Category Archives: Christianity

A Crooked Faith

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. Immanuel Kant

I love many kinds of music, but classical music is my first love. I was classically trained on the piano from age four through high school; my first piano teacher, a Julliard graduate who somehow ended up in northern Vermont teaching piano, was also the organist for the North Country Chorus, a volunteer choral group that was, in the estimation of Vermonters at the time, our version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every year the North Country Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah, which became—and still is—my favorite classical composition. Its music is inspired, of course, but in addition its settings of texts from the King James translation of both the Old and New Testaments were an artistic gift to a kid who was forced to study and memorize significant portions of the Bible from an early age. Even today, decades later, I hear Handel’s glorious music every time I encounter a passage from Scripture that is included in the libretto of Messiah.

After an instrumental introduction, Messiah begins with a tenor recitative and aria set to prophetic texts from the first verses of Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This is followed by the first chorus:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Handel’s music is so beautiful that it is possible to miss the power and promise of the text: When God arrives on the scene, messes get cleaned up, crooked things get straightened out, imperfections are made perfect, and problems get solved. A wonderful promise—but not one that squares with my experience.

I was reminded of these texts and this music as I read and responded to the Facebook comments on a recent blog post that a friend shared on a progressive Christian Facebook page that she administers. The back-and-forth started innocently enough:

  • Him: From the last couple of posts you have made it seems as if you are questioning your faith that’s my thought.
  • Me: I’m ALWAYS questioning my faith! In my understanding, that’s perhaps the key factor that keeps faith alive and prevents it from becoming rigid and inflexible. A favorite writer of mine says that the opposite of faith is certainty–doubt is an indispensable part of a vibrant faith.

In a quick succession of posts, the commenter then sought to set my crooked ideas straight:

  • Him: The word of God stands firm it is not flexible in no way form or fashion And to quote anything from a man’s corruptible heart against it is sin there’s no two ways about it . . . If you always question your faith you are lost and I feel for you you can’t ride the fence or change his word to suit your will . It is what it is period.

Well, now. Before I had the opportunity to say something snarky and self-righteous in response to this clearly misguided, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist person, another commenter posted that she appreciates my posts because they help her “grow and learn,” suggesting to the first commenter that he should “find something more conservative.”

  • Him: I’m a progressive liberal in politics thank you but first and foremost I’m a true Christian to the best of my ability.
  • Me: I also am a progressive liberal in my politics and seek to be a true Christian to the best of my ability. The difference perhaps lies in our understanding of what “true Christian” means. I completely reject the idea that it requires inflexibility, rigidity, or being in service to a specific interpretation of texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
  • Him (after some further pushback from others in the conversation thread): I’m not a conservative in no way but yes I am seeing this page for what it truly is I will see myself out. I will pray for you and those like you who can’t accept the truth of the Bible for what it is and maybe one day you will see your personal opinion on what you want the Bible to mean is in fact wrong. Good day.

I’ve been involved in this sort of conversation many times over the years, and they just about always end this way, with the conservative Christian promising to pray for the liberal “Christian” to see the truth and thereby escape hellfire and damnation, as the liberal immediately rehearses how he will judgmentally and condescendingly share this story with his fellow progressive friends at the first opportunity. But a half hour or so later, the commenter posted one more time, offering some well-intentioned and much appreciated scriptural advice.

  • Him: I leave you with one verse and I promise I will not persist here any further. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
  • Me: Thanks–this is a favorite of mine as well. Except that I prefer the more accurate translation of the final clause: “And he will direct your paths.” Faith is not a straight line–it’s an adventure that takes a person in many unexpected directions.

When Immanuel Kant wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” he was observing, at the beginning of a discussion of his moral theory, just how great the challenge of getting human beings to morally straighten themselves out actually is. Perhaps it is reflective of my natural perversity when I say that I sort of like the crooked timber of humanity. The best moral theories take human beings as we are rather than as the theorist idealistically wants us to be. The same can be said for faith. My own faith is rooted in my embrace of the central, incarnational idea of Christianity: God became human—and still does. The Christian story is not about God straightening human beings out, but rather is about God using our natural human bends, twists, and turns.

Reading the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did using this lens reveals the crooked timber that we all know to be definitive of being human. Christians love to focus on the loving, generous, eloquent, patient, courageous Son of God that we find on every page and tend to overlook other things we discover about Jesus. He got tired, could be curt and dismissive (even to his mother), and was occasionally sarcastic, impatient, and judgmental. He was a real human being, in other words, with all the lack-of-straightness that involves. And that’s good news, since it means that I don’t have to “straighten up” or “sit up straight,” as various authorities used to demand from me, in order to be a bearer of the divine in the world. God is often just around the next corner of our crooked paths.

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

It’s President’s Day, which for all college professors means–as do all Monday holidays in the middle of the semester–“catch up day.” It’s the Spring semester’s version of Columbus Day. I will be spending most of the day catching up on the grading that never seems to end, particularly since I have this nasty habit of assigning my students a lot of writing assignments. But it’s also a time to think about Presidents–not the current one, if I can help it–as well as social policy and politics.

There are many things that I love about visiting our friends Mike and Suzy. Included among those things are the various and random items spread about their house that make me think. We usually enter their house through the garage; next to the door into the house is an extra refrigerator/freezer containing, amongst other thing, the better-than-Bud-and-Miller beer that Michael always makes sure is on hand for my visits. I take full responsibility for raising Michael’s beer awareness over the years and proudly survey the contents each visit.

For all of the years we have been visiting, two bumper stickers on the outside of this refrigerator have frequently caught my attention. The first: When Jesus said “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them. The second: Who Would Jesus Bomb?  Striking, provocative, and very timely. Although our country always seems to be wondering who to go to war with, these bumper stickers particularly came to mind a few years ago as the most “do-nothing” U. S. Congress in recent memory debateed what should be done in response to events on the other side of the world—the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Do-Nothing-Congress1[1]This was (and continues to be) a Congress whose members had become so constitutionally incapable of true discussion and compromise that they would rather use each other’s toothbrushes than try to understand each other’s arguments. Yet they were strangely united by the question of what is the best and most appropriate violent response to violence. Although possible diplomatic solutions were proposed, the tenor of the conversation seemed to be not so much whether to respond with violence, as when and how. And the Syrian conflict continues unabated.

I do not pretend to know what is in the best interest of the United States or of those in the Middle East. Whatever votes are taken, whatever decisions are made, and whatever actions are endorsed are always fraught with uncertainty and subject to endless second-guessing. I am also strongly committed to the separation of religion and politics in the sense that public policy should not be fashioned with any particularly religious framework in mind. But over the past few years I have begun to explore the parameters of my Christian faith in new ways, discovering over and over again that these parameters are more expansive and flexible than I could have ever imagined. wwjd-bracelet[1]Questions like whether or how to respond to what the Syrian government allegedly did to its own citizens jerk me up short when considered in the light of my Christian beliefs. Because I find absolutely no justification in the seminal texts of my faith to justify violence under any circumstances, even if such violence is proposed as a measured and proportional response to violence of a different order entirely. And this concerns me.

Truth in advertising requires that I reveal that my natural tendencies lean strongly toward pacifism and non-violence. I grew up in the sixties in the midst of the Vietnam War; my brother, three-and-a-half years older than I, was a conscientious objector. The draft lottery ended just as I became old enough to be subject to it; had it continued, I would have followed in my brother’s footsteps as a conscientious objector or perhaps in the footsteps of others to Canada.Vietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967[1] So it is not surprising that I resonate with the non-violence and pacifism of the Gospel texts—they align with and confirm my natural tendencies. For exactly these reasons, I am very cautious about making claims concerning the appropriate Christian position to take in cases such as Syria. The philosopher in me knows that human beings, myself included, have a very strong tendency to interpret texts through subjective lenses and then treat that interpretation as if it was objectively true.

But I challenge anyone to find in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s parables, or his teachings from the Gospels anything that justifies responding to violence with violence, regardless of the nature of the violence that demands a response. This is what makes even sketching the outlines of a consistent Christian position in cases such as Syria so maddeningly difficult. Jesus in the Gospels continually stresses the importance of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick—the disenfranchised and powerless, in other words. _143081042209598[1]And could there be a more blatant example of abusing the powerless than killing innocent civilians, particularly children, by using chemical weapons?

A text I have used frequently in classes over the past several years is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie’s riveting account of how the villagers of Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in southeastern France, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children, under the noses of the Gestapo and the Vichy police during World War II. Inspired by the Gospel in action as taught to them by their dynamic pastor, Andre Trocme, the villagers hid and cared for refugees in their homes, farmhouses, shops and places of worship until they could safely be taken across the nearby border into neutral Switzerland. And they did all of this, at the continual risk of their own lives, in the open while fully dedicated to non-violence.

Hallie reports that upon the publication of his book recounting the story of Le Chambon, the author of one of the first letters he received sought to remind him of just how limited and insignificant the Le Chambon story really was in the larger context of World War II and the Holocaust. “Le Chambon wasn’t even in the war,” the author of the letter wrote. “Reverend Trocme and a miniscule number of equally eccentric kindred-spirits had no effect,” and mattered only to mushy-minded moralists. Only vast forces “make history,” forces energized by power that overwhelms moral niceties over and over again. Le-Chambon-before-the-war-634x397[1]“Nothing happened at Le Chambon,” the letter concluded, at least nothing worth paying much attention to.

Hallie admits that “the moral brilliance of the villagers does not light up the moral darkness around the village as much as it makes that vast darkness seem darker by contrast.” Individual and collective acts of moral bravery in the face of inhumanity, terror, and violence often appear to have no greater impact than spitting into the face of a hurricane. Force can only be met by greater force, violence often can only be thwarted by violence. Hallie himself was a combat artilleryman in the European theater during World War II, and writes “I knew that decent killers like me had done more to prevent the mass murders from continuing than this pacifist mountain village had done.” So in the real world, a world in which no one loves their enemies and no one turns the other cheek, why even try to think through violence within a framework of non-violence?

The world in which we live does not accommodate non-violence as a response to violence, peace as a response to aggression, apparent weakness as a response to power. Every attempt to institutionalize goodness and organize moral behavior ends up playing the same sort of power game that is supposedly being opposed. The message of the gospel is gutted every time it is joined to recognizably effective tools of power, even with the best of intentions. As followers of Jesus, we are saddled with a perspective and a call that is guaranteed to be a failure. Teachings_of_Jesus_6_of_40._parable_of_the_leaven._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible[1]And this should not be a surprise, since the whole Christian story is rooted in weakness, suffering, loss and apparent failure.

But this is what makes the presence of true faith and belief in this world so crucial. We are told in the gospels that “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Despite its apparent insignificance, yeast over time works its apparent magic on the lump of dough, changing it incrementally into something entirely different. Who would Jesus bomb? No one, because that is not the divine response to even the most horrific of evils. We are called to be present in the midst of it all, not proposing policies that God would endorse or solutions stamped with divine approval, but rather as witnesses of hope, of the possibility of transformation, and of an insistence that a better way is possible. As Philip Hallie wrote to his letter-writing critic, “thanks for your point of view. But something really did happen there.” We are called to be catalysts for changes that often are so small as to seem invisible. But as the proverb reminds us, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

A Hard Saying

Yesterday I introduced a bunch of college sophomores to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “Cheap grace” and “Costly grace,” the difference between committing verbally to one’s faith while allowing it to affect one’s life only on the surface level (cheap), and embracing the life-changing and completely disruptive things that will happen if one takes one’s faith seriously (costly). I likened the distinction to the difference between light beer and real beer. Light beer smells like and looks like beer, but upon taking one taste one will say “that isn’t real beer!” Neither is cheap grace the real thing.

In the Gospel of John, a number of Jesus’ followers complain after one of his teachings that “this is a hard saying; who can understand it?” When Jesus responds with a few more of his patented cryptic remarks, the writer tells us that “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These are not just hangers-on or fringe bystanders, looking to be entertained by another miracle. They are disciples, people who have been following Jesus for some time and have been witnesses to and recipients of the vast range of what the man has to offer. And they’ve had enough.

These frustrated former disciples have a point. I have to honestly admit that I might have gone with them. The sermon that causes them to finally fold up shop and go home is indeed a difficult one, wrapping up with the claim that only those who drink Jesus’ blood and eat his flesh will have eternal life. But this is by no means the only “hard saying” that they’ve heard from Jesus. From selling all you have being a prerequisite for following him, and letting your enemy smack both sides of your face while giving him your sweater to go with the coat he stole, to letting the dead bury the dead and hating your father and mother if you want to be his disciple, Jesus is full of “hard sayings.” Small wonder that Christians generally, lacking the guts to simply walk away, tend to water down and systematize the radical elements of the gospel into manageable directives. These reduced commands require behaviors and commitments that, although burdensome at times, can be carried out by any reasonably dedicated and sincere adult. For many of us, “this is a hard saying—who can understand it?” is not really a question of understanding at all. For we understand the hard sayings all too well, and conclude that they are just too much.

In October of 2006, the news of a shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA burst onto the nightly news. A neighborhood milkman carrying a small arsenal of weapons walked into the school and started shooting, killing five and wounding many more before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide. In the midst of deep grief, the interconnectedness of the Amish community was demonstrated through comprehensive mutual support and, most shockingly, immediate forgiveness. At a prayer service the night after the shootings, the Rev. Dwight Lefever of Living Faith Church of God said that earlier in the day he was in the kitchen of the shooter’s family home when an Amish neighbor came by. “He wrapped his arms around Charlie’s dad for an hour,” Lefever reported. “He said, ‘We will forgive you.’” The pastor’s conclusion: “God met us in that kitchen.”

For the past several years, I have included this tragic event and its aftermath as the central part of the midterm exam in my General Ethics class. I provide my students with a newspaper account of the Amish community’s reaction to the shootings, and then ask them to try to make sense of what happened, particularly of the immediate forgiveness offered to the shooter’s family, within the structures of the moral frameworks we have studied during the first half of the semester. They can’t do it. Furthermore, many of my mostly parochial-school educated students find something twisted, even offensive, in the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the murderer of their children. Comments range from “this is completely abnormal” to “these people are sick.” Over several semesters of this assignment, no student has yet commented favorably on a quote from a member of the Amish community included in the article: “Our faith tells us to act like Christ did on his way to the cross.”

Once shortly after reading the midterms, I was drinking a beer (not a lite one) with a colleague at the local watering hole on Friday afternoon, unwinding from the week. I described the reactions of my students to the behavior of the Amish, reactions that were still fresh in my mind. In response, he said “I also am shocked by what the Amish did, but I don’t know why. As a Christian, I should be shocked that I’m shocked. They are just trying to do what Jesus said to do.”

Perhaps I can excuse my 19-20 year old students for being unable to find a place for radical forgiveness in their moral worldviews, which have been heavily influenced not only by strong family connections but also by a culture of the self and Christianity on the cheap. But what about me, someone significantly older and more experienced than my students? As someone who has grappled with issues of Christian faith from my youth, my own temptation is to think of the Amish as über-Christians, somehow capable of moral heroics that normal persons such as I can only admire from a distance and not even aspire to. That rationale is particularly tempting because I, as many mainstream Christians, have been encouraged to think that it is the priests, pastors, monks, nuns, and missionaries who are the elite corps of Christians, freeing me to reduce expectations considerably.

But there is nothing in the Gospels to justify that easy out. Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow him does not contain a loophole or room for an amendment. Which brings me back to the beginning—“this is a hard saying.” Christ apparently demands everything of me, which is far more than I can give. I can’t love my neighbor as myself. I can’t love God more than I love Jeanne. I can’t sell all that I have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. It’s too hard, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that a lukewarm, watered-down version is sufficient. Maybe I’m one of those who should “walk with Him no more.”

But that’s not an option for me. I identify with the remaining disciples who asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So, where does that leave me? I want to follow. I can’t follow.

A still small voice offers a bit of hope. “Of course it’s too hard. Of course you can’t do any of these things. That’s the point. I can, and I am in you.” If divine love has indeed overcome the world, then perhaps it can even overcome me.

Taking a Moral Holiday

It has been a bit over three months since the Presidential election, just over three weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration. It seems like an eternity—time apparently only flies when you are having fun. There has been no end of unsolicited advice from all parts of the political and religious spectrum for those who, as I, are having a bit of a hard time figuring out both how to process what has happened and, more importantly, how to approach the days, weeks, and months ahead. I have, for instance, been told “You lost, so stop whining and deal with it!” (as if principled resistance and whining are indistinguishable), as well as “Why don’t you give him a chance? It may not be as bad as you think” (You’re right—it’s worse). But the response that disturbs me most is one that I’ve read frequently on Facebook from fellow Christians, both those who voted for the new President last November and those who did not. “I just fall back on believing that God is in control and that things will work out according to His plan.” I used to hear that sort of thing a lot when I was kid as a response to or explanation of any number of disturbing developments. I didn’t buy it then, and I still don’t.

As much as I would like to take a hiatus from the insanity that seems to accompany the new administration’s efforts on a daily basis, I am finding that the courses I am teaching this semester won’t allow it. As I reread a talk by William James in preparation for an upcoming class in my American Philosophy course, for instance, I found James discussing an issue that has arisen frequently over the years in my classrooms with students: for many persons of faith, the whole purpose of religious belief is the apparently attractive, but elusively vague, state of “comfort.” “It comforts me to believe in God,” someone will say, without specifying whether this comfort is a fuzzy hope about an afterlife, a sense of solidarity created by hanging out occasionally with people with similar beliefs, or a warm emotional attachment to believing that “it will all work out right in the end.” William James calls this theistic attitude “trust in the Absolute,” and faces it head on.

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying that their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is “overruled” already, we may . . . without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

There have been a number of times during the past several weeks when I have been tempted to take such a moral holiday. But if there ever was a time when persons of all faiths should not take a break from being on the moral front lines, this is it.

Pragmatist philosophers like William James often talk about the “cash value” of an idea, suggesting that the “truth” of an idea or belief is to be judged not by whether it matches up correctly to some objective fact of the matter, but rather by considering to what extent the idea or belief “works” or actually makes a difference in one’s life.

Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much.

The radical nature of this reinterpretation of what it means for something to be true becomes obvious when applied to faith and religion. In what does the truth of the theist’s “I believe in the existence of a good God” reside? Not in the comfort provided by believing that such a being actually exists in a heaven beyond the reach of human investigation, but rather in the difference this belief makes in the theist’s day-to-day life. Where the rubber of faith hits the road of real life, comfort is a scarce commodity. What matters is what my faith causes me to think and do in what William James calls “this real world of sweat and dirt,” noting that the services of the divine are needed not in a heaven “out there” somewhere, but “in the dust of our human trials.”

The fundamental problem with the attitude that “God is in control” or “We may not recognize it, but God has a plan” is that, for those of us who profess the Christian faith, we are God’s plan. Taking a moral holiday by wrapping ourselves in the platitude that God knows what God is doing is to deliberately ignore what the gospels tell us over and over again. We are the salt of the earth, we are tasked with caring for those who fall through the cracks, we are the way that God gets into the world. When those in power enact policies that harm the very persons for whom God cares the most, it is our responsibility to speak truth to that power in words and actions.

One of the ways that persons of faith often engage with the surrounding world is through prayer, which makes Colbert I. King’s opinion piece “Should we pray for Trump?” in Saturday’s Washington Post of particular interest.

Washington Post: Should we pray for Trump?

King reports that Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention advises us “to pray that Trump’s presidency is a ‘great and good one’ and that he flourishes in the civil arena,” while the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have concluded that Trump’s policies are “clearly demonic acts.” Quoting the Apostle Paul, the bishops advise their congregations to wrestle against “the rulers of the darkness . . . [and] spiritual wickedness in high places.” King himself says that his “humble prayer is that the President of the United States gets help,” similar to my wife’s prayer that “the damaged four-year-old inside the President’s adult body will be healed.”

My own experience with persons who pray (now sixty years and counting) reveals that prayer often becomes a way for persons of faith to take a moral holiday. Throwing a few words, formulaic or improvised, heavenward might seem to satisfy the person of faith’s obligation to engage with a world in which it often seems beyond our capacities to make a difference. But we are instructed by the Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing,” indicating an engagement and activity that goes far beyond a few set pieces offered at specified times. My relationship with prayer was tense and fraught my whole life until I realized that prayer is not an activity—it’s a state of being. It’s an attitude that, for me, means asking How do I bring the best of me, the divine that I know is my deepest me, into this day, this class, this essay, this conversation? What does the divine in me have to say about policies and decisions at the highest level of government that are an affront to what I believe God wants for all human beings?

“I trust that God knows what God is doing” is simply a platitude and an escape until I realize that when it comes to God’s engagement with the world, I’m it. We’re it. This is how God does it. Jesus loved the unlovable, healed the sick, challenged the powerful, and eventually paid the ultimate price for not taking a moral holiday. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew something about putting his life on the line, wrote: “Living confession does not mean the putting of one dogmatic thesis up against another, but it means a confession in which it is really a matter of life or death.” Lives are at risk—don’t go on holiday.

Saying What Cannot Be Said

I recently led a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. Job1A one of our weekly meetings, we were talking about Job’s reaction to what God has to say about the unfairness of Job’s suffering after many chapters of silence from the Divine end of things. I have heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you. Job, described by God to Satan in chapter one as the most righteous man on earth, has heard all about God. He knows the stories, the texts, the rules, how to worship, how to sacrifice—in short, Job has heard everything there is to hear about how to make God happy and stay on a good relationship with what is greater than us. None of that seems to matter as load after load of shit is dumped on Job, everything falls apart, and his complaints and demands for explanation meet with stony silence from on high.

When God finally does respond, the divine answer to Job’s questions boils down to “who the hell are you to ask for explanations from me?” god in whirlwindI’m God and you’re not, in other words. But the content of God’s response to Job’s complaints is not what has a lasting impact on Job. What changes his life is that for the first time, God is not something Job has just heard about second-hand. He now has had a first-hand, face to face encounter with God—and everything he has heard throughout his life pales in comparison. As members of the group engaged with Job’s description of this encounter, one person noted both that such experiences are indeed life-changing and that they are extraordinarily difficult to put into words. How is it possible to describe or explain such a powerfully personal experience, especially to those whose knowledge of the divine is entirely in the “I have heard of you” category? the unicornOne likely answer—it isn’t possible.

The discussion reminded me of a character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels who unexpectedly has a Job-like encounter that shatters his world. In The Unicorn, we are introduced to Effingham Cooper, a stuffy, well-intentioned but ultimately annoyingly foolish busybody. He sees himself as a man of action, striving for everyone to be happy, but actually through his actions is simply attempting to manipulate others and create the world around him in his own image. By literally immobilizing him in a quicksand-like bog, into which he has stumbled while on a twilight walk, Murdoch sets the scene for Cooper to have a revelation that is one of the most central passages in all of her twenty-four novels.

He could still feel himself slowly sinking. . . . He began to feel dazed and light-headed. . . . Max [a dying philosopher whose pupil Cooper once had been] had always known about death, had always sat there like a judge in his chair facing toward death, like a judge or like a victim. Why had Effingham never realized that this was the only fact that mattered, perhaps the only fact there was? If one realized this one could have lived all one’s life in the light. . . . Irish bogSomething had been withdrawn, had slipped away from him in the moment of his attention and that something was himself.

Effingham has lived his life to this point as most human beings do, under the impression that he is the center of the universe. Preparing for what appears to be his imminent demise, he’s faced with the possibility that perhaps his existence is not as important as he thought.

Perhaps he was dead already, the darkening image of the self forever removed. Yet what was left, for something was surely left, something existed still? It came to him with the simplicity of a simple sum. What was left was everything else, all that was not himself, that object which he had never before seen and upon which he now gazed with the passion of a lover. And indeed he could always have known this for the fact of death stretches the length of life. Since he was mortal he was nothing and since he was nothing all that was not himself was filled to the brim with being and it was from this that the light streamed. This then was love, to look and look until one exists no more, this was the love which was the same as death. Hman and donkeye looked, and knew with a clarity which was one with the increasing light, that with the death of the self the world becomes quite automatically the object of a perfect love.

Cooper is unexpectedly rescued (by a stranger leading a donkey, no less!), but his experience of near physical death provides a framework for spiritual insight. His physical entrapment has been the catalyst for recognizing that he has been psychologically and spiritually unfree. Sinking physically in the bog causes him to experience a sublime release from the burden of his own self-consciousness and self-centeredness. His moral rescue precedes his physical rescue. In an epiphany, the beauty of the universe is revealed to him through the momentary extinction of his own self-presence.

Cooper’s experience is a secular companion to the sort of encounter that Job has with a God who cannot be engaged second-hand. job and godBoth men have been brought by unexpected and unexplained circumstances to an experience and realization that shows what they previously thought they knew to be, at best, woefully inadequate. As the person in my discussion group suggested, the most important issue now is “What do I do with this?” How does one capture lightning in a bottle and channel this new energy going forward? We are not told much about Job’s life after his divine encounter other than that he gets everything back that he had lost.

In the case of Effingham Cooper, we find out a bit more—and it isn’t encouraging news. After his rescue, in the afterglow of the experience, he tries to explain his vision to three others, all of whom fail to understand. Sadly, but believably, the impact of his experience wholly fades. As much as we would like to believe that a transformative encounter with what is greater than us will be the catalyst for permanent and positive change, we still have to live out the rest of our mundane and normal days, weeks, months and years. There is no “once and for all” salvation from the self and ego—it is a piecemeal, imperfect and continuing process.

So how does one communicate the content of intensely personal and private transformative encounters? How does one say what cannot be said? One doesn’t. mustard seedInstead, a face to face encounter with the divine, with the infinite, must work itself out in the far less spectacular and far less dynamic grind of daily life. And this is as it should be. Even though most of us would prefer living from one energizing mountain top experience to the next, that’s not the way it works. There is a reason why the Kingdom of God is likened in Jesus’ parables to leaven, to a mustard seed, to salt, to things that work powerfully over time in unnoticeable ways. There is a reason why Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity publically. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, the divine works slowly and secretly in the world, embedded in human lives.

What Christians Get Wrong About Jesus

On July 5, 1838, in the middle of what he called “this refulgent summer,” during which “it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” thirty-five-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered what has come to be known as his “Divinity School Address” to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. At this time, the Divinity School was the acknowledged center of Unitarian thought; even though Unitarianism was close to the fringes of liberal Christianity, Emerson’s words were so stunning and radical that he wasn’t invited back to campus for 30 years (some sources say 40). As I reread the address for the first time in several years, in preparation for a class in the American Philosophy course I am teaching this semester, two things occurred to me almost simultaneously:

  • I completely understand why even the most liberal Christian scholars and professors at Harvard didn’t want this guy on campus.
  • I can’t believe how strongly I have come to agree with even the most “out there” parts of his address.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never been invited to give a talk at Harvard.

Emerson’s theme is what he calls “the religious sentiment,” a recognition that the moral law is present equally in each individual and that I am, as are all human beings, a part of something greater and sublime.

 This sentiment . . . is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish. The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and in the game of human life, love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God, interact . . . this sentiment is the essence of all religion.

Emerson seeks to convince us that “This sentiment is divine and deifying. showing the fountain of all good to be within.” In case one might think he is speaking hyperbolically, Emerson drives his point home: If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God. And, Emerson insists, almost without exception our human attempts to codify and systematize this sentiment—attempts that we usually call “organized religion”—have screwed things up.

Without fail, organized religions teach their adherents that the divine nature that is in all of us actually is only to be found in a limited number of human beings; the natural divinity in all human beings accordingly is “denied to all the rest, and denied with fury.” In the case of Christianity, the problem arises from a complete misunderstanding of and overemphasis on the person of Jesus.

Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion . . . an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.

The Harvard Divinity School faculty and graduates in the audience undoubtedly thought, with justification, that a Christianity that does not focus centrally on the person of Jesus hardly deserves the name.

But Emerson is just beginning. By raising the person of Jesus to exalted status, Christianity has managed to convince its adherents that God no longer speaks. Anticipating Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation fifty years later, Emerson tell his audience that

The Moral Nature, that Law of laws whose revelations introduce greatness—yea, God himself—into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.

The person of Jesus, the activities of the divine in the world, the miracles that accompanied God’s presence in human form, have been shut up between the leather covers of a book and ossified into doctrines and rituals. No wonder Emerson speaks favorably of the man who once told him privately that he felt as if he was doing something immoral when he attended Sunday services at his church.

So who was Jesus? Is Emerson one of those heretics who wants to sell Jesus to us as just another excellent teacher, a fine moral exemplar, an admirable human being but not divine? Hardly. Jesus’ greatness and uniqueness lie in recognizing who he truly was—and through this recognition each subsequent individual can find empowerment and inspiration.

Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’ . . . He was the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of man.

Emerson does not deny the truth of the Incarnation, the seminal and central truth of Christianity. Jesus was truly both human and divine. But his greatness lies in his awareness that this was not unique to him. Humanity and divinity belong together, and are fused in every human being. Jesus’ empowering gospel directive to his disciples was that they would do even greater works than his; his message to us is “Dare to love God without mediator or veil . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint man with Deity.” We would do well to remember Catherine of Genoa’s insight: “My deepest me is God.”

I smile as I imagine the faces of the faculty and graduates as they listened to Emerson’s message of radical incarnation. One can hardly build a functioning, hierarchical religion around the shockingly democratic idea that all human beings share the spark and the mark of the divine. Yet Emerson suggests that there remains an important place for teaching and preaching: “It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that God speaks, not spoke . . . the true Christianity is a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man.” Several years ago, my long dormant and atrophying faith awakened when I embraced the Incarnation story in a new way. God not only became human, but we human beings remain the only way in which God gets into the world. Jesus told his critics that “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Emerson’s radical but empowering insight is that each of us, once we embrace who we truly are, can say the same thing.

Turning Around

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

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

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

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

So I was somewhat taken aback by  a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute  scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books. I wrote more about this author not long ago:

http://freelancechristianity.com/strange-and-beautiful/

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

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

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

The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have  no desire to become anything with a recognizable  religious label other than  committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector. But I find that many of the Episcopalians I know are perfectly willing to accept into their circle persons with all sorts of religious histories (or none at all). As I often tell people unsure about the rules and limitations of Episcopal worship, if you have a pulse, you can participate in the Eucharist at an Episcopal church.

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

Playing with Fire

Somewhere I heard or read that one of the top television programs in Finland (or Sweden or Norway) is a few hours of watching a fire burn in a fireplace. I don’t know whether or not this is true—I would hope that my Scandinavian cousins might go for a real fire in a fireplace rather than one on a screen. But Google “fireplace youtube video” and you will find several dozen to choose from.

During the two-hour final exam in one of my classes a couple of years ago, I put a fireplace video on the big screen up front while the students worked on their exams. Nobody commented on what I thought was a stroke of genius. I didn’t notice a significant increase in the quality of the exams, but I’d like to believe that it might have reduced the stress a bit. There is something mesmerizing and comforting about such videos; the one I chose is complete with the crackling of the logs (and no elevator music in the background). It’s low maintenance, too. No heat, but no kindling, no mess to clean up, no chance of the fire jumping out of the fireplace and causing damage, and no burns. There’s a lot to be said for domesticated fire—except that it isn’t fire. That’s what usually happens when we try to domesticate something wild and dangerous. It becomes something else entirely.

Domesticating the wild and dangerous is a favorite and necessary human activity, beginning with the domestication of the small human barbarians we call “children.” As a child, my favorite character in the pantheon of classic Bugs Bunny characters was the Tasmanian Devil.Taz I lived vicariously through his uncontrolled and destructive energy. Who doesn’t occasionally wish for the opportunity to make a god-awful mess with impunity and without repercussions, just because you can? Mom doesn’t like the way I picked up my room? I’ll show you “picked up”! I whirl into a tornado of destructive frenzy, clothes and bedding flying everywhere, leaving a child-sized hole in the wall as I exit the scene. Dad doesn’t like my attitude?  I’ll show you an attitude, as I leave flying paper and debris in the wake of my Tasmanian exit through your floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Just as the Tasmanian Devil was an infrequent visitor to the Bugs Bunny Show (maybe once every third Saturday), tasmanian_devil_and_bugs_bunny_by_erickenji1so I wasn’t looking to be destructive on a regular basis. Infrequent and arbitrary scenes of total chaos would have been enough to keep everyone on edge and suitably respectful.

I thought of the Tasmanian devil not long ago when Psalm 29 was one of my morning psalms:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare . . .

dillardBroken cedars, whirling oaks, naked forests—sounds like the Tasmanian devil has been here. But for the most part, this is not the God we encounter in church (or anywhere else for that matter). As Annie Dillard writes, we tend to “come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though [we] knew what [we] were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.” We want contact with the divine, but not with the Tasmanian Devil deity or with the consuming fireGod that Deuteronomy and Hebrews describe as “a consuming fire.” We want a domesticated God that we can predict and perhaps control. Why is that?

In When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we opt for a domesticated God because we suspect that the alternative is too disturbing to consider. Religious history is littered with stories of those who asked to meet God face to face and barely survived to tell about it. “Many pray for an encounter with the living God. Those whose prayers are answered rarely ask for the same thing twice.” Persons of faith complain (frequently, endlessly) that God is silent, that no direct communication from the divine is ever forthcoming, at least not in a language anyone can understand. Just ask Job. But it just might be that God is silent because this is what, in our heart of hearts, we have asked for. As the children of Israel quaking in their boots at Mount Sinai after God’s direct communication, we would rather dabble around the edges, and we would much rather hire someone to represent God to us (and us to God) than take the face to face risk.

god is silentWe are not up to direct encounter with God. We want it but we don’t want it. We want to be warmed, not burned, except where God is concerned there is no such thing as a safe fire. Safe fire is our own invention. It is what we preach to people who, like us, would rather be bored than scared.

The next time I am in church I’ll have a hard time forgetting the YouTube video of a fireplace burning. A pleasant enough experience, I suppose, but offering nothing of the warmth and danger of the original. As we proceed through the various portions of the liturgy—Gloria, Sanctus, sermon, creed, confession, collection, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so on—Annie Dillard will be poking me in the side.

I often think of set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed . . . If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.

Indeed we would be—and attendance the following Sunday would be affected. Much better to pretend that we know what we are doing and that God somehow is entertained. Because the alternative—that God might actually show up and do something, including making us responsible for what we so blithely parrot every week—makes us uncomfortable. And above all else, human beings want to be comfortable.

holy the firmWhy do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? . . . On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. Annie Dillard

I Was a Stranger

A bit over a year ago, in the midst of the Presidential campaign that no one will ever forget, I found myself part of a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in. On that thread, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. The person she was likening to the exterminator in her analogy is now the President; last Friday he issued an executive order temporarily suspending immigration to this country, prohibiting immigration indefinitely from certain countries, and setting off a flurry of lawsuits, protests, and other sorts of push back. In the midst of it, I was reminded of a story from ancient Greek mythology thousands of years ago that raises the very challenging issues and questions that we find ourselves grappling with.

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen not long ago. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, the students offered various suggestions, ranging from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. A portion of Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, the people whom we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

Our former President once closed a prime time speech on immigration with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in such passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats