Category Archives: Catholicism

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Mister Perfect Has a Bad Day

A conversation heard behind the scenes:

Dude! Did you see what just happened??

How could I?? I’m in charge of the fucking luggage today and am stuck way back here. Why is the crowd always biggest when I have luggage duty?

The big guy just got dissed in front of everyone!

Are you shitting me? Tell me!

He was already in a pissy mood and this woman kept nagging him and bothering him until he finally put her in her place with one of his patented one-liners.

What else is new? That’s what he always does.

images0EW9Y1AOYeah, but she came right back at him with an even better put-down! And he admitted he was wrong!

HE ADMITTED HE WAS WRONG??? Oh My God!! You mean “MISTER PERFECT” made a mistake?? MISTER PERFECT admitted he was wrong?? Oh how the mighty have fallen! Priceless!!

Admit it. Every one of us has participated in a conversation like this at some point—probably more than once. Because deeply embedded in the heart of human nature is the desire to see the high and mighty take a pratfall. Henry VIII goutWe love hearing about the peccadilloes and foibles of those we put on a pedestal and enjoy finding out that they are flawed and limited just like the rest of us. It’s great to know that Henry the Eighth was afflicted with gout and that Napoleon suffered from hemorrhoids. WMIMI would love to find out that The World’s Most Interesting Man has an embarrassing case of athlete’s foot or dandruff or has bad teeth. Anything is welcome that lets us know that those who we, on the one hand, praise to the skies and worship in some fashion, on the other hand have feet (or other body parts) of clay.

The conversation above is what I imagine was going on behind the scenes of a classic story of someone’s imperfections showing in a very public way. The Sunday gospel readings during the summer in the common lectionary wander through Jesus’ activities and shenanigans as described by the gospel author of the year—this year it is Matthew. tombsLast Sunday we encountered Jesus putting the finishing touches on yet another devastating dismantling of the religious authorities of the day. The disciples ask “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” No shit—people usually don’t like being called white-washed tombs and hypocrites. Jesus is still pontificating as he and his entourage hit the road for the next town, undoubtedly still heated by self-righteous energy.

As the group presses forward, a woman elbows her way to within shouting distance of Jesus. Her accent and clothing show that she is a Caananite, a non-Jew, but that doesn’t stop her from doing whatever she can to attract Jesus’ attention because she has a big problem. Her daughter is “tormented by a demon,” and she knows by reputation that this itinerant preacher is also a healer. He has cast out demons before. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” she screams at the top of her lungs. CanaaniteAnd she keeps screaming—her daughter’s health and well-being matter more than the fact that as a woman and as a foreigner, she has no reason to think that anyone, let alone Jesus, will take notice of her.

And for a time Jesus simply ignores her. He’s too busy, too tired, too annoyed by the crowds, too something to be bothered with this woman. But she continues screaming for his help, so much so that now it’s getting embarrassing. “Send her away,” a disciple or two mutters to him. “She keeps shouting after us.” “Jesus Christ” (really) Jesus finally sighs. “Enough already.” Turning to the annoying foreigner, he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Ignoring this rather gentle dismissal, she simply gasps, with tears flowing down her cheeks, “Lord, help me.” That should work, right? This is Jesus, after all, the ultimate good guy who never turns down an opportunity to help the needy who come across his path.

But no. Jesus counters that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Oh my. That’s not very nice. And we know from other stories that Jesus has often addressed the needs of non-Jews without hesitation. The hero of one of his best stories, the Good Samaritan, is a non-Jew. So what the hell’s his problem? Simple enough—he isn’t in the mood. Just as all human beings—and he was one, after all—he’s having a tough day and he’s not at his best. He doesn’t feel like helping this foreign bitch (he just called her a dog, after all) and has provided a perfectly good rationalization for why he doesn’t have to. dog and crumbsEnd of story—the demons can have your daughter.

Not quite. This woman is not only insistent, but she’s also as quick on her feet as Jesus is. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!” Touché! In your face, holy man! This is impressive—her retort is the sort of thing that I always come up with hours after the conversation is over and I’m alone. “Man, I should have said . . .” But despite her panicked concern for her daughter, the unnamed woman is able to match Jesus one-liner for one-liner with her daughter’s health, perhaps her life, at stake. And even more impressively, it works. Something here, her persistence, her intelligence, her lack of regard for propriety, cuts through Jesus’ bullshit. “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” “And her daughter was healed instantly.” The Jesus posse continues on its way and we never hear of this woman again.

So what’s the takeaway? Without the exchange between Jesus and the woman, this tale would be indistinguishable from dozens of other accounts of persons healed by Jesus. Why does the author choose to tell the story in this fashion? In the estimation of many, Jesus is the ultimate and cosmic “Mister Perfect”—their faith depends on it. nicene creedSo why make a point of showing that even Jesus had off days, could be rude and judgmental, and had clay body parts just as we all do? In addition to driving home the “Jesus was a human being” point, one the Nicene Creed tells Christians every Sunday but that we tend to ignore, there’s a more direct behavioral lesson to be learned here. Jesus listened. Even on a bad day crowded with distractions and annoyances, he was able to hear the truth, recognize he was being an ass, and wake up. We all have bad days, perhaps many more than Jesus did, and we tend to use “I was having a bad day” as a justification for all manner of bad behavior, even to those we love the most. The story of Mister Perfect having a bad day lets us know not only that the best of us occasionally fail to live up to expectations, but also that such failures need not be debilitating. Each of us can hear the truth and change a bad day into a not-so-bad one. Even Mister Perfect.

Back to the behind the scenes conversation:

Iwalk on water love it! Mister Perfect is having a bad day! Mister Perfect, who probably thinks he can walk on water, made a mistake!

Dude, he CAN walk on water.

Shut up.

Fearless Passivity

nixon

Last Sunday, Jeanne and I stumbled across Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie “Nixon” as we were surfing through the channels. In the last few minutes of the movie, on the same evening that he signed his letter of resignation from the Presidency, Richard Nixon (played by the always-brilliant Anthony Hopkins) gets a reluctant Henry Kissinger to kneel with him to pray in the Oval Office. A jarringly out-of-place activity, it would seem, for the disgraced and apparently unrepentant Nixon–but then prayer has seemed jarring and forced to me for most of my life. I reflected on that about a year ago in the essay below.

Wednesday night prayer meeting—yet another opportunity to go to church. As a creative youngster, I usually was able to find something in every foray to church to pique my interest, however briefly. I liked some of the hymns we sang on Sunday morning and evening, for instance, and enjoyed the stories in Sunday school. But we didn’t sing on Wednesday nights—people gave testimonies, and then we prayed. For a very, very, VERY long time.

p_profile_norrisheadshot1[1]Many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don’t get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn’t “work.” This is privatization at its worst, and a cosmic selfishness. Kathleen Norris 

I remember prayers that were more like speeches than anything else, insistent, complaining sorts of speeches whose intent was apparently to wear God down. Not that the things being asked for were unimportant—“please bring X to a saving knowledge of you,” “please heal Y of diabetes,” “please help Z find a job”—prayer-meeting-image[1]but the tone was often strange, petulantly childish, demanding, insinuating that this time, for once, God had damn well better get off His ass and do something. Of course anyone actually saying that at Wednesday prayer service would have been in danger of hellfire, but that’s the atmosphere I remember.

How to pray was a mystery to me—I recall my mother saying frequently that I should just “talk to God the same way I talk to her.” That never struck me as one of my mother’s better pieces of advice, since I clearly couldn’t talk to an invisible, far away, scary “something” in the same way I could talk to her. But I did learn, as all good Baptist kids learned, how to make up a convincing sounding prayer at the drop of a hat. It’s just that it never seemed to go past the ceiling.images[8]

Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already. Annie Dillard 

Remnants of my Baptist upbringing reared their head the first time I saw the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The whole idea of written, non-spontaneous prayer was foreign to me, despite the beauty of many of the petitions in the book. I’ve gotten used to the idea, though, since I’ve spent my working career with people trained in the “prepared prayer” campProduct3999_Photo1[1]. As the chair and only non-Catholic in a large philosophy department, for instance, it fell to me to ask a colleague to open our monthly meetings with prayer. I was expected, of course, to ask the professionals, one of my priest colleagues, so I took great delight in occasionally asking a lay colleague just before the meeting. Without fail, you would have thought I had asked the colleague to solve several problems in differential calculus on the spot—apparently Catholics aren’t used to praying on a moment’s notice, with priests in the room and no prepared text at hand. Well, at least I thought the reaction was funny.

My overall attitude about prayer over the years has been, sad to say, an angry one. Prayer is supposed to be such a central part of the life of faith, but the transactional model I had been taught revealed God to be arbitrary, powerless, uninterested, or hard of hearing. Angry prayer doesn’t do much to establish a prayer life with one’s spouse, especially a spouse who, like Jeanne, seems to take to prayer as naturally as a duck to water.400d828fd7a0a7c5e0bb3110_L[1]

There is an affinity between cursing and praying . . . both forms of discourse address what is out of human control: one with a destructive and the other with a creative purpose. Both praying and cursing flow from frustration. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham 

One day after expressing my frustration about the whole prayer thing to her, Jeanne said something that, for the first time, began to chip away at my icy attitude about talking to God. “Vance,” she said, “for you thinking is praying.” And since I do much of my thinking in the context of reading, I took that to mean that maybe when I’m reading I’m praying too.

When the minister finally got to say his “Let us pray,” we were ready. We had been praying, all along. We had been being ourselves before God. Kathleen Norris 

That was the most helpful thing anyone ever said to me about prayer and, in turn, it freed me to hear from my teachers what else prayer might be.

Among the writers who have been most important to me over the past several years, there turns out to be an amazing consensus about what prayer is and is not. It definitely is not begging, asking, bartering, transactional, projecting religious white noise into the void.Convent of Visitation Reunion 2010 Rather, it has to do with openness, with waiting, with an attentiveness that does not fill in the silence but, as Adorno said, is “fearlessly passive.”

“Writing is prayer,” Kafka, that most afflicted one, said. And writing, certainly, isn’t wishing; it is witnessing. Patricia Hampl iris-murdoch-1[1]

Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. Iris Murdoch 

page1[1]Attention, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer. Simone Weil 

Experiencing Benedictine noon prayer over the past few years has helped me with this. There is more silence than speaking in their petitions, between the lines of the psalms that we read together and between each portion of the rubric. I’ve heard “Be still and know that I am God” since my childhood, but finding myself a part of it in action is transformative.

As a new attitude of attention develops, it has slowly been possible to return to spoken prayer without all of my previous baggage. imagesCA69WZ3KYet for the most part, prayer is an attitude rather than something verbal, an attitude that begins with finding the silent space inside. Some days are tougher than others, the sorts of days when Anne Lamott’s insight that the best prayers are often “Help! Help!” or “Thank you! Thank you!” rings true. But when Jeanne said to me a while ago that my prayers aren’t angry any more, I was both thankful and aware that a change had indeed begun.

heschel[1]The essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

rapture

Random Harvest

Lindelof-The-Leftovers-HBOA new HBO miniseries called “The Leftovers” started its first season a couple of weeks ago. This is the sort of series that I usually have no interest in—something weird has happened (like a huge invisible dome randomly dropping on top of a town) and the entertainment of the series is to see how people deal with the new situation. As my father would have said, it’s fun to observe a cow’s reaction to a new barn door. Shows with such premises are generally too Stephen King-ish for my taste. But the idea kernel behind “The Leftovers” is different.video-the-leftovers-trailer-shows-us-what-the-rapture-looks-like On a seemingly unimportant day, October 14th to be exact, millions of people worldwide inexplicably disappear into thin air. Here one moment, gone the next. The first episode of “The Leftovers” drops us three years later into a small Pennsylvania community as they prepare for a third year anniversary celebration (wake? remembrance?) of the dozens of friends and family members who evaporated on October 14. So what makes this bizarre premise any more interesting than a giant dome falling out of the sky? This one hits close to home, because in the parlance of the people I grew up with, the October 14 event that is at the heart of this show is the Rapture.

rapture_1_I don’t know if “Rapture Obsession” is an official medical diagnosis, but whether it is or not my family, my church, and just about everyone I knew growing up had it. In spades. The basic idea is simple—Jesus is coming back. And when he does, he’s going to take those who believe in him, who have “accepted Christ as their personal savior,” with him back to heaven (the Rapture) and leave the billions of unraptured losers here on earth for a seven-year period known as the Tribulation during which, literally, all hell will break loose. Armageddon. The Antichrist. The Apocalypse. All of these are triggered by the massive ingathering of the faithful. At least in my youthful understanding, the primary reason to put up with all of the restrictions, limitations, and general annoyance of being a Christian was to guarantee that one is going and not staying when the Rapture occurs. Not that there was any solid guarantee that I was “in” rather than “out.” I spent many panicked moments as a youngster when my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be thinking that the Rapture had occurred and I was screwed.

Where did people get such a ridiculous idea from? Actually, the textual evidence in the Bible is relatively thin and mixed at best. There are a few cryptic comments in the Gospels, a few more hints in Paul’s letters, but the bulk of the relevant material is in the Bible-closing Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew scriptures (as read through Christian filters), material containing predictions so cryptic and visions so strange as to suggest that the authors were on hallucinogenics. 375px-Tribulation_views_svgThere’s enough there to draw one’s attention if one is so inclined, but not enough for anyone to be sure about what the texts actually mean.

But that didn’t stop my church community from being sure as hell (!) that we were in and just about everyone else (including Catholics, Universalists, and tons of other people who claimed to be Christians) was out. There was plenty of debate about the details. We believed that the Rapture would be the official kick-off of the Tribulation (we were “Pre-Trib” people), but some Rapture believers thought it would happen half-way through the Tribulation (“Mid-Trib”) and some even thought it would happen at the end, just before the Final Judgment (“Post-Trib”—I never saw the point of a Post-Trib Rapture). Pastors preached on it, Bible scholars and experts gave week-long conferences piggy-backed on revivals (my Dad was one of these experts), The_Late,_Great_Planet_Earth_coverand we all went into a tizzy when in 1970 evangelical minister Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, called “the number one non-fiction bestseller of the decade” by the New York Times, exploded on the scene. And this is not a dated phenomenon. Hal Lindsey’1972 bestselling sequel had the eye-catching title Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth; a brief Internet search or a Sunday road trip to the closest megachurch will confirm that Rapture mania is also alive and well on planet Earth. “The Leftovers” is likely to be a big hit.

perrotta__120628065425-275x411I first became aware of the series when Tom Perotta, whose novel the series is based on, made the rounds of my favorite NPR shows the week before its debut. In one of the interviews, Perotta said that part of his research for the book was living as an embedded person in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian community and church for a certain amount of time, sort of like how the Soviet spies in “The Americans” live embedded in Maryland as a typical middle-class 1980s American couple. Assuming that, as always, the book would be better than the television series (it is), I ordered The Leftovers, published in 2011, from Amazon. I’m about half way through it, but it was clear that Perotta had done his homework well on page 3 of the novel’s Prologue. As one might expect, there is a great deal of confusion and debate about “what just happened” in the weeks following October 14th—was it the Rapture or not? Many argued that it couldn’t have been.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th—Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were—hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. left-behind-people-on-rapture-dayAs far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

My church would have been at the forefront of those who denied that this was the Rapture on theological grounds. It would be understandable if not everyone in our congregation was raptured—not everyone was a good enough Christian. Those in the inner circle would have even been happy to predict who was not sufficiently up to snuff. But non-Christians? Atheists? Catholics, for God’s sake? Underlying Rapture obsession and mania is the very familiar human attempt to put God in a box, to figure out ahead of time what God is up to, what God is like, and what God likes best—then to act accordingly. A rapture such as fictionalized in The Leftovers is such an affront to our best efforts at putting the divine in a straitjacket that it has to be rejected as something other than the real thing. young_earthMaybe God threw this pseudo-rapture into the mix early just to test our faith, I can hear someone suggesting, sort of like God planted dinosaur fossils and made the earth appear to be several billion years old rather than the few thousand that the Bible says, just to fuck us up (for a good reason, of course).

Truth be told, though, the random harvest described in The Leftovers sounds exactly like something God might do, once as many human boxes and straitjackets for the divine as possible are left behind. God’s apparent randomness and lack of respect for our human obsession with fairness and justice is on display everywhere. It is entirely understandable that Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? has been a record-breaking bestseller. The very process of natural selection that has and continues to produce the vast diversity of living things is energized by randomness and chance; I’ve been noting recently in this blog beauty itself has dissonance at its core. For those who insist on going to their favorite sacred text to get a handle on the divine, you need go no further than Jesus’ observations that “it rains on the just and the unjust” and “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Every time we believe we have God figured out, it is good to remember that if you want to give God a good laugh, just tell her your plans.when-will-the-rapture-happen-flowchart

Can a Philosopher be a Christian?

  • cunningham[1]The Dominican priest who, as the president of the college, interviewed me for the faculty teaching position I currently hold, died several years ago.  I admired and respected him for many reasons, including that his signing off on my hiring was one of his last actions as president. In addition to being an ordained priest, he was a philosopher by academic trade and a respected scholar. After he stepped down from the presidency, he returned to the philosophy department and taught for a few years before his death. He used to scandalize his Dominican brethren publicly in department meetings—I like to imagine that he took great delight in doing so—imagesCA9T7S9Xby regularly proclaiming that “There is no such thing as Christian ethics. It’s an oxymoron. ‘Ethics’ is philosophy and ‘Christian’ is theology.” Had this comment not come from one of the most respected Dominicans and scholars on campus, a number of my colleagues who believe that the purpose of philosophy is, as Thomas Aquinas suggested, to be the handmaiden to Queen Theology would have jumped on him. Instead they rolled their eyes and tried to act as if nothing offensive had been said. Since I believe that the sharp distinction between TheologyVsPhilosophy[1]philosophy and theology is the first line that must be drawn in every course I teach, I embraced my colleague’s insight.

I’ve spent my entire professional career as a philosophy professor teaching in Catholic institutions of higher education. Since I’ve always been straightforward with those interviewing me, my colleagues, and my students that I am not Catholic, I’ve never been accused of being a “Catholic philosopher” (although many of my colleagues wear that description as a badge of honor). I continually struggle, however, with whether I am a “Christian philosopher.” Somewhere along the line I became defensive when talking with others about this. I regularly say that “I’m not a Christian philosopher. I’m a philosopher who happens to be a Christian,” as if I freely chose to become a philosopher but was saddled with being a Christian in the same way I was saddled with curly hair, blue eyes, and bad teeth. On a professional level, my resistance to the “Christian philosopher” tag is similar to my Dominican colleague’s rejection of the possibility of “Christian ethics.” imagesCA4P0VAYScotch%20Buy[1]Mixing philosophy with theology is like mixing fine scotch with root beer. There’s a place for root beer, and there’s a (better) place for scotch, and never the twain should meet. But there’s definitely something much deeper going on that has nothing to do with respecting the boundaries between distinct academic disciplines.

A number of years ago Jeanne and I went to visit Forrest and Nancy, a couple who had been very important in my life before Jeanne and I met. In the seven or eight years since I had last seen this couple a number of big things had happened in my life, including a divorce, a bitter custody battle, a remarriage, and completing my PhD in philosophy. The weekend visit was lovely, with good food and conversation, a boat trip on an Alabama lake, and church on Sunday. I had been in pretty bad shape the last time Forrest and Nancy had seen me, so they were thrilled to meet my beautiful new wife, to hear about my sons, and to see that I was doing well. In the middle of one conversation, Nancy asked me a question that has stayed with me ever since: “How can you be a Christian and a philosopher?” The question was sincere, without a hint of challenge or judgment. She simply wanted to know. Nancy admittedly knew little about philosophy, but she’d at least heard that mahler12[1]philosophy is the art of questioning, of asking better and better questions about the biggest possible issues. The problem, as she saw it, was that for a Christian, most if not all of these questions are already answered. Why, if as a Christian I know all of the answers to these questions, would I spend my professional life continuing to ask them and inspiring others to do the same? Why not just introduce everyone to the truth? s question returned me to my youth, to bumper stickers on cars in the church parking lot that read God-Said-It[1]“God said it, I believe it, That settles it,” to sensing from those around me that I thought too much, that I asked too many questions, that I was too smart for my own good and too big for my britches. What I needed to do was simply believe and shut up. It would make my life, and that of those around me, a lot easier.

As I’ve processed Nancy’s question over time, I’ve come to realize that the joy and fulfillment I find in life of the mind, of academia, and of open-ended questioning is partially, at least a teeny bit, the working out of a rebellious “up yours” to everyone who sought to fit me for their straitjacket.Straitjacket-rear[1] Philosophy on the one hand, as a life-defining activity, is who I am, and I even get paid for doing it. Being a Christian, on the other hand, is something I was born into. It was part of the atmosphere I breathed from birth. My family and community were Christian, the first words I learned were Christian, the first songs I sang were Christian. One doesn’t just walk away from that or shed it as a snake sheds its skin. I’ve never really believed someone who smugly with an air of superiority says something like “I was raised in (fill in the blank religion), but now I know better and I’m an atheist.” If you were really raised in a religious tradition that seeped into your bones and psyche before you even became fully conscious and self-aware, then that influence does not end by flipping an intellectual switch. So I’m a philosopher who happens to be a Christian.

51xdfdHIzzL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]As I was discussing this with a wise new friend not long ago, he reminded me of a distinction that Kierkegaard makes between “Christendom” and “Christianity.” Christendom, on the one hand, is an institution, a top-down hierarchy, the various rules, prescribed actions, and rituals that human beings have constructed to limit and control human behavior and various dangerous elements of Christ’s message. This is what 1003[1]Simone Weil called “the Great Beast,” the powerful collective which attempts to control human freedom and choice in the name of God. For better or for worse, I was born into one specific, very powerful version of Christendom. Christianity for Kierkegaard220px-Kierkegaard[1], on the other hand, is a radical, individual commitment to following Christ at all costs, a commitment to the law of freedom and love so challenging and frightening that it shows Christendom to be a timid and safe mockery of faith.

When it’s put that way, I realize that I can be a Christian philosopher—the two could very well go perfectly hand in hand. Working this possibility out in real time is a continuing challenge. This requires commitment and courage beyond anything I’m familiar with, a truly open-ended exploration of what it might really mean that God loves me and what that might lead me to become. But at least it’s a choice.

The Joyful Owl

SagataganJust about five years ago, on a beautiful summer morning very similar to the ones we are experiencing in Providence these days, I was just finishing a post-morning prayer walk around beautiful Lake Sagatagan behind St. John’s Abbey on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had been in Collegeville for the first four-and-a-half months of 2009 on sabbatical and was now back for a week of writing and relaxation while Jeanne participated in a workshop at the Episcopal House of Prayer nearby. ThMary at stella marise point of destination when walking the perimeter of the lake is Stella Maris Chapel on the opposite shore from the Abbey, a lovely little chapel which contains an exquisitely unique statue of a pregnant Mary. St. John’s is situated on a national wildlife preserve; I learned during my months in residence never to walk the trails without a camera. On this particular morning, I noticed a dark shape in one of the massive trees just off the trail to the right. I stared at it for what seemed like several minutes. After concluding that it must be a large abandoned nest or simply the remains of a long-ago fallen branch, the top third of the shape turned slowly 180 degrees and looked directly at me. It was an owl.100_0767

I have noted occasionally in this blog that I am obsessed with penguins, to the extent that I dedicated a post exclusively to penguins several months ago.

Well-Dressed Birds

But I also love owls. They’re not quite as cool as penguins, but come in a very close second. If penguins did not exist (a world I do not care to consider possible), my office would be full of owl paraphernalia instead of penguin stuff. And I could make a better case for an owl obsession than I can for penguins. Owls are iconic symbols of wisdom, something everyone wants (I think).the owl of minerva Accordingly, philosophers should like owls. As a matter of fact, The Owl of Minerva is generally considered to be the best philosophy journal in the English-speaking world dedicated to the philosophy of the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, just in case you’re interested. The title of the journal is a reference to the owl being the favored bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom (Minerva is her Roman name)—who just happens to be my favorite resident of Mount Olympus. Stuttgart_Athene_ZeusYou have to take notice of someone who sprang fully grown and clothed in battle armor directly from her father’s skull and started giving him advice. So I immediately chalked up my owl sighting as yet another gratuitous favor sent to me from the divine as confirmation that this place in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is indeed a spiritual home. It only could have been topped by some penguins waddling down the path in my direction.

I don’t recall that owls were a favorite of mine as a child. My attraction to owls was most likely triggered during my first couple of years of teaching after graduate school. I was on the faculty at a small Catholic college in Memphis where they basically needed someone to teach business ethics to their business and engineering students. spotted owlSo I did—five sections per semester for three years. I always included a unit on environmental issues, and during the early 90s this invariably meant spotted owls. Native to the Pacific Northwest, the endangered spotted owls were very picky about where they nested and lived—which just happened to be in the middle of prime timber forest. Every time well-meaning people would relocate the owls, they immediately moved back to their original section of the forest that various constituencies wanted to cut down and turn into useful items that people will pay money for. So the debate raged—tree_huggertree huggers arguing that this forest must remain untouched so the spotted owls could live where they chose, and good capitalists screaming foul over the idea that a stupid, useless bird that no one ever saw because they only came out at night when everyone was asleep could actually hold up progress and money-making. My students had many fine, spirited debates—so many that at the end of one semester they presented me with a stuffed spotted owl toy that perches twenty years later proudly on top of one of my office bookcases.

Imagine my delight when taking the “What Animal Were You in a Past Life” quiz on Facebook a couple of months ago to find out that

What Animal Were You in a Past Life?

You were the Owl. Graceful, quiet, and majestic, you glide silently through the night. You are self-sufficient, independent, and make the most of everything around you. You are not very picky about what you like, and when you love something, it will be forever. You would make a wonderful parent, but in no way would you spoil your children; they would be taught how to look after themselves. You are a symbol of guidance.

flying owlIt’s very interesting how these descriptions put a positive spin on features that aren’t that attractive. For instance, “You are not very picky about what you like” is a reference to the fact that owls are birds of prey and will basically eat anything they find. The positive qualities listed are ones that I certainly aspire to and I can almost remember “glid[ing] silently through the night” in my past life as an owl. There’s nothing about wisdom here, though—maybe the quiz maker learned from a recent Geico ad that despite their reputation, not all owls are wise.

This ad notwithstanding, owls are not funny. Here’ a typical example of owl humor:

An owl and a field mouse walk into a bar. The owl turns to the field mouse, but doesn’t say anything because owls can’t talk. Then the owl eats the field mouse, because owls are predatory birds.

Owls are serious predators of the night, wise and stealthy as they swoop about taking care of their nocturnal business. Nothing humorous there.

So I was confused a few days later when I took the “What is Your Spiritual Power?” quiz (I really do need to get a life) and was told that

What is Your Spirit Power?

You got Joy. You are the most joyful spirit around. The happiness within you never stops flowing. You’ve never kept it all for yourself either, you’ve always made others happy when they needed it most.

Joy? Really? This will come a surprise to Jeanne. She’s the one who has Pharell Williams’ song “Happy” as the ringtone on her phone.

I would be more likely to have the tune to “Leave me the fuck alone” on my phone. What would a happy, joyful owl be like? In the world of Photoshopping, all sorts of possibilities are available.untitled But in the real world, owl joy is hard to detect. Take my word for it—it’s in there. As soon as I find it, I’ll let it out.Caleb owl

I AM smiling.

I AM smiling.

Conversion

no smokingConversion is an odd phenomenon. I’ve often observed that those who convert, who ”tum around” radically in some aspect of their lives, tend to embrace their newly adopted beliefs and behaviors with a sense of urgency and commitment that can border on fanaticism. Thus those who quit smoking become front line enforcers in the “No Smoking” brigade, those who cut caffeine (or sugar, or anything significant) out of their diet will regale those of us who have not quit with endless data about why what they just quit ingesting will kill us, and someone who just lost fifty pounds looks at the ten-pound-overweight person with a judgmental eye.

But such converted commitments pale in comparison to the righteous energy of the religious convert. I’ve known many people who professed a st-paul-conversionSaul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion experience, reporting that while once they were blind, they now see. And that new vision often looks more like tunnel vision than anything else. The beliefs and accompanying rules of their newly found religious perspective, beliefs and rules that they either rejected with disdain or were entirely ignorant of just yesterday, suddenly become the instruments according to which they measure the acceptability quotient of those outside their group. And the outsiders are generally found to  be seriously wanting.

I was raised in a religious environment in which such “once for all” conversions were the hallmark of membership. But since I never had such an experience, born againI felt something like an outsider on the inside during all of my childhood and adolescent years. Although I stopped thinking of myself as a part of that religious community many years ago, issues of my religious identity were frequently front and center during my recent sabbatical residence at an ecumenical Institute on the campus of a Benedictine University and Abbey.Abbey

I am comfortable as a non-Catholic in Catholic surroundings, having spent my last twenty-five years teaching philosophy in Catholic higher education. This was different, though, because the whole focus of my sabbatical experience turned out, unexpectedly, to be about my own spiritual identity. I’ve always called myself a “person of faith,” even a Christian, but was no longer sure of what I meant by that—all I knew was that the usual definition of  “Christian” was becoming less and less meaningful all the time. Seeking some sort of reawakening I took full advantage of the daily prayers at the Abbey, achoir stallsnd even received behind-the-scenes permission from one of the monks to receive communion if I wished, in total violation of Catholic exclusivity.

So I was somewhat taken aback by  a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute  scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books.

Although she was on campus for several reasons during her brief stays, it was clear to me that she, as non-Catholic as I, was getting her spiritual batteries recharged as she sat a few seats over from me during morning, noon, and evening prayers. So it surprised me when my fellow Institute resident, a Catholic convert whose powerful intellect and even more powerful spirit I’d come to respect and admire, expressed annoyance at the famous author’s behavior. “It bothers me that she for years has come here to the Abbey, catholic_guiltand to other monasteries (as described in her books) to bask in the liturgy, take full benefit of the prayers and services, and get reviled, yet she remains non-Catholic,” he said. “If she’s going to reap the gains, she should also have to suffer through the shit that we Catholics have to put up with on a daily basis.”

I assured my colleague that Catholics have no comer on dealing with religious excrement; my whole stay at the Institute had focused on struggling with the constricting grave-clothes of my own conservative Protestant upbringing. Protestant guiltFurthermore, I reminded him, the transformation of spirit and  soul that had been taking place in me over the past months, about which the two of us had conversed many times, had centered around my full participation, as  a non-Catholic ,in the liturgical and prayer life of the Catholic Abbey. “Your criticism of her applies to me too,” I said, to which he replied “but this is all very new and unexpected for you.”Implied but unspoken was his expectation that I would eventually convert to Catholicism.

But I won’t be converting to Catholicism, any time soon or ever. I used to think this was because of the powerfully top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church, ordain womenas well as its positions on any number of issues including the ordination of women and abortion. I still  believe its positions on these issues are utterly wrong. But I know many Catholics, including the one with whom I was having this conversation, who long for the day when the Catholic Church will adopt a stance that engages honestly with all of the complexities of the abortion issue and will finally come to the realization that women are full-fledged members of the human race and are just as suited, perhaps more suited, to pursue ordination as men.

The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have  no desire to become anything with a recognizable  religious label other than  committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector.

I told my fellow resident at the Institute that, as far as I was concerned, what happened to me at the Abbey had nothing to do with its being a Catholic place of worship. indexIt had everything to do with its being the place that, unexpectedly, I met the Divine in a new and exhilarating way. Under different circumstances, it could have happened in a synagogue, a mosque, on a mountain-top, or in my chair at home. “Oh, I have to disagree with you there,” he said. “I know you do,” I responded as I thought “but it is my encounter with God that I’m talking about. That’s bigger than any religion.”

Conversion

no smokingConversion is an odd phenomenon. I’ve often observed that those who convert, who ”tum around” radically in some aspect of their lives, tend to embrace their newly adopted beliefs and behaviors with a sense of urgency and commitment that can border on fanaticism. Thus those who quit smoking become front line enforcers in the “No Smoking” brigade, those who cut caffeine (or sugar, or anything significant) out of their diet will regale those of us who have not quit with endless data about why what they just quit ingesting will kill us, and someone who just lost fifty pounds looks at the ten-pound-overweight person with a judgmental eye.

But such converted commitments pale in comparison to the righteous energy of the religious convert. I’ve known many people who professed a st-paul-conversionSaul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion experience, reporting that while once they were blind, they now see. And that new vision often looks more like tunnel vision than anything else. The beliefs and accompanying rules of their newly found religious perspective, beliefs and rules that they either rejected with disdain or were entirely ignorant of just yesterday, suddenly become the instruments according to which they measure the acceptability quotient of those outside their group. And the outsiders are generally found to  be seriously wanting.

I was raised in a religious environment in which such “once for all” conversions were the hallmark of membership. But since I never had such an experience, born againI felt something like an outsider on the inside during all of my childhood and adolescent years. Although I stopped thinking of myself as a part of that religious community many years ago, issues of my religious identity were frequently front and center during my recent sabbatical residence at an ecumenical Institute on the campus of a Benedictine University and Abbey.Abbey

I am comfortable as a non-Catholic in Catholic surroundings, having spent my last twenty-five years teaching philosophy in Catholic higher education. This was different, though, because the whole focus of my sabbatical experience turned out, unexpectedly, to be about my own spiritual identity. I’ve always called myself a “person of faith,” even a Christian, but was no longer sure of what I meant by that—all I knew was that the usual definition of  “Christian” was becoming less and less meaningful all the time. Seeking some sort of reawakening I took full advantage of the daily prayers at the Abbey, achoir stallsnd even received behind-the-scenes permission from one of the monks to receive communion if I wished, in total violation of Catholic exclusivity.

So I was somewhat taken aback by  a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute  scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books.

Although she was on campus for several reasons during her brief stays, it was clear to me that she, as non-Catholic as I, was getting her spiritual batteries recharged as she sat a few seats over from me during morning, noon, and evening prayers. So it surprised me when my fellow Institute resident, a Catholic convert whose powerful intellect and even more powerful spirit I’d come to respect and admire, expressed annoyance at the famous author’s behavior. “It bothers me that she for years has come here to the Abbey, catholic_guiltand to other monasteries (as described in her books) to bask in the liturgy, take full benefit of the prayers and services, and get reviled, yet she remains non-Catholic,” he said. “If she’s going to reap the gains, she should also have to suffer through the shit that we Catholics have to put up with on a daily basis.”

I assured my colleague that Catholics have no comer on dealing with religious excrement; my whole stay at the Institute had focused on struggling with the constricting grave-clothes of my own conservative Protestant upbringing. Protestant guiltFurthermore, I reminded him, the transformation of spirit and  soul that had been taking place in me over the past months, about which the two of us had conversed many times, had centered around my full participation, as  a non-Catholic ,in the liturgical and prayer life of the Catholic Abbey. “Your criticism of her applies to me too,” I said, to which he replied “but this is all very new and unexpected for you.”Implied but unspoken was his expectation that I would eventually convert to Catholicism.

But I won’t be converting to Catholicism, any time soon or ever. I used to think this was because of the powerfully top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church, ordain womenas well as its positions on any number of issues including the ordination of women and abortion. I still  believe its positions on these issues are utterly wrong. But I know many Catholics, including the one with whom I was having this conversation, who long for the day when the Catholic Church will adopt a stance that engages honestly with all of the complexities of the abortion issue and will finally come to the realization that women are full-fledged members of the human race and are just as suited, perhaps more suited, to pursue ordination as men.

The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have  no desire to become anything with a recognizable  religious label other than  committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector.

I told my fellow resident at the Institute that, as far as I was concerned, what happened to me at the Abbey had nothing to do with its being a Catholic place of worship. indexIt had everything to do with its being the place that, unexpectedly, I met the Divine in a new and exhilarating way. Under different circumstances, it could have happened in a synagogue, a mosque, on a mountain-top, or in my chair at home. “Oh, I have to disagree with you there,” he said. “I know you do,” I responded as I thought “but it is my encounter with God that I’m talking about. That’s bigger than any religion.”

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished last fall. We are currently working on a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended last year. We are finally turning it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

The future library has one large interior wall that we have decided will be the location of family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship over twenty-five years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display will be the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success. VM Ruane 8I’ve had a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-two of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Last week I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

Last Sunday Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

An Avoidable Form of Death

I got involved briefly in a Facebook debate the other day over whether Jane Austen’s novels have any redeeming value—I think they do. jane-austen-portraitSomeone with an opposite opinion quoted the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow . . . Suicide is more respectable.” Strange to say, suicide has been on my mind a lot during this just-ending academic year—and there it is again.

I mentioned toward the end of last Friday’s post that in one of her written assignments this semester, one of my students observed that “suicide is an avoidable form of death.” Applied to Ralph Waldo’s judgment concerning Jane Austin’s novels, avoiding suicide for Emerson simply requires avoiding Jane’s novels. My student’s reflection was focused on Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, where those who commit suicide are eternally condemned to existence as twisted, leafless trees, continuing to feel spiritual, physical and emotional pain, but literally rooted in one place for eternity. Dante takes delight in his imaginative assignment of punishments that fit the crime—in this case, those who deliberately rejected their mortal bodies don’t get them back.della vigne But they also do not escape the torment that caused them to choose suicide during their earthly existences.

After Dante absentmindedly snaps a twig off one of the trees, it begins oozing blood and screaming in pain. This is Pier Della Vigne, who was once Frederick II of Sicily’ chief adviser. Fourteenth-century politics were no less nasty than today—rivals filled with envy spread false rumors of Pier’s treachery, and Frederick clapped him in chains. Pier, distraught and depressed, hung himself. “My mind, moved by scornful satisfaction, / believing death would free me from all scorn, / made me unjust to me, who was all just.”

“What a pussy!” one of my hockey playing students said in response to my asking whether Pier’s suicide was justified or not. Apparently it is not manly to off oneself rather than try to live with the loss of everything one considers important while waiting for execution. “Does everyone agree?” monopoly-go-to-hell2-cardEveryone did, but not for the same reasons. “Suicide is a mortal sin,” some claimed, channeling what they had learned in CCD. “Life is precious and killing yourself is throwing God’s greatest gift back in his face.” “Killing yourself is selfish and is a cop-out. How does he know that things won’t turn around?” the incurably hopeful asked. Pier had lost hope; overwhelmed with the injustice of his predicament and seeing no prospects for a better future, he chose to end his life. And for that choice he gets buried halfway down the circles of Hell, exactly where my students agreed that he belonged.

“Who remembers Boethius from the end of last semester?” I asked. All but one or two of the eighteen hands went up, reminding me of how much I love teaching in the program. How many second-semester freshmen have read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy? 220px-Boethius_imprisoned_Consolation_of_philosophy_1385Upon request, one of the students reminded her colleagues of the predicament in which Boethius found himself seven centuries before Pier Della Vigne and Dante. Boethius was the primary adviser of Theodoric, one of the first barbarian emperors of the Western Roman Empire. Slandered and falsely accused of treason, Theodoric threw Boethius into a prison cell where he awaited certain execution. Just like Pier Della Vigne.

So what did Boethius do? He didn’t kill himself; instead, he invented an imaginary friend—Philosophy in the guise of a very hot woman—and wrote one of the great works of Neo-Platonic philosophy. Written as a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, Consolation of Philosophy is a classic text that struggles with perennial philosophical themes: free will, the problem of evil, the inscrutability of God, and more. Boethius stands as an alternative to Pier Della Vigne’s choice, demonstrating that suicide is, after all, an avoidable form of death. And oh yeah, Boethius was executed.

Questions like “When is a life not worth living?’ or “What things are worth dying for?” cannot be dismissed easily. I reminded my students of Socrates, whom they had also studied in some detail the previous semester. critoIn Plato’s Crito, Socrates finds himself in prison in the middle of the night, awaiting execution the next morning as the culmination of having been found guilty of a number of serious charges by a jury of his Athenian peers. His friend and follower Crito visits with the apparently great news that money has been collected, the jailer has been bribed, and Socrates is free to escape with Crito.

And he won’t leave. Crito can’t believe it and offers several reasons in succession why Socrates should escape—your family needs you, you can continue being a philosopher pain in the ass somewhere other than Athens, if you die people will think your friends were too cheap to bribe the jailer, Ssocratesocrates’ conviction was a miscarriage of justice—everything but the kitchen sink. Crito’s arguments are convincing—Socrates has taught him well—except to Socrates who responds that “there is a difference between living and living well.” Some things are more important than just staying alive—identifying the ways in which one chooses not to live is one of those things. Choosing the manner and circumstances of one’s demise sometimes trumps staying alive. As someone near and dear to me used to say, sometimes “life is overrated.”

So in a way, Socrates commit suicide by choosing to die in the face of available life. “Yeah, but that’s not suicide. He didn’t kill himself,” my hockey player said, knowing better than to accuse Socrates of being a pussy. “No,” said the guy next to him, “he just refused to escape from jail and avoid being executed when he had the chance. What’s the difference?” Most of the students agreed with the hockey player—if you didn’t actively take your own life, it ain’t suicide. Passively allowing someone else to do it when you could have stayed alive doesn’t count.

Burger King - Have It Your WayMy students had learned over a number of months with me that when philosophers get in trouble, they draw a distinction, precisely what they were doing here. When faced with a choice to die rather than live that was made on principle rather than out of depression or despair, they preserved their a priori rejection of suicide as ever morally justifiable by concluding that “this must not be suicide.” “Fine,” I thought, in a Burger King moment. “Have it your way.” I capped the conversation by briefly telling them the story of Cato the Younger from Plutarch’s Lives (a text we had not read but perhaps would have if this course were four years in length). CatoCato was a Roman senator and one of the great defenders, both in word and deed, of the late Roman Republic.

When civil war erupted after Julius Caesar illegally returned to Rome with his victorious legions, Cato fought as a general on the losing side. Immediately after his victory, Caesar dispatched a messenger to Cato offering clemency and promising an important post in Caesar’s proposed governmental structure, paying at least lip service to Cato’s well-earned reputation for incorruptible honesty and virtue. In response, Cato fell on his sword after saying “I could no longer be Cato under those conditions.” Just as Socrates, Cato imagined a life as an orbiting body around Caesar’s center of gravity and decided that death was preferable. Upon hearing of Cato’s suicide, Caesar commented “Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life.”

In a moment of either weakness or reality Immanuel Kant, who argued vociferously and consistently that suicide is never morally justifiable,  once admitted that perhaps Cato was the only morally justified suicide in human history. But one exception to the rule raises the likelihood of many more. imagesI asked my students to spend the last fifteen minutes of seminar writing in their seminar notebooks on “Was Cato’s suicide justified?” At least half of them, despite having learned from various authorities throughout their young lives that no suicides are morally justifiable, concluded that this one, at least, was. Mission accomplished—a few more small cracks in the wall of absolute certainty have been opened up. That’s why they pay me the big bucks—or should, at least!

What I Have Learned From My Students This Semester

I have often said that the mark of a good class is one in which I learn as much as the students do. At the end of the semester, it is a good time to think back over the many unexpected truths I have learned from my students this semester. Since my colleagues and I frequently compare notes on this topic, I have also included in the selection below various items that I learned second-hand from students not in my classes through their professors. Truth is truth, after all—it doesn’t matter where it comes from. In no particular order, here is a sampling.

Some people are important enough to have followers before they are born. Students have told me for years that ancient persons from Socrates to Julius Caesar, literary characters from Achilles to Clytemnestra (“Clytemnestra did not behave as a good Christian wife should”), Francisand figures from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses to David managed to be Christians before the birth of Christ, so that’s old hat. But in my latest batch of papers I learned that “Francis believed in living in poverty and taking a lifestyle that the Franciscans before him lived.” I wonder what the Franciscans who lived before Francis called themselves. Proto-Franciscans? Pre-Franciscans? Followers of a Crazy Guy Who Hasn’t Been Born Yet? Really Poor People?

Going to war against oneself is never a good idea: From a student paper submitted to a colleague: Roncevaux pass“[The Battle of Roncevaux Pass] occurred when the Franks intervened in a Muslim conflict between Charles the Great and the great army of Charlemagne,” further explaining that “There is a lot of hate between Charlemagne and King Charles…” Going to war against oneself complicates a number of things. For instance, how are Roland, the hero of this battle at the center of The Song of Roland, and Ganelon, his jealous father-in-law and traitor, supposed to know which side to fight on? Neither? Both? Everyone’s going to need therapy afterwards.

People whose names start with the same letter invariably have similar thoughts: DanteIn response to a question about the differences in world views between Dante and Montaigne, a student wrote that Descartes“Dante was extremely passionate that knowledge has to be 100% certain. And if there is knowledge that is certain it has to have no doubts that it could be corrupt.” I’m going to research this new-found information that Descartes was apparently plagiarizing the work of a fellow D-name who lived several hundred years earlier.

Martin Luther needed to be clearer about what he really meant: serpentFrom one of a colleague’s student papers: “Luther does not say precisely whether or not good works would help one achieve the goal of eternal life, but he does appreciate them.” Then the following from Luther’s “On Christian Liberty,” cited in one of my student papers: “The Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful serpent of all, and subject to everyone.” There obviously is another research project in finding the heretofore hidden influences of Luther’s Christian serpent on Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

Why use just a few words when a whole bunch of them will suffice? Assigned papers are an opportunity for students to flex their word-using muscles in print. Often a student who has never once opened her mouth in seminar will make sure that her quota of allowed words unused in seminar makes it into a paper. For instance, why write that

Works of literature often focus on the customs of people living in the author’s culture,

when you could write instead that

Throughout history, scholars have been displaying the impacts society has on people’s lives through various forms of expression. Of some of the more famous styles, writings and literature from oral teachings along with reflections on certain times provides future generations with important first-hand accounts of how lifestyles and culture influenced the people.

And why describe Dante’s organization of Hell in this manner:

Dante’s descriptions of the punishments in Hell, as well as the individuals one finds there, tell us much about the attitudes of his time.

when the following description will suffice?

During Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, the descriptions as well as reasons for placement of particular individuals speaks through society’s influence, deeming Dante’s opinion in accordance with many of his time. Without Dante’s harsh portrayal of specific individuals, the backlash on society would be unknown.

You can only commit suicide once: When a student missed a seminar on Dante’s Inferno in the middle of the semester due to illness, I assigned her a makeup 1000-1200 word reflection on Canto 13Canto XIII, in which one finds the suicides—the “violent against themselves.” The seminar discussion focused on this section of Dante’s poem was fascinating, with my largely Catholic students flip-flopping back and forth between the position that they know they are supposed to hold as good Catholics—no suicide is ever justified—and a more nuanced judgment that permits consideration of individual circumstances.

In her makeup assignment, my student opened her reflection with noting that as

An extremely controversial topic, suicide has been a self-inflicting action from the beginning of time.

followed shortly after by the observation that

Suicide is an avoidable form of death.

As one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook when I put these two gems up for display on my wall, “Holy tautology, Batman!” Other friends and colleagues said that this immediately reminded them of the “Suicide is Painless” theme song from “M.A.S.H.”: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please . . .”

But others saw something I did not immediately recognize—possible profundity. “That’s deep,” a colleague from the chemistry department commented; new philosopher“The first comment strikes me as a particularly profound metaphysical point about the (a)temporal status of analytic truths,” a former philosophy major now in graduate school contributed. Then this from a Facebook acquaintance that I have never met in person, but with whom I share the privilege of having earned a Bachelor’s degree in the Great Books program at St. John’s College:

I think the second [student comment] is, indeed, quite discussable. Is death ever avoidable? Is suicide not now recognized as a possible outcome of untreated depression? Can a severely depressed person always be expected to take the steps required for his or her own treatment?

Is suicide always an avoidable form of death, in other words? From the mind of a stressed and possibly confused freshman emerges an apparent “Well, duh!” sort of statement that, as it turns out, might have surprising depth and complexity. I feel an essay coming on!

From my colleague Robin

From my colleague Robin