Category Archives: Catholicism

It’s a Mystery


The brand new installment in Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers mystery series just arrived–Jeanne and I are in disagreement about who gets to read it first. I am reminded of what I wrote a year ago about my love of mystery novels . . .

cunningham1When you aren’t reading philosophy, what do you like to read?” he asked. This had all the makings of a loaded question. When the president of the college where you are interviewing for a tenure track job asks any question, it’s loaded—but this one had all sorts of implications. He was a Dominican priest—what should I say? The Bible? The Summa Theologica? Three years earlier various folks had informally prepped me for what the president of the tiny college at which I currently worked and desperately wanted to leave would ask me and what answers he would want to hear, but no one had provided me with similar help this time. I was on my own. “Mystery novels,” I said truthfully, fully expecting that this probably sealed my not getting the job. “Me too!” he replied, and over the next half hour we compared notes—as it turned out, he was as big of a fan of Sara Paretsky and Anne Perry

anne perry as I was. He never asked me about my response to the college’s mission statement, why I wanted to leave one tenure track position in exchange for another; he didn’t even try to sound me out about what I thought it would be like to teach at a Catholic college as a non-Catholic. But I suspect he found out more about me from our conversation about mystery novels that he would have from my answers to any number of standard queries. Father Cunningham was a smart guy.

The story of how I came to love mystery novels parallels the story of the early months of Jeanne’s and my relationship. I often tell people that I read for a living. Actually I’m a teacher, but a philosophy/humanities professor spends far more time reading than in the classroom. Furthermore, I’ve been an incurable bibliophile since I started reading a couple of years before I started first grade. But even though mystery novels occupy a surprisingly large percentage of space on Jeanne’s and my many bookshelves at home, their entry into my world of that-which-must-be-read was relatively late. The early months of 1988 were more full of adventure, new beginnings, and over-the-top stress than any months Sante-Fe-NMI had previously (or perhaps have since) experienced. Jeanne and I met late in 1987; early in the New Year I went with her to Santa Fe, affording us the opportunity to find out whether actually living under the same roof would put a damper on our new relationship that had, up to this point, largely been one of lengthy, nightly long distance phone calls.

As Jeanne worked and studied through the final semester of her Master’s program at St. John’s College, I navigated the final stages of choosing a PhD program to start in the fall, struggled through the emotional and legal thickets of custody issues with my ex, and tried to find a job. I soon landed a piano-playing gig at a large Methodist church sixty miles south in albuquerqueAlbuquerque, which paid just about enough to cover the gas used for two weekly round trips in “The Bird,” Jeanne’s rather unreliable vehicle. I also found what would have been, under different circumstances and several years earlier, a dream job—working as a jack-of-all-trades in a tiny independent bookstore, called “Books West,” in a shopping plaza just a five-minute walk from Jeanne’s apartment.

Sue, my boss at “Books West,” soon realized that she had a rare find on her hands—someone who had actually read a lot of books. atlasshruggedWhen not working the single cash register up front, my duties included ordering appropriate selections for the one-shelf philosophy section which largely consisted of Ayn Rand junk and various new-agey stuff with the word “Philosophy” in the title, as well as making selections to beef up the “Fiction” section, which when I arrived contained nothing written earlier than around 1950. The store was tiny, so before long I had ordered way more than would fit on the shelves and my book selection activities went on hiatus. The bookstore had little traffic most of the time—there is just so much time that one needs to spend straightening out shelves that very seldom are touched—so fortunately Sue had no problem with employees reading at the front counter—just as long as it did not lead to ignoring a customer, should such a creature actually show up. What a job! Hours of reading time, and getting paid slightly over minimum wage to do it!

I am both an organized and an obsessive reader. Organized in the sense that I generally have a method to my reading schedule, obsessive because once I establish the method, I follow it through without deviation. I had a small bookstore at my disposal containing several genres of paperbacks I had never delved into. What to read? Where to start? Lord-of-the-RingsThe Science Fiction shelves held little interest, and I avoided Fantasy because I was quite sure that with The Lord of the Rings I had already read the best fantasy—several times—ever written. The Mystery section was promising, but I had no idea of who might be worth reading and who was just pulp mystery. I asked my co-worker John, a tall, skinny guy who next to my friend Anthony was the most “outed” I have ever encountered if he had an opinion. “I prefer Young Adult Fiction myself,” he said (he was probably thirty-five or so), “but I hear that P. D. James is pretty good.” “P. D. James it is,” I thought, and I grabbed Cover her faceCover Her Face, James’s first mystery. I loved it. I read her next one, then her next one, and didn’t stop until I had finished every mystery she had written to that point (that’s my obsessive method or methodical obsession in action). Then Sue Grafton. Sarah ParetskyThen Sara Paretsky. We’re talking two or three dozen 200-300 page paperbacks by this time. Jeanne graduated, we hightailed it out of Santa Fe eventually landing with my sons (we won the custody battle) in Milwaukee for the beginning of my PhD studies at Marquette, but I was armed with the names of several dozen more mystery writers to try out. Deborah Crombie. Elizabeth George. Anne Perry. Every one of them writing continuing series with returning characters and plots that develop over several volumes.elizabeth george

Why do I love mysteries? I suppose there are all sorts of reasons. I teach and write on the edge of mystery all the time, exploring the boundaries between the known and unknown in various areas of investigation—human nature, change and permanence, certainty and probability, reason and faith, human and divine. A student once expressed this sort of boundary analysis memorably in an oral exam several years ago. “It’s like being on the inside of a room with walls made of tinfoil,” she said. “You can’t get out of the room, but as you press against the walls from the inside, you can feel and then begin to imagine the shape of what’s on the other side.” I would add that there’s a certain element of moving the walls back a bit as the pressing and pushing continues. The room of the known gets larger, but the suspicion deepens that what’s on the other side of the tinfoil is far more interesting and greater than what is inside the room.

But I suspect that my attraction to mystery novels has a far less mysterious and far more practical explanation. Each of my favorite mystery authors writes in a multiple volume series, developing a handful of main characters throughout as they engage with and solve the latest murder. dalgleishAdam Dalgleish, Tommy Lynley, Barbara Havers, William Monk, Charlotte Pitt, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Ferguson have become parts of my life not because they brilliantly solve case after case, but because their growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities over the years that they have been my mystery friends remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy and Barbara were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. BJulia S-Fut I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in. (By the way, my latest mystery favorite is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series set in upstate New York. Its setting reminds me both of the rural Vermont of my youth and of the people I go to church with every Sunday. If you love the rural Northeast and/or Episcopalians, it’s to die for!).

Religionless Christianity

One of the few benefits, perhaps the only benefit, of breaking my ankle in a bicycle mishap four weeks ago is that my sabbatical writing activities have been accelerated. I have two book projects; my unofficial goal for the first project was to have a proposal in hand to start shopping around to possible publishers by Christmas. I am well ahead of the pace I was projecting since I’ve been writing during the three or four hours per day that I had been biking until my unfortunate mishap. WIN_20151006_13_03_05_ProI now have in hand a full second draft complete with references and bibliography and can start working on a proposal this week. Yay me—but I would rather have been riding my bike.

Working on this book project has put me back into direct conversation with a writer who over the past fifteen or so years has been as influential on my thinking and overall development as any other—Iris Murdoch. In preparation for the book I thought I was going to write during my last sabbatical, IrisI read all of her twenty-plus novels and her most important philosophical essays; over the past three months I have been reviewing well over a hundred pages of single-spaced notes I took as I wandered through her extensive body of work. Iris came into my life when I discovered that Simone Weil—a thinker so influential on my intellectual and spiritual development that Jeanne calls her my “mistress”—was similarly influential for Iris Murdoch. In her last completed work (she died in 1999 after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s), Murdoch asks a question that is arguably the central issue explored in both her fiction and her philosophical work—“What can we do now that there is no God?”

Writing in the decades after the Second World War, Murdoch assumes that human beings are required to grapple with a difficult world lacking the tools provided by traditional Christianity (or any other traditional religious framework). Yet she is by no means a happy atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett.ddh Murdoch believes that the traditional conception of the divine, along with the various frameworks that have traditionally surrounded that conception, is meaningless, yet points out that while it is easy to say that there is no God, it is not so easy to believe it and to draw the consequences. Human beings are not the sorts of creatures that can simply fill the vacuum created by the absence of God with the closest thing available. We are incapable, by sheer force of will, of addressing the spiritual hunger and need that now-defunct frameworks and vocabularies were intended to address. There is something in the human heart that needs to believe in something greater than ourselves.

The search for the transcendent, for what is greater than ourselves, in Murdoch’s hands becomes a high-wire act with no safety net. She sets for herself the task of finding out what can be preserved of belief in the transcendent and in moral goodness without the trappings of religion that have supported such beliefs—a “Religionless Christianity” if you will. She preserves the notion of faith, but without guarantees—persons with such faith intuit something greater than themselves but refuse to embrace traditional descriptions of this something. Murdoch calls such a person a “mystical hero”:e and m

The man who has given up traditional religion but is still haunted by a sense of the reality and unity of some sort of spiritual world. . . . This hero is the new version of the man of faith, believing in goodness without religious guarantees, guilty, muddled, yet not without hope. This image consoles by showing us man as frail, godless, and yet possessed of genuine intuitions of an authoritative good.

Such a person, Murdoch believes, will exhibit many of the characteristics that traditionally religious people might aspire to.

Our life is an interconnected whole and a religious man would feel responsible for the quality of all his thoughts and experiences . . . This sort of–perpetual work–seems to me what religion is . . . It’s humility, and unselfishness–and setting yourself aside to make room for other things, and people.nones

I thought of Murdoch’s mystical hero the other day when reading an article describing how more and more of the students enrolled at various divinity schools across the country are unaffiliated with any religious denomination. Such students are called “nones” (pronounced “nuns”), since they are the sorts of people who check “None” when asked about their religious affiliation on a survey.

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

I think this is very cool, but something tells me that many people would stop reading after finding out early in the article that nones are predominantly found at places inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism like Harvard Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary. “Well of course,” the complaint might go. “Such places are bastions of secular humanism with words like ‘Divinity’ or ‘Theological’ on their letterhead for show.” Such concerns are not unique to the Protestant flavor of Christianity; cinoI have taught for the past twenty-one years at a Catholic college that, at least according to its current President, seeks to thread the needle between extreme conservative Catholic campuses and larger Catholic Universities (usually Jesuit) that many judge as CINO (Catholic in name only).

The game of “who is more faithful to the message” is usually zero sum, though, and leaves little room for phenomena such as the nones. What might an agnostic or even an atheist find attractive about divinity school? Several of the nones interviewed in the article provide clear answers. “I am attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And I recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition,” one none said. “So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.” Another could have been channeling Iris Murdoch: “If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government . . . and philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.” I am currently leading a discussion group at church using a text about knowing God written with millennials in mind; current research shows that one-third of millennials are nones. Where are such persons to find a spiritual home or community? If Iris Murdoch is right, the answer to that question will require great creativity and courage across the board, even in traditional places where such creative and courageous challenges to the status quo seem to strike at the very heart of what the place stands for.eckhart

I am not a none, but only because I believe that the Christian tradition is broad and resilient enough to accommodate outliers with the nerve to call themselves freelance Christians. And a “heads up” to the nones who are deliberately placing themselves in the atmosphere of divinity school—you never can tell what might happen. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk who almost lost his life due to his out of the box theology, wrote that “God begets his Son in you whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or wake—still God is at work.” And more recently, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reported that a person wrote her a worried email:

I think I’m having a crisis of faith . . . I think I believe in Jesus.

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

I’m so sorry. But sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The “F” Word

There’s nothing like unexpectedly dropping an f-bomb on a bunch of students. But it’s even better when one of them does it. I teach at a Catholic college, so one would think that the students would be used to talking about the f-word—we Baptists certainly were when I was growing up. F-wordBut dropping an f-bomb in class, even when the context is entirely appropriate and the word is germane, is like farting in church. Everyone clams up, an uncomfortable atmosphere fills the room, and no one wants to deal with it. And I am presented with, as professors like to say, a “teachable moment.”

Mark Twain once defined “faith” as “believing something you know ain’t true.” Strangely, I find that my largely parochial school educated students think of faith in this way. Faith is opposed to reason, to logic, to evidence, yet is the foundation of what they have been told are the most important truths imaginable. Things believed by faith are certain and beyond question; I’m reminded of the bumper sticker on a number of vehicles in the church parking lot of my youth: “bumper stickerGod Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But in my estimation just about all of the above “facts” about faith are false. I agree with Anne Lamott when she writes that the opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is certainty. But that’s not something I can just drop early into a conversation about the f-word. I have to build up to it.

A good place to start is with another excellent insight from Anne Lamott—faith is a verb, not a noun. It’s an activity, not a thing. So what exactly are we doing when we are “faithing”? I use a good technique that I learned in grammar school—“Somebody use the word “faith” in a sentence that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, church, or God.” That’s a temporary challenge for many of my students, but pretty soon someone says something like “I have faith that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse.” Or “I have faith that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year.” I suggest “I have faith that when the time comes, my friend John will make the right decision.” All of these sentences are still treating faith as a noun rather than a verb, as something you have rather than something you do, but progress is being sox

“Do you know that the chair isn’t going to collapse?” I ask. “Are you certain that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year?” (especially since they have finished in last place in their division three of the last four seasons, with a world championship in the other season). “Well . . .no.” So you’re just guessing? In both cases, the answer there is “no” as well. Apparently faithing is an activity that occupies the vast territory between certainty and guesswork—the knowledge territory in which we human beings spend a great deal of our time. Although my student can’t prove that her chair won’t collapse in the next minute, she can refer to past experience to support her faith claim—she’s seen human beings in thousands of such chair situations in her life and has never seen a chair-fail yet. Red Sox fans can point to the positive second half of the season after an embarrassingly abysmal first half, the promise of three or four brand new young players, a shake-up in upper management, and so on. faithingMy faith in my friend John is not blind—I’m convinced that the phrase “blind faith” is an oxymoron—it is based on years of observing his careful consideration of important alternatives before making a decision. When removed from the confines of religion, faithing turns out to be a perfectly natural activity—the activity of moving past evidence in hand toward a conclusion for which there is not complete evidence. Faith is the activity of inching past probability toward something stronger (although the goal is never certainty).

With this in hand, we move to my go-to definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My Catholic students who are largely ignorant of what the Bible contains are often surprised to find out that this is from the Book of Hebrews, the first verse of Hebrews 11 which is sometimes called “the honor roll of faith.” They are even more surprised to find that the definition says nothing about God, religion, heaven, hell, or any of the other accompanying items they are used to seeing in the entourage of a definition of faith. Instead, it is an excellent summary of what we have been discussing about faithing as a normal human activity.  We faith when we want to provide substance to something important that we are hoping for (the chair will hold me up, the Red Sox will make the playoffs, my friend will make a good decision). All of the items hoped for are “unseen” because they either have not happened yet or cannot be proven true with certainty. rene-descartesFaithing fills in the gaps between evidence and what we hope for, realizing that further evidence over time may force us to adjust our hopes or discard them altogether.

In one of his letters, Rene Descartes tells the story of a king who refused to eat anything unless he could be convinced with certainty that it was not poisoned. And he starved to death. Some things—most things—cannot be established with certainty. Sometimes we just need to faith our way along. Faith in the realm of things divine is a case in point. I cannot know with certainty anything about God or even that God exists. But this does not mean that I am guessing or shutting down my brain when I faith. I can point to any number of past and present experiences that I count as evidence from which to take a faith leap in the direction of the divine. As I wrote in a Facebook discussion not long ago, facebook“Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” Faith in the spiritual realm involves applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. I can’t prove it, but neither am I guessing.

A Jesuit Frame of Mind

Francis JesuitThe recently concluded visit of Pope Francis to the United States has put me in a Jesuit frame of mind. The Jesuits are the first Catholics I ever spent extended time with, and they ruined me for the rest of them. I have spent the past twenty-seven years of my life, first as a student then as a professor, in Catholic higher education—and it all started with the Jesuits.

So how did an Episcopalian with deep roots in hard-core conservative Protestantism end up earning his PhD at Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI? Because with my philosophy MA in hand, I wanted (against the strong advice of the professors in my analytic MA program) to do my terminal degree at a place known for its excellence in the history of philosophy. I applied to four, was accepted at three, and Marquette offered me the best financial deal. So Jeanne and I (we had met just eight months earlier) arrived with my two sons in tow for fun and games in Milwaukee in August of 1988. marquetteI swear that its being a Catholic, Jesuit university had exactly zero influence on our choice of Marquette.

During my years at Marquette there were significantly more lay professors than Jesuits on the philosophy faculty, but since at the time the philosophy department was the largest in the United States (I don’t think it is any more), there were plenty of Jesuits. Father Treloar, the head of the department’s graduate program, quickly became one of my two most influential mentors and over the months a strong friendship developed. Father Teske, an internationally renowned Augustine scholar, had a quiet intensity and power beneath his favorite uncle sort of exterior and persona. Father Naus, who among other things taught courses in the philosophy of humor, proved his bona fides by displaying a certificate from clown school on his wall.

Rev. John Naus, S.J., dressed as Tumbleweed the clown.

Rev. John Naus, S.J., dressed as Tumbleweed the clown.

Each of the half dozen or so priests I came to know impressed me as committed to their vocation, but equally (if not more) committed to the life of the mind and excellence in teaching and scholarship. I learned over time thatloyola Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, envisioned a different kind of monastic order, monks who did not have cells in a monastery but whose cell is to be where they are—in the classroom, in a laboratory, at a nursing home helping people. A Jesuit’s cell is to be where he is working. The Jesuits in the philosophy department lived this charism to the fullest.

Because I was five years or so older than the other new PhD candidates, I was able to avoid being placed in the large room with cubicles for the multitude of graduate students. Instead, for the three years I was at Marquette I was placed in the unoccupied office of a professor on sabbatical, a different one each year. philosophy departmentOne year I was directly across the hall from Dr. McNulty, a professor I never had in class because his area—contemporary political philosophy—was significantly different than my developing focus on early modern philosophy and ethics. He was an introvert, so am I, so during the year I was his across the hall neighbor we did a lot of nodding to each other and “good mornings” as we entered and exited our offices, and not much more.

During my last semester at Marquette—I had successfully defended my dissertation and was simply waiting for May to receive my diploma at commencement—joan of arc chapelI wandered one late afternoon into my favorite place on campus, beautiful little stone St. Joan of Arc Chapel. This tiny chapel built in 15th century France was gifted to Marquette by way of Long Island in the 1960s (it’s a crazy story—you can look it up); a particular stone in the floor at the front of the chapel was supposedly stood upon by Joan of Arc as she prayed before going into battle. The stone reportedly is always cooler than the stones surrounding it, I guess because Joan was cooler than everyone else. I never could detect a temperature difference.

A daily mass attended by a few students was in progress as I poked my head in the door, and I had a classic WTF moment. “Holy shit, that’s McNulty celebrating the mass up front! McNulty’s a priest???” And he certainly appeared to be, wearing priestly stuff and acting in priestly ways—but this was news to me. I had seen this guy once or twice a day every weekday for an academic year, and he had been on my radar screen for my two and a half years at Marquette. He never wore a collar, he never acted like a priest (my Protestantism is showing), preferring the baggy sweaters and threadbare trousers that most male academics love to wear. Suffice it to say that Jesuits, at least many of those I spent three years with, do not wear their ordination on their sleeve in the way that the members of the other three Catholic orders 140401JesuitDomincanI have taught and hung out with in the years since do. I like that.

I’ve learned a number of additional things about the Jesuits over the years since leaving Marquette in 1991, including that there is an intense rivalry bordering on serious dislike between the Jesuits and the Dominican Order—it’s an in-house family issue that non-Catholic outsiders such as I don’t entirely get. The Dominican Fathers run the college at which I have taught happily and successfully for the past twenty-one years; I learned early on never to talk about my bromance with the Jesuits within earshot of a Dominican. Once my first or second year into my current position, I was having a conversation in the philosophy department hall with a handful of colleagues, including a young Dominican priest. I mentioned tongue-in-cheek that I had the impression that for the uber-Catholics, including the Dominicans, on campus my being Protestant was far less of a problem than my having been educated by the Jesuits (ha, ha, ha). Without missing a beat, my Dominican colleague said “You’re right.” He wasn’t kidding.George Coyne

I recently heard an interview with Father George Coyne, the recently retired head of the Vatican Observatory, in which he tells a story that for me perfectly captures why I love Jesuits.

I gave a paper at a scientific meeting on the uncertainties in our determination of the age of the universe. There’s several methods we use for determining the age of the universe and a degree of uncertainty is involved with each of them. Well, whenever I’m at a scientific conference, I’m not dressed as a priest because it just — why? You know, it just confuses things.

But I had just given a talk in a church or something, so I gave this talk and I was wearing my Roman collar. So a gentleman stood up — the discussion period, question period, and the first thing he said was “Father.” And I trembled at the thought that he had, first of all, called me Father, but then he proceeded to build upon that and he said, vatican observatory“Father, it must be wonderful that, you know, with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits that you have this faith, this rock of faith to stand upon.” So what I did is I took off my Roman collar and faced him down and said, “Who told you that my faith was kind of a rock?” I said, “Every morning I wake up I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow.” Because faith is love. Love in marriage, love with friends, love of brothers and sisters, is not something that’s there once and for all and always kind of a rock that gives us support.

On Being: Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God

Amen, Father George. In a different world, a parallel universe, in which rather than meeting my first Catholic when I was in my twenties I was instead raised Catholic, I have no doubt the Jesuits would have gotten me. Big time.

Is the Pope Catholic?

He wants to be a modern pope. All he needs is dreadlocks and a dog with a bandana and he could be on Occupy Wall Street. Gary Gutfield, Fox News

Remember back in the old days when a spokesperson for some medical product on television would say “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”? doctor on tvI have a similar sort of authority when it comes to things Catholic. I am not Catholic (I don’t think I even met a Catholic until my late teens), but my more than twenty-five years of first being educated by Jesuits in my PhD program, then teaching in Catholic institutions of higher education, qualify me to chime in on things Catholic on occasion. And with increasing frequency over the past couple of years I am saying five words that I never thought I would hear myself say: I really like this Pope.

Paul VIThe first time I ever heard about something called a Pope was in 1965 when Pope Paul VI visited the U.S. I was nine years old and recall seeing highlights on our little black-and-white television from the nightly news. My parents sufficiently filled me in on what a Pope was for me to realize that this was important to some people (although not to us). For my family, the most memorable portion of the visit was when the pontiff stepped off the plane at LaGuardia airport and the wind blew his cape over his head. The draped Pope looked like my dachshund peeking out from under a blanket, a source of great laughter and irreverence in my household.

As I moved into adulthood and learned a bit more about these people called Catholics (and actually met a few), other Popes crossed my radar screen (please understand that the following observations are the product of viewing things through barbarian Protestant lenses). The Pope prior to Paul VI, John XXIII, was an interesting guy, a placeholder choice who threw everything into disarray and set the stage for change by convening Vatican II.corleone John Paul I, who followed Paul VI, poped just long enough to meet and hear the confession of the aging Michael Corleone before dying under suspicious circumstances in Godfather III (loosely interpreted). His successor John Paul II, who contributed greatly to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, also managed to set the clock back decades in his church on many social issues and helped produce a generation of priests who proceed as if Vatican II never happened. Then came Benedict XVI, whose best decision as pontiff was to step down from his position before he messed things up any further.

Now there’s Pope Francis. Everyone knew that things might be different when the first Jesuit and the first non-white-old-guy-from-Europe since the Syrian Gregory III in 741 was elected. He’s Argentinian, from a part of the globe where liberation theology caught fire and where Catholic social thought with its preferential option for the poor has not been bumped aside in importance by issues like abortion and same-sex relationships as it has been all too often in the Northern hemisphere of Catholicism. FrancisRejecting many of the accoutrements that traditionally accompany being God’s go-to person, Pope Francis lives humbly (comparatively speaking) and has a refreshing (or worrisome, depending on who you are) tendency to say what he is thinking and feeling without checking with his multitude of handlers ahead of time. This, of course, sends the holy spin-doctors into hyper drive trying to explain what Francis really meant, when it is pretty clear that he meant what he said.

I have a number of Catholic friends and colleagues who have struggled mightily since Francis became Pope to convince me that everything he is saying is consistent with a seamless, conservative Catholic position that encompasses every issue imaginable. I’m not buying it. Not for their lack of trying, but because in the real world a seamless, all-encompassing perspective that is consistent from stem to stern across all possible issues is a pipe dream, particularly when insisting that such a framework be stuffed into the rigid “conservative” or “liberal” straitjackets that we insist everything fit into. is he catholicWhat is one to do when a Pope who advocates all of the familiar conservative positions on abortion and the ordination of women produces an encyclical containing statements and positions on environmental issues so liberal as to cause one Fox News pundit to label Francis as “the most dangerous man on the planet”?

Is Pope Francis the Most Dangerous Person Alive?

The Pope is coming to visit the U.S. tomorrow, and all things papal will be front and center for several days. Someone once said that the mark of a good Supreme Court decision is one that makes neither side happy; if so, Pope Francis is doing a good job. Liberals applaud his emphasis on the poor, environmental issues, and his lack of interest in the over-the-top and gaudy trappings of being the pontiff but are quick to point out that nothing has really changed yet—doctrine remains the same. There is enough in what Francis says and does to somewhat mollify conservative Catholics worried that he really does want to turn the Vatican into a home for liberation theology. Conservatives, however, worry that Francis’s words actually mean something—tchangeshat in his heart of hearts he is setting the stage for an overhaul of the institution he leads that will make Vatican II pale in comparison. As a very interested outside observer, it seems to me that this is a classic case of “nothing has changed, but everything is changing.”

The prophet Micah succinctly summarizes the heart of faithfulness to the divine in the Jewish scriptures: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” In the spirit of his namesake from Assisi, Saint FrancisFrancis has the humility thing pretty much down. Although Micah’s directive is intended for individuals and not institutions, Francis’ relatively short papacy has been dedicated to tempering justice with mercy. Justice, when understood as the application of relevant and appropriate rules and doctrinal pronouncements, has been the bread and butter of the Catholic Church since somebody thought up the idea. Francis has shown in many ways that a clinical following and application of the rules actually can undermine the heart of justice, turning it cold and clinical. Without seeking to change church teaching on abortion and annulment, for instance, Francis reminds the faithful that in such issues and innumerable others the actual human beings involved must not be ignored.

I recall that when Pope John Paul II came to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day he was treated as a rock star. I don’t know if a similar reception awaits Francis on these shores, but it should. When just a few month into his papacy Francis said “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” I knew that a new pontifical sheriff is in town. Not that my non-Catholic opinion matters that much, but I’ll say it again: I really like this Pope.Well played


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. 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. Cue up yesterday’s gospel from Mark.

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.

Pope Ivan–Remembering a Mennonite Catholic

Monday morning–early. The 30th Street Amtrak station in Philadelphia is not the sort of place I normally find myself at 5:00 AM on a Monday morning. I 30th streethave not done a lot of train travelling and have never done so overnight, but today is different than any other day. The only way to make it on time to my friend Ivan Kauffman’s funeral this morning was to take the red-eye from Providence. And there’s no way I’m missing Ivan’s funeral—he was special. One of a kind. Unique. All of the things that traditionally get said about people who have just died. Except that in Ivan’s case they all are true.

Ivan lived a long and full life—I met him when he was seventy. It was during my Spring 2009 sabbatical—Ivan and I were both “resident scholars” at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Minnesota. MennoniteCatholicHeaderI knew that Ivan and Lois were a different breed than I had ever encountered when I found out that they were “Mennonite Catholics.” That made about as much sense to me as “Evangelical Unitarian” or “Muslim Jew,” but I soon discovered that Ivan embodied this strange confluence. He was a bridge builder, seeking to connect traditions vastly different in their practices but deeply rooted in shared mysteries of the Christian faith. An academic, scholar, poet, advocate and activist—Ivan was passion and conviction incarnate.

I don’t meet and get to know new people easily, but Ivan “got” me more quickly than just about any person I have ever met. We had amazingly similar backgrounds and youths—his father was a well-known preacher in Mennonite circles while mine was a preaching rock star in his corner of the Baptist world. Ivan understood everything that being a “PK” entails in a way that only card-carrying members of that special club can. 11403124_10207276325457373_5638237897791717417_nIvan and I shared a commitment to ideas and philosophical discussion, a love for writing, a distaste and ineptitude for small talk, and a full appreciation of adult beverages (usually wine for him and scotch for Lois and me).

One brief exchange during lunch at a coffee shop in St. Joseph, MN encapsulates Ivan for me. In the midst of a typically dense and intense conversation, Ivan pronounced in his usual stentorian tone that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—Ivan was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I remember thinking “I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘let me think about it,’ or even ‘which stories are you referring to?’—I’m inclined to say that ‘it doesn’t matter.’” Ivan and I frequently agreed to disagree on important issues, the sorts of issues and disagreements that sometimes end friendships before they begin. But I learned and practiced the skill of “achieving disagreement” over the years with Ivan. He had very strong beliefs and opinions, but was also ready and willing to learn something new and to change. He was a careful and effective debater who gave as well as he took. Ivan did not suffer fools gladly, yet could be extraordinarily patient and generous. 100_0150He could sniff out insincerity like a moral bloodhound. Hours of conversations with Ivan helped me not only to crystallize my own beliefs and commitments but also to learn how to communicate them without fear. Because Ivan was fearless and his courage was contagious.

Lois became my Morning Prayer buddy at Collegeville, trudging up the half-mile hill to the Abbey from our Institute apartments in sub-zero temperatures morning after morning just to read psalms and pray with the monks. Ivan was with us in spirit as he snored in the comfort of their apartment—not an early morning person. But Ivan’s spiritual antennae were attuned to the strange and wonderful behavior of the Holy Spirit—“Big Bird” as Ivan, Lois, Jeanne, and I called her—Big_Bird_-_Library_of_Congress,_Living_Legends,_Award_&_Honors,_2000[1]in deep and profound ways. Ivan defined a “miracle” as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” I consider Ivan’s presence in my life to be one of those miracles. He recognized early on, perhaps before I did, that deep down I was dealing with a full-blown spiritual crisis and was the first to note that, against all odds, things were changing for me. “You’re not the same person you were when you showed up a couple of months ago,” he said one cold March day. And he was right—I wasn’t. Ivan and Lois were both witnesses to and catalysts for these changes—I am forever grateful.

Jeanne met Ivan and Lois when she visited Collegeville over Easter Break, and the connection was immediate. Over the subsequent years we visited them in Washington D.C. a couple of times, they came individually and together to us in Providence and, most often, we hung out with them in Minnesota, including during a Christmas blizzard. Minnesota grabbed them so strongly that they never left until just a couple of months before Ivan’s passing. Jeanne and Ivan often butted heads over the importance of Catholic hierarchy—11028026_10207446951476269_3046618229121473998_n (2)Ivan as a Catholic convert and Jeanne as a cradle Catholic had quite different perspectives on any number of things Catholic. One day Lois and I returned from noon prayer to find Ivan and Jeanne in the midst of a deep and intense conversation. They were role playing—Ivan was playing the role of the Pope, and Jeanne was challenging him to account for any number of things from papal infallibility through an all-male priesthood to the prohibition of contraceptives. Pope Ivan essentially told Lois and I that their conversation was important—we could either leave or be present but silent. Far be it from me to contradict a papal edict.


Abbot JohnA couple of take-aways from this morning’s funeral. After a red-eye train trip, two subways and one twenty- minute bus ride through a very sketchy part of Philadelphia, I was thrilled to see Abbot John Klassen, monk in charge of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville where Lois, Ivan and I spent dozens of hours together, at the front of the church. John is at least six-foot four—in his abbot getup he looks like one of the beautiful cranes who hang out in the various Minnesota lakes. After his usual bear-monk hug, we compared Ivan notes. John had travelled farther than I to be at the funeral, but shared my feelings—“There is no place in the universe that I was going to be this morning other than here,” he said. The Abbot told me a great Ivan story I had never heard. When Ivan and Lois visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the first time many years ago, Ivan looked around at the gaudy, baroque splendor and asked “Is all of this really necessary?” The Mennonite trumped the Catholic on that occasion.

The first reading during the funeral mass was from the prophet Micah. I had no idea that my favorite passage from the Jewish scriptures was also Ivan’s.

He has showed you, O mortal, what is good—and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?

More than anyone I have ever known, Ivan lived that verse to its fullest. Rest in peace, Ivan—and say hi to Big Bird. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Two Plus Two Makes Four

In J. M. Coetzee’s strange and fascinating novel The Childhood of Jesus, the precocious child David has a difficult time understanding numbers. Oh, he knows their names but is not inclined to put them in the order that the rules of mathematics specify. Nor is he inclined to accept the rules guiding any accepted human behavior—he wants to live in a world in which things are valuable and right to the extent that he likes them, and he is not willing to arrange numbers in the proper sequence that everyone agrees upon. After one too many patient attempts to steer David toward conformity, his guardian Símon sputters coetzee“The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future is: Because that is the way the world is. The world was not made for our convenience, my young friend. It is up to us to fit in.”

This business of knowing when to fit in and when to creatively resist expectations is a lifelong challenge that all of us grapple with on a daily basis. At the heart of that challenge lie questions so fundamental that they literally shape our reality. Is the search for truth more like a treasure hunt or a creative, artistic process? Is meaning something to be found or to be made? Tentative answers to these questions frame one’s encounter with both oneself and the outside world. As Plato famously suggested, it is difficult to imagine meaning as the target of an open search, since I won’t know if I’ve discovered the goal of the search unless I already have a sense of what I’m looking for. But if meaning is something that each of us creates throughout the process of our lives, what hope is there for shared meaning, for truths that are not just mine but everyone’s in common?

Although both by nature and philosophical preference I am more of a “creative process” than “treasure hunt” sort of person when it comes to engagement with meaning and truth, I spent this past semester exploring a seminal text in philosophy written by one of the most eloquent advocates of the “treasure hunt” model in the Western tradition. Plato’s Republic is, among many other things, an extended development of the idea that Truth is objective, that meaning is something to be found, not created, and that enlightenment is a life-long process of being freed from the clutches of our ego-driven subjective “truths” in order to slowly discover what “Truth” really is. plato geometryPlato’s paradigm for Truth is mathematics, a discipline that with its objective principles and rules exposes the truth-seeker to a world in which what is true is not up to me but is available to those who are willing to commit themselves to “the sight of the Truth.” Plato makes an extended argument that moral values and virtues properly understood exhibit the precision, certainty and objectivity of mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is Plato’s exemplar of the nature of truth; he insisted that only those who love geometry could enter his Academy, because it is through study of mathematics that one becomes accustomed to the nature of all truth.

If my students this past semester—actually, over the past twenty-five years—are an accurate sampling, Plato’s commitment to the objectivity of truth is strongly opposed to our contemporary intuitions. As I often do, I introduced the problem early in the semester with a simple question about a couple of basic truth claims. I wrote two sentences on the board,Mona_Lisa

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

then asked for observations about what makes these truth claims different. Within short order the students point out that A is objectively true (as are all mathematical truths), while B is subjectively true (as are all aesthetic claims). If someone denies the truth of A, we assume that either that person doesn’t know the basic rules of arithmetic, is deliberately being a contrarian, or simply is nuts. If someone denies the truth of B, however, no problem—there’s a reason why we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.

Then I move to the point of the exercise by writing a third truth claim on the board.values

C. X is right (good) and Y is wrong (bad).

X and Y can be anything that people are inclined to make value judgments about. I simply ask “Is C more like A or like B?’ When we venture into the realm of moral truth claims, in other words, have we entered a realm more like mathematics or art? Objective or subjective? Finding or creating? In twenty-five years of teaching, students have overwhelmingly given the same answer—moral truth claims and judgments are more like B than A. Morality is subjective rather than objective, in other words. In my Plato’s Republic class last semester, only two students out of twenty-five present claimed that moral claims are objectively true—and they were both Catholic seminarians.

When I asked the other twenty-three students—many of whom were the products of Catholic primary and secondary education—why they bundled moral and value truth claims together with aesthetic claims as subjective, most zeroed in on the problem of moral disagreement.moral disagreement Essentially their argument was that since people disagree significantly across the board about every moral issue imaginable, and given the apparent absence of any authoritative perspective from which it could be judged who is right and who is wrong, moral disagreement looks a lot more like the Mona Lisa squabble than whether two plus two equals four or five. The real problem is that, unlike mathematics, there is no working and accepted objective standard to which one can appeal when trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a moral disagreement. Rather than do the difficult and challenging work of seeking objective standards, it is much easier to assume there are no such standards in morality (except perhaps extreme tolerance) and place moral truth claims in the subjective category. We get to create them ourselves without being answerable to an objective standard—because there isn’t any such standard. Let the discussion begin.

the plagueIn The Plague, a central and early text in another one of my classes this past semester, Albert Camus raises the possibility that despite the apparent subjectivity of moral claims, there comes a time when one must hang on to moral commitments with the tenacity of two plus two equals four.

Again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.

Here the narrator of The Plague is commenting on the “sanitation squads” in the novel who, rather than hiding from an apparently random and incurable plague that is sweeping across their city, taking the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens per day, choose to embrace the basic moral task of facing the danger head on, putting their own lives at risk in the service of making the suffering of others slightly less intense and their environment slightly less dangerous. When asked why they have taken on such a thankless task, the members of the sanitation squad always answer with mathematical simplicity. Some things just need to be done. And sometimes what needs to be done is as obvious as the truth of two plus two equals four. the white rose“But what you are doing may very well lead to your death,” someone might object. “So be it.”

Camus’ point is strengthened significantly when considering that The Plague is not just a powerful work of fiction but is also a multi-layered allegory. Published in 1947, the bulk of the novel was written during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with the various characters in the novel representing the different reactions of French citizens to totalitarianism, the loss of their freedoms, and the extermination of undesirables. kolbeThose who, as did the sanitation squads, chose to address the Nazi plague in the face of overwhelming odds of failure are those who recognized that even in a moral world turned upside down, sometimes the truth and what is right are as obvious as a simple sum in arithmetic. We studied a number of such people during our “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium; many of them—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, Maximillian Kolbe, and others—lost their lives for daring to insist that two plus two makes four, just as Camus described. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the world of morals and values, some things are as clear as mathematical truths. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Fixing and Healing

My doctor says that I am his most boring patient, because there is never anything wrong with me. I show up for my yearly appointment, my blood pressure is good, my weight fluctuates within a five pound range, my blood work is always fine—my only complaints are spring allergies, for which he says Claritin“take Claritin,” and occasional sciatica problems, for which he suggests that I should stretch more. I have never been in a hospital overnight except when I was born, and I don’t remember that. But Jeanne has had a number of things that have needed attention over the years, including back problems. One time as she suffered with excruciating back pain, a co-worker suggested that she get in touch with his father, Peter, who runs a chiropractic/acupuncture/Eastern medicine establishment within an hour’s drive of Providence. Peter’s business card says “Japanese Body Balance Shoppe and Acupuncture Clinic.” Jeanne has always been far more adventurous when body balanceit comes to medical treatments than I am, so she immediately made an appointment and I went along for the ride.

Peter’s treatment was so successful in just one session that he has become our “go to” guy for just about everything. I even started getting “tune ups” with Peter after which, although I went in feeling fine, I came out feeling a lot better than fine. When I fell walking my dachshunds and jammed my shoulder badly a couple of summers ago, I am convinced that a session with Peter is what saved me from surgery. Jeanne and I revere Peter’s almost-mystical abilities so much after several years we talk about him as if he would have been a great healing partner for jesus healingJesus had he lived two thousand years ago.

Peter is a child of the sixties as Jeanne and I are; over time we have learned a lot of his life story, including how he as a Westerner became a trained practitioner of Eastern healing arts. He told us once of a horrible automobile accident he was in during his twenties that he barely survived, with dozens of broken bones and damaged internal organs. Skilled doctors and surgeons were able to fuse and stitch him back together, but he lived in excruciating pain until on a friend’s advice and with nothing to lose he tried some “alternative” Eastern treatments. And they worked—so well that subsequently he lived with his Japanese wife in Japan for several years training as an apprentice, tSotaihen becoming a master of “Sotai,” a method of treatment I can only describe as a mixture of acupuncture, chiropracty, and aroma therapy. Peter puts his journey this way: “Western medicine saved my life, and Eastern medicine gave me my life back.” Western medicine fixed Peter, in other words, and Eastern medicine healed him.

This business of “healers” has been on my mind a great deal over the past couple of weeks. My teaching partner and I spent all of final exam week running half-hour oral examinations for the thirty-seven sophomores in our “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium—a marathon of conversations that both wore us out and  were well worth the time and energy commitment. oral examI’ve often said that I can learn more in a half-hour oral exam about what a student knows and what that student will take away from the class than from reading a twenty-page final paper or two-hour written final exam. This latest round of oral exams was no exception. We provided the students with four comprehensive questions ranging across topics and texts throughout the semester and told them that we would begin each oral examination conversation with the question of their choice, with the caveat that we might intersect with any or all of the remaining questions by the end of their half hour, depending on how the conversation developed. One of the questions focused on a passage toward the end of The plagueCamus’ The Plague, a conversation between two characters–Rieux and Tarrou–that we had frequently referenced throughout the semester. In this conversation,  Tarrou says that

All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences . . . We should grant a third category: that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. . . . I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace.

With this passage in mind, one of the four possible questions a student might choose to begin their oral exam was

Throughout this semester we have been witness to the truth of Tarrou’s words that there are only pestilences and victims, and in a few cases, healers.  In your opinion, what exactly constitutes a true healer and in looking back over the materials you have read or viewed, who would you identify as a true healer and why?

Probably a dozen or so students chose this question as the starting point for their exam, and their thinking about it produced a range of fruitful and interesting possibilities. As various persons from our semester’s work—trocmesAndre and Magda Trocme, Sophie and Hans Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximillian Kolbe—were mentioned as examples of healers and an informal list of characteristics shared by healers was generated, several questions were raised. What human problems or maladies are a healer’s energies directed toward? Is a person born a healer, or is “healer” something to which all of might (and should) aspire? If the latter, what might be the beginning steps in the direction of becoming a healer?

In the midst of fascinating and insightful discussions, students often focused on a personal story that my teaching colleague Ray used during one of my February lectures to illustrate the importance concept of “attention” from Simone Weil. Ray and his wife Pat are intimately involved with the SSVPSociety of Saint Vincent de Paul, a Catholic relief society whose members are described on the Society’s website as “men and women who strive to grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to individuals in need.” Pat and Ray frequently make home visits to such individuals and families in need. Ray described to the students that the typical home visit often consisted of making the client aware of the various services the Society has that could address various needs and problems, including health care, food and clothing assistance, directing people to other agencies with needed services, and so on. With the best of intentions, such services were often offered without knowing in detail the history or story of the client and his or her family.

Then, as Ray described, after becoming aware of Simone Weil’s concept of “attention,” in which Weil says “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth,” he and Pat tried something different on their next home visit. Instead of immediately describing what they, as representatives of the Society, could do for the person in need, Pat and Ray asked the client “What would you like to tell us? What is your story?” And for the next hour, they listened to the woman tell her story without interruption. And this completely transformed the dynamic both of that conversation and of future home visits. Through listening without interruption and projection, simone attentionRay and Pat had established an atmosphere of healing rather than of one of fixing.

“Attention” for Simone Weil is the skill of seeing, of attending to the reality of something other than oneself without the filters of the self being in the way. It is a task of love that requires constant practice, as illustrated by Pat and Ray in their home visit. Pat and Ray had moved from considering the woman in front of them as a problem to be solved, or something broken in need of fixing, to a healing activity of seeing her, as Weil describes, “not as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate,’ but as a person, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.”

And this transforms everything, for, as Weil continues, “those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. Love-Our-Neighbor-Hub1The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” But it is a miracle each of us can learn to perform. Being a healer begins with simply listening, for “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’” It begins not by asking “How can I solve your problem?” but rather by inviting the person in need to answer the question “Who are you?”

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneWith the end of the current semester, we have finished the second academic year in our beautiful and impressive still-new Ruane Center for the Humanities. On the west side of the stone entryway is carved a memorable saying from the Gospel of John: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. On the top of the opposite east side of the entryway is the equally memorable closing line from Paridiso, the final book of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Ruane DanteThe Love which moves the sun and the other stars. In my estimation the choice of this passage for such an exalted position on the building is controversial—when the building was still in the planning stage, I made the tongue-in-cheek argument that nothing more appropriate could be inscribed on the front of a classroom building than what is written over the gates of Hell in Canto III of Inferno, the first book in Dante’s masterwork: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. But I lost the argument and had to settle for printing that line off and taping it on my office door. It must have worked, because very few students come to visit me in my office.

Dante’s vision at the end of Paridiso is the climax of an agonizing journey through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven—his capstone experience, strangely enough for a guy who is never at a loss for words, is one that he struggles mightily to convey. Beatific visionOne gets the impression that words fail him and his linear thought process is dissolved as he is subsumed into his long-awaited encounter with the Divine. But I’ve never found Dante’s vision compelling, simply because it’s just that. A vision. And it’s so Catholic, with multitudes of saints, angels, and Mary swirling around in a choreographed dance. I actually resonate more fully with Dante and his guide Virgil as they pick their way through the horrors of Hell and the trials of Purgatory—these portions of the journey I can resonate with because they remind me of the world I actually live in with all of its contradictory beauty and ugliness. That’s the world in which I have been embedded all semester with my students as we explored grace, truth and freedom in the Nazi era, finding glimmers of hope and nuggets of wisdom in the middle of the worst that humanity can devise.bonhoeffer

We spent our last week of the semester with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who, imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison for more than a year because of his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, found himself in his isolation fending off despair and realizing that whatever God is, God is none of the things he had always thought and taught. In letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer put his fears, his concerns, his hopes, and his life itself on display in language that is shocking and disturbing in its directness. I asked my seminar students to consider, then discuss, letters from prisontwo passages in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge in their intellectual notebooks and an on-line discussion forum.

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general.

“The time of Christianity is over.” These words confused my students to say the least—“I am shocked that a minister of God could say such a thing,” one of them wrote. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that none of the old formulas or descriptions work anymore, not in a world in which millions of human beings are disappearing as smoke from death camp chimneys. As unsettling as this passage was for my students, the second passage from Bonhoeffer shook them to their core.

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

God wants us to live in the world as if God does not exist, Bonhoeffer writes. What can this possibly mean? A number of students observed in their notebooks how sad they were that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I commented, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different than you are accustomed to.”

A few short months after he wrote this letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg Prison, just a handful of weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Far from losing his faith, Bonhoeffer exemplifies a willingness to let faith evolve rather than crumble in the face of the greatest and most intense challenges. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem entitled “Who Am I?” in his notebook which ends in a place that provides hope for all persons of faith.

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all. . . .

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!

A couple of weeks ago as I was driving to the 8:00 early show at church I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” on NPR. Her guest was Margaret Wertheim, a physicist described in the promo as “a passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions.”

Toward the end of the conversation Tippett notes that Wertheim, who was raised Catholic, has been described in the media as an atheist. “Are you an atheist?” Tippett asked. WertheimWertheim’s response brings us full circle back to Dante.

I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

I love Wertheim’s answer because it is infused with Bonhoeffer’s energy. Dogmas and religious formulas will always fail because God is bigger than that. Seeking the love that moves the sun and the other stars will always take us to places we do not expect, places of beauty and darkness, a search energized by a faith that cannot be lost.