Category Archives: Christianity

ghost of jesus

The Ghosts of Jesus Past

living stonesToward the end of a particularly lively and deep seminar with my “Living Stones” adult Christian education group after church a few Sundays ago, I asked the group “so what makes us think that we are anything special, that Episcopalians have a better angle on God than anyone else? What makes us think that our way is any better than anyone else’s, Christian or otherwise, other than that it is our way?” Very quickly one person replied “it isn’t any better.” And everyone else in the group of fifteen or so proceeded to affirm this answer, either with positive head nods or similar verbal replies. We are all seekers after God, but other than the matter of “comfort zone,” there is nothing that makes our chosen framework for that search any better than the way of other Christian group, or the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or any other way for that matter. Oh my. So it has come to this.

Earlier in the discussion I had told the group the story of a conversation that Jeanne and I had with our good friends Michael and Suzy a few years ago as we travelled with them and their boys to some central Florida attraction. I don’t remember any of the details of the conversation other than something Michael said. ecclesiamHe’s a Catholic theologian, and offered that “I fully expect to see my Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters in heaven.” No extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”) for him. Those would have been burning-at-the-stake words for any Catholic theologian not many centuries ago; truth be told, the Baptists I grew up with would not only have wanted to virtually burn Michael (Protestants have done such things in the past as well), but would also have considered Michael as on the fast track to perdition simply because he is Catholic. I agreed with Michael, and had for some time, but to hear my Episcopal friends take his broad ecumenism without blinking as a “no brainer” was revealing. I had mentioned toward the beginning of seminar that my own spiritual journey and process of growth over the past few years has, among other things, been a slow process of putting some very loud and intrusive ghosts to rest. ghost of jesusBut by the end of seminar I could still faintly hear them rolling over in their graves. I could also hear, more distinctly, different ghosts altogether. The ghosts of Jesus past.

The fundamentalist, evangelical Baptists I grew up with had their own version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, although no one in the group knew Latin. We didn’t need to, because we knew the King James Bible backwards and forwards. The Bible is littered with verses that we took to mean that it is difficult to get into heaven, and those who don’t find the way are going to hell.tattoo

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.

There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

And we sang hymns and contemporary tunes every Sunday that doubled down on this exclusivity.the blood

What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Jesus died so I might live.

fire insuranceThese all lead to Fire-insurance policy Jesus, a Jesus whose whole purpose was to provide a way of escaping the wrath of a pissed-off God the Father and the eternal flames of hell. And, not surprisingly, we were convinced that our small group, and the few other groups who believed exactly as we did, had nailed it. We possessed the one effective policy—and all of the others were pretenders and fakes.

I was taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine—a doctrine that has confounded and confused the greatest philosophical and theological minds for the past two millennia—but in reality, it was divine Jesus who got all the play. human and divineI wanted to know what Jesus was like as a kid my age, but all I got was one story from years 2-30 about Jesus from the gospels, a story in which the twelve-year old Jesus is polishing his halo rather than acting as twelve-year old humans do. Grown-up Jesus never laughed, never had fun, was always serious, was always doing things that real human beings don’t do (like performing miracles and rising from the dead), wasn’t married, didn’t have kids—very difficult to relate to on a human level. So I came to think that despite the doctrine, Jesus in truth was a divine being pretending to be human for a certain amount of time, just so the human beings around him would be a little bit more comfortable. Jesus wearing a human Halloween mask was unapproachable, impossible to resonate with, and yet was the person in whom I was supposed to trust and believe, the guy who was my only ticket to eternal happiness.

I stopped believing in Halloween Jesus a long time ago, and I blame him for my immediate attraction as an adult to stories in which Jesus is acting like a normal, limited human being rather than God in the Flesh or the Savior of the World. I wrote on this blog a week or so ago about just such a story.imagesJMFY4ONJ

Mister Perfect has a Bad Day

If the Incarnation means anything, it means that God became meat (carne = flesh, meat). That crass equivalence reminds me that this is not a story of an ethereal and unapproachable bridge to an unknown God, but rather a story of divine love so extreme that all of the trappings of divinity are dropped in exchange for becoming human. It makes it a lot more possible to believe in a continuing Incarnation—God in us—if the model and paradigm was just like us and still was a worthy bearer of the divine.

Putting a stake through the heart of Fire-Insurance Policy Jesus was a lot more difficult and has taken a lot more time. He’s like a vampire—every time I think he’s done for, he pops up somewhere else in a slightly different form. hellfireBut putting Halloween Jesus in the grave has helped. What is the Christian faith really about? Escape from eternal damnation or a transformed life and working to establish God’s kingdom on earth now? With the help of mentors, conversations and books over the past several years I have strongly landed on the latter option. So much so that I can truthfully say that I don’t know exactly what will happen when I die, and it doesn’t matter.

I am not a God-believer because it guarantees me an attractive afterlife. I believe in God because it is the only framework within which I find the empowerment and direction to avoid cynicism and despair. And, sure enough, it is not only Christianity that provides such a framework. I am a Christian because it is my history, my heritage, my home. cloudsBut I can imagine a Muslim, a Jew, or any other God-believer finding similar strength and empowerment in their own histories and traditions (not so sure about the atheists, though—food for thought!). The Living Stoner who said that there is nothing special or better about our (my) way of doing things was absolutely right—as Marcus Borg writes, “there is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience.” This has nothing to do with doctrine, dogma, or intellectual affirmation. But the ghosts of Jesus past are not happy.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Exactly two years ago today, I started “Freelance Christianity.” I intended to write on the blog until it became just another damn thing I had to do–two years, visits from 150+ countries, and 35,000+ views later, I’m still loving it. Thanks to all who regularly read my musings, as well as to those who drop in once in a while. To celebrate the two-year anniversary, here is my very first blog post in which I sing the praises of the second most important woman in my life. Enjoy, and thanks again!

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

imagesJMFY4ONJ

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

The Muslim/Christian Brotherhood

The never-ending violence in the Middle East has taken on new dimensions in the past weeks and months. I wrote the essay below exactly a year ago, but the point is even more relevant now than it was then.

Icblog_d216e4f627-thumbc[1]’m currently reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I first became aware of the book, as many people did, by being alerted on Facebook to a horrendous interview—“Is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done??”—that Aslan was subjected to by Fox.com. The interviewer was unable to get past the apparently incomprehensible notion that a Muslim would be interested in or be qualified to write a book about Jesus. Despite Aslan’s excellent academic credentials as a comparative religions scholar, the Fox interviewer continually revealed her total inability to grasp what a comparative religion scholar does, as well as her regular confusion of facts with a severely limited world view and her general ignorance disguised as investigative journalism.

Reza Aslan Fox.com interview

The interview went viral, and Dr. Aslan’s book shot to the top of the NY Times best-seller list, which it still sits. I, of course, am one of the reasons why his book shot to the top of the list, since I ordered it on Amazon as soon as I listened to his cringe-worthy interview on Fox. I even mentioned briefly on Facebook that I wish someone from Fox would interview me concerning “freelance Christianity,” so my blog could go through the stratosphere. ku-medium[1]One person commented that liberals might start standing in line to get interviewed by Fox, just to help their current project gain momentum among reasonable people.

Zealot is a thoroughly researched academic investigation of what current scholarship can tell us about Jesus, not as the Redeemer of the world, as Christians believe, nor as one of the greatest prophets of God, as Muslims believe, but as the first-century CE Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine. Aslan is an engaging and clear writer—something many academics are incapable of beingimagesCAEYQIP4—and has written a fascinating book that provides, even for those of us who think we know something about it, an illuminating perspective on not just Jesus the man, but on the turbulent political and religious times in which he lived and died. Not once in the entire book would I have been able to detect whether Aslan was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or something else. He makes his own personal religious pedigree clear in the five-page “Author’s Note” with which the book begins, pages that the Fox.com interviewer obviously never bothered to read.

It has been a very long time since the historical details of what the man Jesus was and was not have had any direct impact on my own faith commitments. I have evolved into believing that the truth of a story is far more important than the facts of a story, a manner of belief that has a far longer pedigree in human experience than the relatively recent idea, a product of the Scientific Revolution, that only verifiable facts can be considered as true. Accordingly, Aslan’s book is neither a confirmation of nor a challenge to my Christian faith. Actually, of far more interest to me than the book is the author’s interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” a couple of weeks before the Fox.com debacle.

Reza Aslan NPR interview

The book tells me that Aslan is a fellow academic, and the interview tells me that he is a brother in faith. that begin Zealot. Born in Iran into a nominally Muslim family, Aslan came to the United States at the age of twelve when his family fled Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. Three years later, he “found Jesus.” Following his sophomore year in high school, Aslan spent the summer at an evangelical imagesCAO1SD62Christian youth camp and heard “a remarkable story that would change my life forever . . . the greatest story ever told.” Not surprisingly, Aslan returned home from that summer with the same proselytizing energy that I remember also having when returning from such summer camps in my youth. His mother converted to Christianity, as did many of his friends. Problems arose in college, however, when as a religious studies major Aslan began to find that there is a huge gap between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history, between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, he discovered that in his estimation Jesus of Nazareth was a lot more interesting than the Jesus his religion had told him about. In the midst of cognitive dissonance, drifting away from the religious framework that had changed his life just a few years earlier, imagesCA25BMC1Aslan found himself full of doubt and anger.

Interestingly, it was two of his Jesuit professors at Santa Clara University, recognizing both Aslan’s scholarly promise and his deepening crisis of faith, who suggested that he reconsider Islam, the religion of his forefathers that he had never been seriously taught in his formative years. Aslan converted back to Islam, finding that it spoke to many of his deepest spiritual needs while avoiding a number of the conflicts with reason so central to Christianity. In response to the interviewer’s asking for examples of just what it was about Christianity he found so problematic, Aslan answered that

imagesCAU0LBPVThe problem with Christianity, what would ultimately push me away from it, is the notion of the Trinity, the notion of the Incarnation, the idea of Jesus as the literally begotten Son of God . . . It never made sense to me.

“Well no kidding!” I thought as I listened to the interview. If the Trinity and the Incarnation are the only parts of Christianity that didn’t make sense to you, you weren’t trying! What about the Virgin birth and Resurrection (just for starters)? One of my favorite exercises in class is at an appropriate point in the semester to ask students to brainstorm and create a list of those aspects of Christian belief that make no rational sense. It doesn’t take very long—the Incarnation, Trinity, Virgin birth and Resurrection are just the beginning. I’ve heard and read all of this before, particularly from academics; some version of “I was a Christian (or fill in the blank) in my youth, but when I became an adult and realized that it didn’t make reasonable sense, I stopped believing.” In a case such as Aslan’s, it would have been perfectly reasonable to become an atheist or an agnostic. Neither one of those choices would present the slightest obstacle to being a fine scholar of religious studies.

Instead, Aslan became a Muslim, finding that

imagesCAO2E9CLThe God that I intimately and deeply desired in my heart was a being of divine unity, a being that encompassed all of creation. And that’s how Islam talked about God . . . in the Sufi tradition, God is all of creation, His very substance is existence . . . everything that exists exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of God . . .  without separation between Creator and creation.

Of course, it could be argued that many Christians and Jews also believe exactly this. But in my estimation it doesn’t matter. Aslan is my brother in faith despite having rejected Christianity for Islam, because deep down he continues to share with me a foundational desire and belief, one that is far more important than which religion one espouses. Toward the end of the NPR interview, Aslan expresses this desire.

TitleHeader[1]If you believe our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it is only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. This is the ineffable experience of faith.

Each of has to make a decision concerning what to do about the big questions when reason and objective facts run out. And this decision always involves a leap of faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Some choose to deny the existence of anything transcendent, but even this requires faith. imagesCA139MTRAs a character in a novel I read earlier this summer says “atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.” For others, religions provide an arena within which to develop languages and practices that speak of the human encounter with the divine. Happy leaping!

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

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

RFKOn April 4 a little over twenty-four years ago, early lines from Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis toward the end of a brief, impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated in Memphis earlier in the day. Kennedy, who would himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just two short months later, included these lines from the Chorus’ first speech in the play as a sobering piece of one of the great speeches in American history:

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

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

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

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

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

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

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

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

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

hB87FB409

Republican Jesus

I’m not sure how I became a liberal. I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist religious world that frowned on liberal activities such as dancing and going to movies; left-leaning political positions were never mentioned. barry_button1Northeastern Vermont is not known as a hotbed of liberal attitudes. My father was as politically aware as watching Walter Cronkite every night on television allowed him to be, and he was a classic reactionary voter. Starting with the first Presidential election I remember, mondalemy father voted for JFK, Goldwater, Humphrey, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Mondale, Bush the First, Clinton, Dole, and Gore before passing away in 2002. He was always voting against someone or somethingdole-button-1. The only time I recall hearing my mother saying anything about politics was probably the only time she voted differently than my father. As she returned home from voting in the ’72 Presidential election, I asked her who she voted for. “McGovern,” she said. “I just don’t like the sound of that Watergate thing.”

I was too young to vote in the ’72 election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to ComeHomeAmericaTed, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far. To be honest, I’m not sure how anyone who came of age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s as I did could have avoided becoming a liberal, although my cousins, who are my age and grew up in the next town managed to avoid it. The impact of growing up in the sixties and early seventies is all over me, from my ponytail to my natural attraction to pushing the envelope rather than embracing the status quo to my internal delight in ignoring rules and regulations, even if ever so slightly.

But lots of people grew up in the sixties and did not turn out to be the liberal that I have been my whole adult life. I’ve become more and more convinced over the past few years that if I am to take my faith commitments seriously, which I always have even in times when deeply submerged beneath layers of rationality, fear, hubris, complacency or even brief attempts at atheism, then if I am going to be consistent the political and social beliefs and positions I511vOzalgjL__SL500_AA280_ inhabit are going to well left of center. In other words, although there is definitely a 60s counter-cultural youngster still inside me, the real reason I am a liberal is because I am a Christian. Don’t get me wrong—I am fully aware that there are millions of people professing to be committed Christians in this country who are hard core conservatives both in their political and social beliefs and are proud of it. I just don’t know how they pull it off without crossing their fingers behind their backs.

A brief email conversation with an acquaintance several years ago illuminated this for me very clearly. My acquaintance is a Christian speaker, retreat giver and counsellor with a certain following; I was a regular recipient of her e-newsletterr-SARAH-PALIN-JOHN-MCCAIN-OBAMA-large570. During the 2008 Presidential campaign summer, she wrote passionately about her great respect for Sarah Palin, the former Governor’s ability to “stick it to the liberals,” and her plans to streamline governmental support programs. In a private email I asked my friend (ingenuously) “How do you square your political positions with your faith?” In her reply, among other interesting things, she wrote “I think that, first and foremost, Jesus wants us to stand on our own two feet and take care of ourselves.” Now that’s a Jesus that I am unfamiliar with from the Gospels, but a Jesus that has become rather popular for a lot of people in these politically polarized times: Republican Jesus.

For instance, in last Sunday’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes, not because he’s a show-off in need of a signature miracle on his resume, but because “he was moved with compassion for them.” Regardless of whether you believe this story to be factual or allegorical, it undoubtedly illustrates the compassionate heart of the gospels. In the same situation, however, Republican Jesus would have acted otherwise:lazy jesusfeeding 5000

 

 

 

 

The Jesus of the gospels came from poverty, was poor his whole life, had little if anything positive to say about the pursuit of money and wealth, and had tough news for the rich young man who wanted to be his disciple—“Sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.” I suspect that Republican Jesus would have encouraged the rich young ruler to continue amassing wealth and enabling others to do so, in keeping with an often forgotten part of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the one percent, for their wealth shall trickle down to those who do not work as hard , and who are not as smart and creative (maybe). Republican Jesus would have endorsed the message of the “Gospel of Prosperity” ministers who preach that financial success is a sign of God’s favor.NVP

Toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus summarizes what the life of following his example requires succinctly: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Republican Jesus? A different attitude entirely.   Jesus with rifle

It’s all parody and sarcasm, of course, and the Republican Jesus meme has gone viral all over social media. Unfortunately, the positions and attitudes expressed by Republican Jesus are carried out on a daily basis by well-meaning persons who simply assume that their hardcore conservative values somehow or another mesh seamlessly with the teachings of the Jesus whom they claim to love and follow. And I don’t get it. There are good reasons to take various political/social positions, and there are good reasons to choose to be a Christian. The trick is remembering that what you believe in one area of your life has a direct impact on things that you believe in other areas of your life. Conservative Christians—good luck with that. It’s challenging enough as a liberal (impossible, actually), but at least I’ve got the book on my side.09ab37a6ab5e3feada1e948c21889d0c

Humility and Wonder

Last Sunday’s gospel focused on one of Jesus’ signature miracles–the feeding of the five thousand. Here is a reflection on that story and its implications that I first posted about a year ago.

My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as a friend of mine says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?”, I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS, jerk!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human knowledge. Or at least my knowledge, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

I teach philosophy, which has the reputation for trying to rationally explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. Philosophers also have the reputation of lacking humility.This reputation is, unfortunately, well deserved if referring to the main streams of philosophy since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

The other ancient philosophical starting point is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” This is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility, woven together, turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. Psalm 8 gets this connection just right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what transcends us, while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what transcends us.

I heard a homily a few years ago on Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand in which the homilist struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. “We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of morons that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So not only does a spirit of generosity start spreading through the crowd, but gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, and no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why did the homilist, and why do all of us, find it necessary to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? Pascal put it succinctly: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the wonder of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine defines a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding five thousand with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

Venn Mysticism

To what extent can clear thinking and logical analysis help untangle the complexities of trying to live a life of faith? Let’s try a test case. In his later years, as he continued to discard the grave-clothes from his religious past, my father17251_297220732720_3663220_n[1] was fond of saying that “Not every mystic is a Christian, but every good Christian is a mystic.” The philosopher in me immediately wants to analyze this truth claim logically. Actually, there are two truth claims in this sentence. The first claim, “Not all mystics are Christians,” relates the category “mystic” and the category “Christian.” If we imagine circle A containing all mystics, and circle B containing all Christians, how should these circles be drawn in relation to each other? For those of you who took Logic 101 in college or maybe in a really good high school, you might remember that these are called “Venn diagrams.” So let’s have logic class for a few minutes.

There are four possible ways in which circles A and B can be drawn in relation to each other:

1. Circle A is entirely contained within circle B (“All A’s are B’s, not all B’s are A’s”)003

2. Circle B is entirely contained within circle A (“All B’s are A’s, not all A’s are B’s”)002

3. Circles A and B have no relation to each other. (“No A’s are B’s, no B’s are A’s”)001

4. Circles A and B intersect. (“Some A’s are B’s, some B’s are A’s”)004

Remember my father’s first claim: “Not every mystic (A) is a Christian (B).” Looking at the diagrams above, we can immediately rule out possibility 1, since it claims that all A’s are B’s, while Dad’s claim says they aren’t. Unfortunately, options 2-4 are all compatible with Dad’s claim that “Not every mystic is a Christian”—do not continue until you can see for yourself why this is the case! So which of the remaining three possible relationships of circles A and B is the right one?

images[8]Fortunately, my father helps us out with his second claim, “All good Christians are mystics.” But wait a minute. What’s the deal with this “good” thing? Where did that come from? I thought we were only talking about mystics and Christians! What we have here is a classic case of a “suppressed premise”—not surprising, since we all suppress premises all the time, especially premises we want to slip unnoticed under the radar screen. A suppressed premise in a discussion is something important to your argument that you consider to be true, but aren’t bothering to tell the listener or reader about, for any number of reasons. In this case, Dad’s suppressed premise is that “Some Christians are good and some aren’t.” He’s slipped in a qualifier (“good”) into his second claim via a suppressed premise.

Once we realize this, we can choose between options 2-4 above. Option 2 doesn’t work, because that places the entire Christian circle (B) within the mystic circle (A), and doesn’t provide any guidance for making the further distinction between good and non-good Christians. Same problem with option 3—if circles A and B have no relation to each other, then we once again have no way to distinguish between good and non-good Christians. That leaves us with option 4, and indeed it provides the help we need. Look again at the intersecting circles in diagram 4. If we shade in the area where A and B intersect, we have a diagram representing the truth of both of Dad’s claims. “Not every mystic is a Christian” is right in front of us, because there is an area of circle A that does not intersect with B—in this non-intersecting area are those mystics who are not Christians.QED_BW_logo[1]All good Christians are mystics” is also in front of us, if we write “good Christians” in the shaded area where A and B intersect. That shaded area contains the Christians who are also mystics (“good” Christians), while the area of circle B not intersecting with A contains all other Christians, who are non-mystics (and apparently non-good).

Wasn’t that fun? Haven’t you learned a lot? At this point, intelligent students should be asking: “But what have we learned about mystics and Christians from this logical analysis”? And the answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. What we have discovered in this exercise is the logical structure of my father’s claim, but nothing about the content. banana doxie[1]The logical structure of “Not all dachshunds are bananas, but all good bananas are dachshunds” is the same as the structure of my Dad’s claim. More often than not, logical analyses of truth claims turn out to be what Muriel Barbery calls “a conceptual fuss in the service of nothing.” So what if we know what the logical structure of Dad’s claim about mystics and Christians is—what we really want to know is whether it is true.

That all depends on what one means by “Christian” and “mystic.” Just how elastic is the category and concept “Christian”? How far can I stretch its meaning before it stops meaning anything at all? As for “mystic,” I have at least a dozen definitions of “mysticism” and related terms in my hard drive, taken over the past few years from authors that I respect and love. None of the definitions is the same; some are radically different from others. ee24810ae7a068542122d110.L._V260843872_SX200_[1]My current favorite definition of “mystic” comes from a talk by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner that I read recently. He prefaces his definition by saying “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not what you’d call a big-time mystic.” Well, neither am I. Kushner goes on to define “mystic” as “someone who has the gnawing suspicion that just beneath the apparent contradictions, brokenness, and discord of this everyday world lies a hidden unity.” If so, I’m a mystic after all (although not a “big-time” one).

Twenty-five years ago, I regularly sang in an Episcopal church choir. Since the church was the cathedral of the diocese, the music was slightly better than garden-variety church stuff, but the choir was still pretty much a mixed bag. choir.fe[1]There were five or six sopranos and an equal number of altos, including one close-to-professional quality ringer in each section. We had only two tenors, one a fellow over seventy years old who probably once had a good voice when he was younger and a much younger fellow who sang with gusto but was tone-deaf. The baritones (my section) were more numerous, usually at least four or five. I don’t have a good solo voice, but I am a good choir singer because I read music well and have good pitch. I was the guy all of the other baritones crowded around with a new piece in order to get things right.

One Easter season, our primary Easter Sunday piece was going to be Randall Thomson’s Alleluia. The words are easy—all you sing is “Alleluia” all the way through with one “Amen” on the end. The notes are moderately challenging, but this was by no means the most technically difficult piece the choir had ever sung. The piece is sung a capella; for it to work, the singers need the same sort of “oneness” that Gregorian chant requires—they have to become one voice, rather than fifteen or so individual ones. Furthermore, they have to stay in tune for five minutes without accompaniment. 200606The_Vision_of_Isaiah57x72in_canvas[1]And it wasn’t happening. After several mediocre attempts in rehearsal Charles, our organist and choirmaster, yelled “STOP!” After regaining his composure, he said “the Bible says that around the throne of God, the cherubim and seraphim continually sing ‘Alleluia’ in never-ending praise. For the next five minutes let’s plug into that eternal song, joining ‘with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven,’ just as the Sanctus from mass every Sunday says. Begin.” And for the next five  minutes, that’s where we were. We left our individual, fragmented and discordant existences and joined “all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name.” I get chills as I remember and write about it, more than twenty-five years later. As we ended Alleluia with a hushed “Amen,” our tone-deaf tenor said it all: “Whoa! Where did that come from?”

To my ears, there was nothing mystical or magical about our Easter morning performance a few days later. We were in tune, we didn’t embarrass ourselves, but we were not inspired. Afterwards, though, I overheard an old parishioner say to two of my fellow choristers that “you sang like angels today.” Maybe so, I thought. I know that we did at least once—maybe on Easter morning, she was the one who had “ears to hear.” As Rabbi Kushner, I have the gnawing suspicion that this transcendence is there all the time. I’m grateful when, every once in a while, I can say “surely God was in this place” and mean it.Alleluia-5[1]

hand

The Imposter

Drawing on data gathered during the most recent decennial survey of the American populace, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Wednesday that the country is composed of more than 316 million complete nothings who do not matter in the least. The Onion, 4/30/14

imposter-434At Justin’s Master’s degree graduation ceremony a few days ago, the Dean of Students offered a few closing remarks before officially conferring degrees on the several hundred graduates. “I know all of you have experienced imposter’s syndrome during your journey to this day,” she said, “that nagging and creeping suspicion that it isn’t really true, that you haven’t actually earned your degree. But it’s true. You have earned it. Congratulations!” There were many knowing nods and smiles in the crowd, because who hasn’t had moments of severe insecurity, times of worrying that today is the day that everyone will finally discover that you are a total fraud? Justin noted that when he went to the check-in table on the day of graduation to register and pick up his robe, hat, and hood he was expecting the person on the other side of the table to say that she had no record of him.

According to data compiled by the Census Bureau, no one has ever heard of 89 percent of Americans, while 93 percent do not possess even a single unique quality worth mentioning at all. In addition, officials affirmed that 76 percent could disappear tomorrow and nobody would know, care, or be affected in any way, and in fact the country might be better off without them.

PenguinsI remember clearly the many times during my college years that I thought something along the lines “If they (my fellow students, professors, wife, kids, the janitor) every find out how little I know, how scared I am, or how totally unqualified I am for all of this . . .” Because six years passed between my BA and starting graduate school, I decided to do my Master’s work at a small philosophy graduate program before moving on to a high-charged PhD program. The Master’s was scary enough, but I was sweating bullets all the time when doctoral classes began. My comments in class were received without laughter or dismissal, there was an “A” written at the end of papers returned from my professors, but my internal tape was always playing “Yeah, but . . .” My first days in front of a classroom as a graduate assistant with his own group of students was even worse, because there I really was an imposter. I had zero qualifications as a teacher other than having taken lots of classes myself; the first time a student who didn’t know any better called me “Professor Morgan” I thought I was going to pass out.careercoach11

Based on our analysis, we can conclude that the United States is a broad patchwork of nobodies; a collection of hundreds of millions of insignificant data points who, across all demographic characteristics, share the common trait of being entirely unexceptional. OnionWe tallied almost a third of a billion citizens one by one from all walks of life and discovered that each individual was even more forgettable than the last.

The imposter syndrome is closely related to an even deeper and more disturbing problem, the insignificance syndrome. This is what the quotes from The Onion are brilliantly and satirically plugging into—the deep fear that in the ultimate scheme of things, we don’t matter at all. I have written about the insignificance of human beings before,

Face to Face

an insignificance succinctly expressed by Blaise Pascal: Pascal“Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in its lofty and full majesty . . . This whole visible world is only an imperceptible trace in the amplitude of nature. . . . Let man consider what he is . . . as lost in this remote corner of nature, and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to estimate the just value of the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself.” The Psalms play on human insignificance frequently, as in Psalm 8:

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place,

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?

Psalm 139No wonder we often feel that we are largely insignificant and are imposters every time we seem to be important. Because we are.

The most remarkable and shocking feature of theistic belief systems is their attempts to convince us that in spite of our insignificance and ludicrous pretensions, the divine takes notice. The cycle of readings for yesterday’s Sunday morning service landed on Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

If I were inclined to be an atheist, or at least an agnostic, it would probably be because of this very point—the idea that God cares about human beings in any specific sense at all. Most of what we observe and experience screams against it. Our obvious insignificance screams against it. From ClipboardBut for me, Psalm 139 rings as true as Psalm 8; each touches nerves of reality that cannot be ignored. Perhaps there is one place where I do not need to be an imposter or be overwhelmed by my insignificance, a place where I am known better than I know myself and am valued more highly than I could ever manufacture. Now all of those billions of insignificant data points look very different. And so do I.