaced by a shit-covered moonscape, trails of urine following her from room to room when she’s overly excited (which is most of the time). I had to install a hook-and-eye lock on the master bedroom, because she pissed in the middle of our bed twice in one week. She chooses not to eat out of a bowl, preferring instead to head-butt the bowl of food (and therefore the adjacent bowl of water) until sufficient pieces to constitute a meal are scattered on the water-soaked floor. Laying down is a project of baffling complexity. She circles her chosen landing spot with clockwise circles of increasing velocity and decreasing circumference until, either from exhaustion or vertigo, she collapses.

This takes me back in time. For Proust it was a madeleine; for me, it’s an insane boxer. As a child, my favorite character in the pantheon of classic Bugs Bunny characters was the Tasmanian Devil.27840L[1] I lived vicariously through his uncontrolled and destructive energy. Who doesn’t occasionally wish for the opportunity to make a god-awful mess with impunity and without repercussions, just because you can? Mom doesn’t like the way I picked up my room? I’ll show you “picked up”! I whirl into a tornado of destructive frenzy, clothes and bedding flying everywhere, leaving a child-sized hole in the wall as I exit the scene. Dad doesn’t like my attitude?  I’ll show you an attitude, as I leave flying paper and debris in the wake of my Tasmanian exit through your floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Tasmanian_Devil_and_Bugs_Bunny_by_erickenji[1]Just as the Tasmanian Devil was an infrequent visitor to the Bugs Bunny Show (maybe once every third Saturday), so I wasn’t looking to be destructive on a regular basis. Infrequent and arbitrary scenes of total chaos would have been enough to keep everyone on edge and suitably respectful.

Now I have a Tasmanian Devil living in my house, and it’s no fun. I’ve tried to be patient and cope, looking for her good points, but have not been successful. She’s got the classic boxer look, which means she has a face only a mother or a dedicated owner could love.images[9] Her ears both flop over in the same direction (right), giving her had a lopsided appearance. A woman called her “beautiful” once when we were out for a walk, stretching the meaning of the word beyond recognition.

I am a patient man. “Laid back” is how my sons have most frequently described me over the years when they brought friends to the house. My tolerance level is high enough that Sophia is one of the few living things that has ever regularly exceeded it. But I’ve had it. I told my son in strictest confidence the other day that “I really hate that dog.” Interestingly, he responded “so do I.” 1379556_10202284079242854_547898063_n[1]But he’s been married less than a year, Sophia has been in his wife’s life a good deal longer than he has—I don’t think he’s sure how a “Sophia or me” ultimatum would play out. That’s his problem, though. There are no conjugal issues complicating my relationship with Sophia. I intend to reclaim my house, and she has to go.

____________________________________________

            Now, a few weeks later, my son and daughter-in-law have moved into their own apartment and Sophia has moved on with them. It is faintly amusing how put-out and self-righteous I can get about things that, ultimately, are simply part of life. Sophia, after all, is the one who has mental and behavioral problems, who is blind in one eye, who was uprooted from everything she was familiar with and moved across the country without even being consulted, imagesCAZEHXHDwho has such a difficult time simply coping with the most basic things such as figuring out how to avoid a human being who obviously doesn’t like her. In Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” after Ivan suffers a long and mysterious illness that leads to an extended and excruciatingly painful death, his widow Praskovya says to one of the mourners at his wake: “How I have suffered!” That’s such a sad, yet typically human response to messiness and imperfection—look how inconvenient and burdensome this has been for me. It’s all about me.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad Sophia doesn’t live here any more. Different people have different gifts, and the gift of love and patience for a Tasmanian devil in boxer form is not one of mine. Just today, though, I was reminded of a gift that Sophia left me. This summer has been a season of transitions and change both inner and outer, personal and relational. I am marking these sometimes disconcerting changes, as I often do, by taking close notice of the books that have been my anchors in the midst of uncertainty. Sophia decided that one of these books was her chew toy one day when I was not at home—I returned to find the book on the floor missing both covers, drenched with saliva and sporting numerous teeth marks. I love my books, so let’s just say that I was not amused. As I reviewed some of the places I marked in the book today, however, I see that not a single page of content is missing. Sure, there are still saliva stains and tooth indentations, but the good stuff’s still there. That’s sort of the way I feel these days—somewhat worked over by the Tasmanian storms of life, many of them of my own making, but everything’s still pretty much intact. I don’t know exactly what to make of it, but somehow this book is better for having been worked over by Sophia. Maybe I am too.

Fast and Slow

It is not often that Pentecost and Commencement Sunday fall on the same day. I wrote a couple of years ago about how they might tie together . . .

When my sons were young, one of the most important distinctions in their estimation, when food was the issue, was “is it fast or slow food?” In other words, how much of my important schedule is this eating event going to take up? Fast food—McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Burger King if going out; fish sticks, hot dogs, sandwiches if staying in—was obviously preferred. Slow food—any place where you have to sit down and wait if going out; anything involving more than five minutes of preparation time and that you would not be consuming in front of the television if eating in—was acceptable only if given sufficient warning. Going out to a slow food restaurant required preparation, including which coloring books to bring, psychological calming techniques, a consideration of the expected guest list, and so on.

The first slow food event that Jeanne and the boys ever attended together—Thanksgiving dinner 1987 with my parents and me at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming—was such a slow food event that Jeanne finally walked into the kitchen to find out why the hell the food was taking so long. My sons were impressed that any human being would have the nerve to do such a thing. They were not the only persons impressed that night, though. Jeanne still speaks on occasion about how remarkable it was that these two kids, eight and six, managed to keep themselves occupied without fidgeting or complaint for a much longer period of time than any human being should be required to wait for food. That’s only because they knew how to prepare.

A couple of years ago, in his greeting to the thousands of people gathered for Providence College commencement at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, the President of the college gave one last reading assignment to the graduating seniors. “You must read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,” Father Shanley said. In this book,  Kahneman distinguishes between two types of thinking that all of us come equipped with as human beings. Fast thinking, on the one hand, is the intuitive, almost unconscious way that we tend to make quick, snap judgments about events, people, choices, and even our life paths. Relying on emotion, memory, and hard-wired rules of thumb, much of our daily existence runs on fast thinking autopilot. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is much more deliberate, conscious, attentive, self-aware, and, well, slower. One of the book reviewers on Amazon.com’s site for this book writes that “The human mind is a hilariously muddled compromise between these incompatible modes of thought.”

Most of us rely on fast thinking most of the time, even though we know that such thinking is often inaccurate and shot through with bias and prejudice. The question is, Why do we do it? At least on the surface, the answer clearly is “It’s easier.” Slow thinking laboriously checks the facts against the appearances, critically evaluates information, but is extraordinarily lazy and easily distracted. Our slow thinking self is more than happy to turn things over to fast thinking simply because it conserves time and effort. Why take the time to consider the relevant details and nuances of a political candidate’s positions when it is so much quicker and easier to label her as a “conservative,” a “liberal,” a “socialist,” or a “tea-partier” and move on? Why expend the effort to actually get to know this new colleague or neighbor when it is much simpler to label him as “one of them” and go to lunch?

When the stakes are higher, when one’s spiritual health and growth are the issue, the fast and slow distinction becomes far more than an interesting topic of conversation. Is the Christian life more like fast or slow food? Is it more like McDonald’s or the Capital Grille? The Christian narrative is full of fast food events–Pentecost, Christmas, Easter–instant gratification events at the heart of belief that are so filling and satisfying that one could imagine that this is the exclusive food that fuels the life of faith. Each of us has had our own fast food, Big Bird moments, times when the veil between the mundane human and glorious divine is pierced, even for a moment, in some unforgettable way. What more does one need?

Plenty. Will Pentecost be enough to sustain those who experienced it when, weeks or months later, they are alone in chains waiting for torture or execution? Will your most spectacular Big Bird moment from the past be enough to get you through the stress of parenting, the tragedy of loss, a divorce, a lost job, an illness, or simply the daily grind? If slow food is analogous to delayed gratification, then much—probably most—of the life of faith is slow food. Waiting, attending, struggling, just being, all the time wondering if you are ever going to get food again. That conversion experience, that healing, that moment that you vibrated with the presence of God are all distant memories. And one cannot eat memories.

Our fast thinking selves, applied to the spiritual life, decide that an occasional trip to the McDonald’s of faith is good enough. A few milestones, both doctrinal and personal, become the sole sustenance of faith, bolstered by some quick and easy rules of thumb and prescribed ways of behaving. Go to church, say your prayers, maybe read your Bible on occasion. Our slow thinking selves are willing to concede that this has to be enough, because what else is there?

The answer lies in some of the food analogies that Jesus uses in the Gospels. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “He who believes in me shall never hunger.”  “Whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again,” he tells the Samaritan woman at the well. The message of Pentecost completes the Incarnation story—God, in the form of the Holy Spirit is in us. The source of life, the food we need, is not in the fast food of events, of churches, nor is it in the slow food of waiting interminably for something to happen. It is in the regular, daily supply of nourishment that is in us “a well of water, springing up into everlasting life.”

Many of the hymns related to the Holy Spirit—“Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers,” “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”–all appear to be petitions for God to show up, to pay attention. But Big Bird hasn’t gone anywhere—she is in us all the time. These texts call us to attentiveness, to remembrance, to awareness that we have been provided with all the food we need. It’s just a matter of consuming it, because it is never used up.

Four years ago, during my one visit to Paris for a conference, I walked the city as much as time would allow. And for once I saw first-hand that a common stereotype is true. Parisians really do walk down the street holding a cell phone to one ear while carrying a baguette under their arm. Tearing off and eating a piece while walking down the sidewalk is as habitual to them as breathing. Maybe that’s how the life of faith should be. We don’t have to go shopping for the bread of life at either a fast or slow food establishment. It’s with us all the time. Take a bite. It’s really good.