Category Archives: Christianity

Soul and Body

One of my favorite issues in philosophy is the mind/body problem–how do they relate, are they really a different as they seem, and what are the implications of the possible answers? Last week was Saint Augustine week in one of my classes, giving me the opportunity to examine once again my favorite philosophical issue through the lens of one of my least favorite philosophers. Here’s how I reflected on Augustine week a year ago:

Upon hearing that the high temperature for the next two days would be no more than thirty degrees, feeling with the wind chill like fifteen degrees, I was reminded a couple of weeks ago, first, that late autumn in New England does get cold and, second, that I am very different now than I was as a youth. Forty or fifty years ago in my native Vermont I would have welcomed the inexorable signs of impending snow; now I just think “shit. It’s going to snow soon.” I was reminded during my winter and spring sabbatical in Minnesota a few years ago just how beautiful a snowfall can be. Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHThe dazzling white layer of new fallen snow stayed a sparkling white for weeks on end rather than turning immediately into gray slush as it does in Rhode Island. Still, my preference would be for the one predictable effect of global warming to be that it will not snow anywhere I am for the rest of my life. But thanks to my usual random, six degrees of separation thought processes, thinking of snow gets me to thinking about human depravity. Really.

Many years ago while I was still in my twenties, an elderly theologian friend of my father’s (actually the old guy was probably only about ten or fifteen years older than I am now), upon hearing that images[2]I was preparing to study philosophy in graduate school and had affinity for Descartes, made what I at the time considered to be a completely uninformed comment. “The worst day in the history of Western thought,” he said, “was the day that Descartes shut himself up in his stove-heated room and started to think.” I’ve come to believe over the years that the old guy was right—except he was blaming Descartes for something that had been problematic for centuries before Rene was even born.

The problem my Dad’s friend was referring to is the idea that we human beings are, at the core, fundamentally schizophrenic creatures. In philosophy, this schizophrenia is called dualism, according to which the human being is a tenuous and on-Leaves-Where-Light-Eternal-Forever-Creation-Evolution-Explained-Life-Essense-Destination-Hell-Destroyed-Perish-Hades-Evil-Path-Up-Kingdom-Heaven-God-Path[1]temporary union of two very different things, soul/mind and body. Dualism has a long and powerful philosophical pedigree, including Plato and Descartes, two of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition. It has been highly influential and is also highly problematic. The sharp separation between mind and body is both psychologically disturbing, in that it provides little guidance as to how integration between the various parts of a person is to be accomplished, and philosophically incoherent, in that it divides reality into camps that not only are different in substance but are actually often at crossed purposes. Dualism lays the groundwork for a science that ignores the spiritual, a philosophical materialism that belittles the notion of anything other than what is directly in front of us, and a spirituality that downgrades the physical or even considers it as evil.

Christianity developed in a world in which the dominant philosophical framework, Platonism, was radically dualistic; the structure of a good deal of traditional Christian doctrine continues to carry dualistic scars. The week before Thanksgiving I was responsible for introducing a bunch of freshmen to 528548498_c09abc47c8_z[1]Augustine of Hippo, a lecture followed for the rest of the week by two-hour seminar investigations of his thought. Augustine is second only to the apostle Paul in his influence on the development of early Christian doctrine and belief. Let’s just say I am not a fan. Augustine is one of those influential figures who cannot be ignored, although I would love to. Instead, I usually am able to deflect the “Introduction to Augustine” lecture to a theology or literature colleague on whatever team I am a member of in the interdisciplinary program I teach in and direct. But this year there was no one else to turn to, so for the first time in years it was up to me to provide a imagesCA0Q6L4PFox News-like “fair and balanced” introduction to a guy I really don’t like. Oh well, that’s why we college professors earn the big bucks (or not).

The assignment for the day was Books I-III of Augustine’s Confessions, one of the most influential works in the vast sweep of Western literature. With it Augustine invented a genre of literature as well as a method of theological investigation infused by philosophical acumen. These early books of Confessions are Augustine’s selective memoir of his years from infancy to early adulthood.  As I reviewed the text I was reminded of why I find Augustine so disturbing. The focus of Augustine’s attention is always on the dark side of human nature, on whatever it was inside of him that caused him to always be attracted to what is wrong rather than what is right, evil rather than good. Ranging from his conviction that, as all infants, imagesCAWCU9UWhe showed signs of maladjustment to the good from birth, through his obsession with the simple theft of a bunch of pears during his adolescence, to his withering self-criticism over his attraction to the theater as an early adult, Augustine never moves far from an obsession with what John Calvin, many centuries later, will describe as “utter depravity.” Indeed, I told my freshmen the other day that Augustine was actually the first Protestant, one thousand years early. To seal the deal, I likened Augustine’s attitude concerning human nature to Martin Luther’s likening of God’s grace applied to human nature as similar to a fresh layer of new fallen snow covering a pile of shit. 220px-Luther46c[1]Divine grace covers a multitude of sins, and a sufficient amount of snow can cover an awful lot of shit. And guess who the pile of shit is?

Augustine seriously bothers me because I grew up in a family, community and world infused with Augustine-like energies. Negative, suspicious, self-absorbed and obsessed with even the slightest aroma of sin, particularly of the sort that involved the body. My problem always was that I didn’t feel like a bifurcated being—my mind and body seemed to work together pretty well—and I sort of liked things made of matter. Painting-central[1]I didn’t find out until college that the debate about the relationship between soul and body is at the heart of philosophy from the beginning, with Plato arguing for dualism and his star pupil Aristotle saying “not so much.”

As challenging as these issues are in philosophy, they become even more pressing when considering the relationship between humans and what is greater than us. Dualism not only offers a skewed and problematic map of reality, but also fundamentally contorts and deforms the very heart and soul of Christian belief—the Incarnation. If believing that God became human means anything, it means that the greatest and most cosmic dualistic split of all—the one between human and divine—has been healed. The divine response to human failings is not to cover them up but rather to transform the human by infusing it with the divine. The mystery of transcendence and immanence remains, but the promise of the Nativity to come is all about immanence—God with (and in) us.

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In the Presence of a Prophet

The third Sunday of Advent is always John the Baptist Sunday. In his homily yesterday, the new priest at our little Episcopal church said “When you’re in the presence of a prophet, you’ll know it.” Odd, quirky, direct, hearing a different drummer. Tell me about it. I spent the first seventeen  years of my life in the house of a prophet and have spent much of my adult life trying to deal with the ramifications.

Igrand tetons national park 2[1]n a beautiful, crystal clear June afternoon I sat in an alpine meadow at the foot of the spectacularly majestic Grand Tetons in northwestern Wyoming. A handful of family was gathered to pay final respects to and spread the ashes of my father,17251_297220732720_3663220_n[1] who had died a few months earlier. On the porch of my brother’s house that morning, I had considered what scripture text might be appropriate to read as we honored a man who had memorized massive amounts of scripture in his lifetime, a man whose life and teaching had been a catalyst of liberation in the lives of many for whom the traditional church no longer gave life, and with whom I had maintained a tenuously “okay” relationship for most of my life. My brother was always closest to my Dad, but it fell to me, the academic one, to find the suitable text. Sitting on a rock in that meadow next to my son Justin, who could barely keep his emotions in check, I read the following verses from Isaiah that were yesterday’s Old Testament reading, verses that had jumped off the page through my tears that morning:

0070-Isaiah-61[1]The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,

Because the Lord has anointed Me

To preach good tidings to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the prison to those who are bound . . .

To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion,

To give them beauty for ashes,Beauty for Ashes[1]

The oil of joy for mourning,

The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;

That they may be called trees of righteousness,

The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.

Scholars will tell us that these verses are prophetic of the Messiah to come, but my father would have embraced this text as descriptive of his own calling, particularly to “proclaim liberty to the captives” whose lives had been stagnated or ruined by organized religiomad.eagle_.image_[1]n. As I choked my way through the reading on that summer afternoon—tears filled my eyes today, ten years later, as I typed the words into my computer–I knew that “Mad Eagle,” as we sometimes called  him when he wasn’t around, would have approved.

One of my favorite Biblical texts is from the Gospel of Luke and involves the passage from Isaiah that I read at my father’s memorial service. Jesus is fresh off his forty days and nights of temptation in the desert and returns to Nazareth, his home town. What better place to kick off his ministry? The scene is powerfully portrayed in the 1977 Franco Zeffirelli television mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.” It is the Sabbath, and Jesus is in the synagogue with wall-to-wall men and boys, while the women of the town observe from behind a screen. Although it is apparently not his turn to read, Jesus steps to the front and takes the scroll. After a pregnant pause, he begins to read. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor . . .” Exactly the same verses from Isaiah that I read in that alpine meadow a decade ago. When he is finished,66461_570623672965898_345802370_n[1] Jesus rolls up the scroll, makes eye contact with the congregation, and says “Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled.”

As the camera slowly pans the faces of those at the synagogue, their expressions pass from piety, to confusion, to outrage and anger. For every man and woman present knows that this scripture can only be fulfilled by the Messiah. And they know who this man is. He is Mary and Joseph’s son. He is a carpenter—a bit odd at times, but just like they are. Nazareth is an insignificant town in an insignificant backwater of the eastern Roman Empire. “I remember when I chased you out of my bakery for stealing a cookie,” one thinks. “I remember when I had to break up a squabble between you and my son when you were teenagers,” thinks another. And he has just declared himself to be the son of God. No wonder they tried to kill him.

Christians believe that, despite the appropriate incredulity of his fellow worshippers on that Sabbath, Jesus was indeed the Messiah, God in flesh. Remarkable and astounding. But even more remarkable is that these twenty-five hundred year old words from Isaiah were not only fulfilled by Jesusandretti-01G[1]—they continue to be fulfilled by God in human form. Isaiah’s prophecy foretells a time when healing, justice and liberation will be brought to the sick, oppressed and prisoners. That time is now, and we are the vehicles of that healing, justice and liberation. Our world is full of the poor, the bound, those who mourn, those who are in captivity both physically and mentally. We live in a world crying out for liberation, peace, and consolation at every level. So often we wonder where God is, where the divine solution to the never-ending problems and tragedies of our world is to be found.

But we miss the clear answer to our questions. Joan Chittisterdf66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] writes that “having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.” We are to be the oil of joy for those who mourn, to be the beauty in the midst of ashes, and to wrap the heavy of heart in the garment of praise. As the closing prayer in each Eucharistic celebration in the Episcopal liturgy asks, “send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Amen.freedom[1]

Loving Your Life

breadofangels[1]I recently finished re-reading Stephanie Saldana’s 2010 book The Bread of Angels, a book that has made the rounds in my house over the past two or three years. Jeanne and I have both read it twice; in between our first and second readings, a theology department colleague of mine had it on loan from Jeanne for over a year. Although I often describe myself as someone who reads for a living, I seldom read a book that I am not teaching out of more than once. But after returning from a week-long silent retreat, Jeanne told me “you have to read The Bread of Angels again.” So as a dutiful husband, that’s what I did.

74862_saldana_stephanieThe very appropriate subtitle of The Bread of Angels is “A Journey to Love and Faith,” described on the flyleaf as “the unforgettable memoir of one woman’s search for faith, love, and the meaning of her life in the place she least expects to find it.” In the Fall of 2004, after several years as a journalist and finishing a Master’s degree in Religious Studies at Harvard, Stephanie Saldana travelled to Syria on a year-long Fulbright scholarship to study Arabic. She is a restless wanderer, seeking God, relationship and professional happiness, while at the same time running from a dark family history and her latest failed relationship. IMG_7338%20(2)[1]Her story is both poignant and inspirational—I won’t spoil much of it for you. Of particular interest for today’s essay is her visit to Deir Mar Musa, a monastery of the Syriac Catholic rite in west-central Syria. Stephanie had visited this ancient monastery, literally carved out of rocky cliffs in the desert, during a previous trip to the Middle East; during Advent of 2004 she travelled to Mar Musa from Damascus for an intense, several week-long retreat shaped by the rigorous 1363206338_st-ignatius[1]“Spiritual Exercises” of Ignatius of Loyola, the training manual for the Jesuits.

At the end of her retreat, Stephanie was convinced that she was called to become a nun at this monastery upon her return from visiting her family in Texas for the Christmas holidays. But her trip to the US confused her, shook her resolve, and upon returning to Syria and the monastery in the New Year she informs the abbot that she is no longer certain of her decision to enter holy orders. During a conversation with Frederic, a young novice monk from France, Stephanie shares her uncertainty. In response, Frederic says “Stephanie, you know, I never really thought that you should become a nun.” Hurt, Stephanie wants to know why? 4836182549_cb689b8790_z[1]“Because you don’t believe in the resurrection,” Frederic replies. “You don’t love your life.”

I am much more of a marker of my books than Jeanne, but in the margin next to “You don’t believe in the resurrection . . . you don’t love your life,” Jeanne wrote “WOW” in big capital letters. Putting loving one’s life and resurrection into the same sentence, let alone implying that they are roughly the same thing, is unusual to say the least. In a recent Sunday gospel, Jesus tells various people who want to follow him that unless they are willing to leave their lives entirely behind, they cannot be his true disciple, and in John’s gospel Jesus says that “he who loves his life will lose it, but he hates his life will find it.”

And then there’s the story of a landowner whose fields are so fruitful that he has to tear down his barns and build larger ones in order to create room for “all my grain and my goods.” image14[1]A first century success story, in other words. Nothing wrong with  being successful, I suppose, but then the guy says to himself “You have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” To which God replies, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Well we certainly saw that one coming. If there’s anything that is clear from  Jesus’s stories and teaching, it is that God does not like complacency, smugness, or self-satisfaction. With God, one is never “all set” (as Rhode Islanders like to say). The rich landowner had built a life that, by most human standards, was one to be envied and admired. He probably “loved his life.” And look what happened to him. He is a perfect illustration of what Jesus tells his disciples on another occasion—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Which makes Frederic’s equating believing in the resurrection with loving one’s life all the more difficult to understand. Stephanie is a bit offended, more than a little confused, and takes his cryptic challenge with her from the monastic mountain into her real life in Damascus. 11917594[1]Strangely, the project of learning Arabic—the supposed reason for Stephanie’s presence in Syria—begins to take on an entirely new form. The vocabulary she has learned from her studies thus far—“disciples,” “Lamb of God,” “salvation,” and the like—are of little use in the marketplace. Upon her return from the monastery, she decides to walk the streets instead of going to class, learning the words for “drinking straw,” “knife,” “afternoon,” “carrot,” colloquial phrases that everyone uses but that are never in a text-book, and how to swear like an Arabic longshoreman. Stephanie, in other words, starts learning Arabic rather than learning about it. She is living the language rather than taking vocabulary quizzes—her first lesson in living her life rather than studying about it as if it were something separate from her.

And this is what Frederic had in mind when he said that only someone who loves her or his life truly believes in the resurrection. Because the whole point of the resurrection, Jesus’s conquering of death, was to make it possible for the divine to be embedded in our daily lives. Living a life of faith has little or nothing to do with learning the correct vocabulary, the canonical phrases, the accepted rituals. It rather has to do with infusing the daily with the divine that is the gift in us. The rich landowner’s mistake was not that he was successful and rich. It was not even that he was happy with his life. It was rather than he loved the wrong things about his life—his money and his apparent security. In the divine economy, success is measured by the extent to which I am willing to bring God into each corner of my life, even the dark and neglected ones, and learn to love and celebrate my life because God is an inextricably intimate part of it.582065_10100209799357518_242097842_n[1] As Frederic tells Stephanie on another occasion concerning her choice to follow Christ: “Your choice doesn’t mean anything until it becomes incarnate, until you take it back into the world.”

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That Hopey Changey Thing

CyprianCyprian Consiglio, the Benedictine monk, theologian, hermitage prior and musician who ran the retreat I attended in Minnesota a few weeks ago, defines “liturgy” as “ideology in action.” Annie Dillard defines it as a collection of words and phrases that human beings over the centuries have been able to address to God without getting killed (she also suggests that we should wear crash helmets to church).Annie Dilard I like both of these definitions. I have a deep resonance with liturgy, especially liturgy expressed in music, something surprising given that there was none in my Baptist world growing up. Although “ideology” is usually something I accuse people I disagree with of embracing, Cyprian’s definition reminds me that at its core, ideology is simply the collection of beliefs, stories, ideas and commitments, some conscious and some unconscious, that guides a person’s actions and frames a person’s life. We are all ideologues. Liturgical frameworks provide a container that shapes this collection with reference to what is greater than us. Annie’s definition is a reminder that the very attempt to say or do anything with content and meaning referring to what is greater than us is at best misguided, at worst ridiculous.

004Of the many varieties of liturgical celebration I have encountered over the past few years, including a number of them at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (the Benedictines know how to do liturgy better than anyone), the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service I have experienced twice with the monks at the Abbey. On Good Friday afternoon there is the large, austere three-hour service permeated primarily with silence and capped by kissing the cross that certain sorts of Christians are fond of (I’m not one of them). But at 7:00 in the morning, the Good Friday morning prayer service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations from the Jewish scriptures. lamentationsNot familiar with that book? That’s probably because it’s the most depressing book in the Bible—perhaps anywhere. Lamentations is a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment. “And have a nice day”—except that Good Friday isn’t supposed to be a nice day, so the twenty-minute dirge is appropriate.

In last Friday’s post I was anticipating the service that would take place that afternoon in our campus’ main chapel in memory of our beloved colleague and friend Siobhan who died far too soon in an automobile accident the day before Thanksgiving.

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As I settled into my seat with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor ross-siobhan-headshotSiobhan and celebrate her life, I noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will give us the unwelcome advice that we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we feel.” But I had forgotten that just about half way through the poems, Jeremiah comes up briefly for air.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

A few years ago a dynamic, fresh new face burst onto the American political scene promising “Hope and Change”; not long afterwards Hopey ChangeySarah Palin, not particularly enamored of this new guy, snarkily asked “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Politics aside, it’s a good question. The Apostle Paul famously wrote “Now abide faith, hope and love—but the greatest of these is love.” The editor of First Corinthians took out something else Paul wrote: “But sometimes the toughest of these is hope.”

Advent is the liturgical season of hope—my favorite of all the liturgical seasons because it means that the semester is almost over, I like purple, enjoy the Advent carols that only come around once a year, appreciate the opportunity to do something other than slog through the interminable Ordinary Time that has been going on since May, and because I am by nature a very hopeful person. But it has been a bit of a tough sell for me lately, with seemingly daily evidence that the world is a mess, no one has the capacity or wants to do anything about it, then a tragic reminder that human life is fleeting and even the best can be taken away in a moment. “NPRThe world really sucks,” my lovely wife commented as we listened to NPR the other morning on the way downtown to the bus station so she could catch a ride to NYC for a weekend with her sister whose husband just died. And it does suck. But if we are willing to poke our heads even momentarily up from the shit, Lamentations tells us that hope is always appropriate—and is a choice.

I spent a beautiful ninety minutes last Saturday evening at Providence College’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols Service, which always opens with a beautiful Advent hymn:lessons and carols

O come, divine Messiah!

The world in silence waits the day

When hope shall sing its triumph,

And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;

Come, come to earth,

Dispel the night and show your face,

And bid us hail the dawn of grace. 

Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

According to Lamentations, we have reason to hope if we choose to have it. And the reason to hope will not be found in external events, which will be as they will be. Hope finds its home in waiting, in silence, in emptiness, and in the conviction that there is more going on than meets the eye. There are as many ways to nurture the space of quietness and silence within as there are people containing that space. Our task is to be ready, to prepare a space for hope and promise to be nurtured, even when every external indicator is that there is no reason to hope. As Lao Tzu wrote,lao tzu

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

I was taught as a child that I should find a place for the Christ child in my heart. I don’t exactly use that language any more, but I know what it means.

You come in peace and meekness,

And lowly will your cradle be;

All clothed in human weakness

Shall we your Godhead see.

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Wake Up!

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to observe a colleague in class, something I get to do with junior, non-tenured faculty as a program director on a regular basis. images[2]The topic of the lecture was various aspects of post-modern philosophy, a topic that promised to stun all those in attendance, me included, into soporific silence. But my colleague used PowerPoint and YouTube masterfully to provide illustrations of his basic post-modernist point—contemporary human beings have become so disconnected from their surroundings and from each other that many of the signs that uniquely mark human existence have been lost.

11170767_800[1]A clip from the 2004 British zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” that has become a cult classic illustrates the point. Shaun, an electronics store employee with girlfriend problems, no respect at work, deadbeat friends and no direction in his life, leaves his flat one morning to walk a few blocks to the local convenience store for a Coke and an ice cream cone. As he shuffles the round trip in a half-aware stupor, he fails to realize even momentarily that the convenience store is empty except for a corpse in the aisle and the streets are becoming more and more filled with staggering, half-rotted zombies.

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There are literally no differences between this unaware person who is completely disengaged from his life and a zombie. And this, the post-modernists tell us, has become the human condition.

Sounds like a good time for Advent, whose call to us is the same as Paul’s call to the church at Ephesus: “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” This rising business has been an issue for me for as long as I can recall. One of my earliest memories is pretending to sleep in the back of the family car while riding the fifteen miles or so home from Sunday night church. It was a strange experience. In one way, I wanted the ride to last forever, since when I got home I’d be going to bed and as soon as I got up the next day I’d be starting a new week of school. Really, though, I remember the underlying emotion during that ride as fear. the-rapture[1]I was afraid I was going to die and go to hell. I was afraid Jesus would come back and I’d be left behind. I would miss the rapture. I’d pray and pray and pray for Jesus to save me, for me to be “born again” in the way that I was sure everyone in my family, everyone I knew, was but I was not. It was supposed to be easy—just ask Jesus to forgive your sins, trust in Him, and you were in. But somehow in my four or five-year old self I knew it wasn’t working.

So every Sunday night, as a natural follow-up to the meeting-concluding “altar call” at the end of the service (even though no “unsaved” outsider had darkened the door of the church in recent memory), I would have my own altar call curled up in the corner of the back seat. My biggest fear actually wasn’t going to hell—imagesCAIDT6GCit was that the rapture would occur and my whole family would disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving me and every other “un-born-again” person behind. This haunted me. If I came home on the bus after school and my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be in the house, my first thought was that she’d been raptured. I felt alone even when with lots of other people, because they all had something I didn’t have—they all belonged and I didn’t.

I got over my rapture-phobia at some point in my adolescence. It’s a good thing, because otherwise yesterday’s readings for theimagesCANGF52X first Sunday of Advent would have scared the shit out of me. “But about that day and hour no one knows . . . two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” I’ve often said that Advent is my favorite liturgical season; I love its call to centeredness, to watchfulness, to expectation, its hymns and its purple. But these texts, apparently intended to scare us into straightening out our crooked ways, are disturbing. Fundamentalist minister and author images[7]Tim LaHaye and others have made millions cashing in on such fear in his Left Behind book series and accompanying paraphernalia.

Assuming for a moment that Advent isn’t about scaring the shit out of us, what are we really being called to consider with such texts? Something Paul says to the church at Rome is helpful. “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep . . . the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” WAKE UP!!! in other words. The default human condition so often is to sleepwalk through our days, months and years. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard memorably captures the challenge of Advent:

pilgrim-tinker-creek-annie-dillard[1]There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

The divine word of Advent is that big change is coming. I’m about to do something totally out of the box. “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead.””Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Will we even notice?

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Get Thee Behind Me, Santa

Today is Black Friday, on my shortlist of candidates for the stupidest day of the year. Would that there had been lines outside the polling places a few weeks ago as long as those lined up outside Walmart, Target, Toys ‘R’ Us and other cathedrals of capitalism this morning. A bit over a year ago I reflected on related issues. Enjoy, and happy day after Thanksgiving!

Autumn is my favorite season, and this year’s version in New England has been even more beautiful than most. But all things must unfortunately come to an end, and now in mid-November the leaves have just about all fallen. Even for our small postage-stamp yard, this means raking of leaves. images[2]Last year, in a purported nod toward the fact that I am in my later fifties, but really because I thought it would be fun, I purchased a leaf-blower. And it is fun, so much so that yesterday I found it easy to be a good neighbor and take care of the leaves in our neighbor’s half of the driveway that we share as I was blowing a pile of them from our half toward the road. I’m not sure that I would have been as neighborly had I been armed with a rake rather than a blower.

This was my third, and probably final, leaf-blowing-and-bagging event of the season and I realized before the event that I needed another package of large paper bags for bagging purposes. Upon entering the neighborhoodLowe's Sanford Store #3608 Reopening Lowe’s and heading for the place where blowers, bags and rakes were two weeks ago when I bought bags the last time, I was immediately disoriented. Autumn leaf-control tools and accessories had been replaced by mass quantities of the worst that commercial Christmas has to offer. Fake trees, gaudy and tasteless lawn decorations and tree ornaments had taken over the right front quadrant of the store, supported by the ever-offensive strains of Xmas muzak in the background. WHAT THE FUCK!!!??? I thought, as I do every year about this time when I am smacked in the face by the Ghost of Capitalist Christmas for the first time in the season. Halloween was just two weeks ago! Thanksgiving isn’t for another ten days! Thanks for making me hate Christmas all over again, Lowe’s!

This experience brought a recent email exchange with a colleague to mind. As the director of a large interdisciplinary academic program, and as the chair of several college committeesdeakin_large[1], I am often forced to remind various colleagues who report to me that deadlines are not suggestions or optional. Here is a recent email exchange:

Me: Are you going to be able to get your reviews up on the website by the end of the week? Please say yes—that’s the deadline, you know.

Colleague: I know, Vance, I know . . . I was in Maine for a funeral over the weekend. I will definitely get everything in by Friday, if not earlier. When I got back I read your reminder email to everyone from last week and felt very guilty and ashamed that I hadn’t even started my reviews.

Me: Good. Part of my job is to indiscriminately spread shame and guilt everywhere like some evil Santa Claus.

Colleague: Get thee behind me, Santa!

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not aligning myself with the forces resisting the supposed War_on_Christmas[1]“War on Christmas” that certain folks annually claim is being fought by political and social liberals such as myself as part of a continuing effort to make atheism the religion of the land. The most recent salvo in the war against the war on Christmas is Sarah Palin’s Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. I won’t be reading this book, but I’m quite confident that I know the general thrust of her argument, if she bothers to have one.good-tidings-great-joy_zps3892bf56[1] Liberal atheist grinches are out there trying to steal our crèches, monitor our language so that we will be embarrassed to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” or “How are you doing during this lovely Holiday season,” and make it a thought-crime to think about the baby Jesus. I find this paranoia amusing, sad, or maddening depending on my mood. If one’s faith is rattled by such matters, one has larger issues to confront than the possibility that not everyone shares one’s faith. The Incarnation that I celebrate at Christmas is at the center of what I believe concerning God—whether an oversized fake baby with a halo and pious expression gets to lay in a manger while observed by imagesCAWOLV2Cother pious statues and animals on the front lawn of city hall doesn’t have much effect on that belief.

No, my WTF? annual response to Christmas crap in early November is not about protecting Christmas from the evil, liberal atheist hordes with whom I probably share a great deal more in common than with those resisting the imaginary war on Christmas. My interest is in pushing back against the evil designs of Santa. This is a scary guy who continually finds ways to invade my physical and mental space uninvited. Think about it:

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you are awake

Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is SantaimagesCAV5HLBR, the most persistent stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be disconcerting and creepy.

The Christmas tune aside, I no longer think that Santa Claus is my moral judge, nor do I believe that he monitors my sleeping habits—for many those concerns have simply been transferred to the cosmic image[1]Santa Claus called God. I have had continuous confirmation from various classes this semester that in the minds of many persons, Santa Claus and God have become indistinguishable. And what more insidious undermining of an adult, vigorous, intelligent faith could there be—the divine turned into a fat guy with a beard who can be bribed by good behavior into fulfilling even the most trivial desires? A jolly elf who effectively seduces millions of people every year into believing that and behaving as if the best place to celebrate Christmas is in one of our Providence-Mall[1]contemporary cathedrals of worship—the shopping mall. Get thee behind me, Santa, indeed.

The war on Christmas has been underway for a long time, waged not by liberal, politically correct atheists seeking to undermine traditional values, but rather by the insidious and inexorable pressure to trivialize and commodify everything. The heart of Christmas is no more present in lawn ornaments, “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” slogans, and “Merry Christmas” lapel buttons than it is in the extravaganza of holiday paraphernalia that screams at me every time I drive down the street or walk into a store between Halloween and New Year’s Day. The heart of Christmas is in the silent mystery of the Incarnation, in the strange and beautiful ways in which the divine chooses to enter our world in human form on a daily basis. There are many ways to connect and resonate with the heart of Christmas—Santa is not one of them.evil_santa[1]

Myths and Stories

I spent two hours of seminar last Friday with twelve honors freshmen enjoying the wonders of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source of many of my favorite stories as a child. I was so taken with ancient mythology that I read it in secret at times I was supposed to be reading the Bible. The seminar reminded me of one of my earliest posts on this blog a couple of years ago–how stories shape our lives.

Some of my favorite stories growing up come from Greek and Roman mythology. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was one of my regular reading companions–sort of like a mid-twentieth century Ovid–so much so that my parents must have replaced a torn and worn out copy with a new one at least three times. What’s not to like? Action, violence, sex—they were better than comic books! The Olympian deities are gigantic projections of human beings, with all of our strengths and shortcomings, likes and dislikes, jealousies and kindnesses, massive egos and even more massive insecurities. Human beings in these stories, if they are smart, look (usually unsuccessfully) look for a place to hide when the deities start throwing their divine weight around, as the fallout frequently lands on unwitting and innocent mortals. Yet occasionally mortals are able to manipulate the blundering gods and goddesses by offering the right sacrifice, stroking the right part of a divine ego, making deals that the less-than-omniscient deities fail to recognize as guaranteed to end in results that will thwart their purposes. I think the main reason I took four years of Latin in high school was simply because it gave me to opportunity to be immersed deeply in the ancient myths. I spent fourth period senior year with Ms. Thomson and one other Latin geek translating large portions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—nothing better.

My mother used to occasionally try to get me to put down Edith Hamilton and pick up my Bible. But I knew the Bible stories backwards and forwards from the hours and days spent in my home away from home, church—I’d even memorized a lot of the dialogue and plots of these stories (in King James English, of course). My mother worried that I wasn’t paying sufficient Baptist homage to the Bible stories as opposed to the pagan Greek stories. When she couldn’t pry me away from Edith, she would say “you know, of course, that these are only stories?” Opposed, that is, to the stories in the Bible, which are true, meaning that they are factual reports of things that really happened, not stories at all. As a good son, I paid lip service to the distinction that my mother, out of concern for her heretic-in-the-making son, was insisting upon.

But I never bought it. The stories in the Old Testament (by far the most interesting Bible stories to a young kid) were just too much like the Greek and Roman myths for me to make a sharp distinction. God in the Old Testament is just as arbitrary, whimsical, loving, nasty, powerful, and petty as the various Greek deities. He gets into arguments and debates with various mortals and sometimes loses. He sometimes gets into a snit and goes silent, while at other times you just wish He’d shut the hell up and leave people alone. If a skilled psychologist sought to identify all of the various, conflicting personalities of God in the Old Testament, I’m sure they would be at least as great in number as the residents of Olympus. The “truth” of the Bible stories for me did not depend on whether they “really happened”—they were true because they rang true in a deep place.

At a very young age, for instance, I resonated with Jacob in Genesis; he’s still my favorite character from the Bible. As the younger of two sons, I identified with Jacob’s preference for his mother and for hanging around the house rather than going out hunting and killing things, something my older brother did with my Dad. Jacob’s ability to regularly outsmart and manipulate his doofus older brother Esau rang true, because I was sure I could get my equally challenged doofus older brother to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was sure that if Baptist fathers gave special and exclusive blessings to oldest sons, I could get my older brother to hand over his blessing in exchange for a can of soup. Jacob is persistent and smart, but he’s also a conniver and occasionally has a very difficult time being truthful and transparent to himself and others. He loves his family, but some of them more than others. He’s courageous at times and a total chicken at others. He wants to know God, but wants to write the script according to which that knowledge will unfold. Every time the divine breaks through in a vision or dream, Jacob immediately wants to nail it down and contain it by naming it. In other words, looking back, my original attraction to Jacob makes a lot of sense, because he’s a lot like me.

A couple of years ago, when I read Kathleen Norris’ definition of  “myth” in Amazing Grace as “a story that you know must be true the first time you hear it,” I was jerked up short. I knew this definition to be true the first time I read it. In ethics classes with nineteen to twenty-one-year-olds who are predominantly survivors of twelve years of parochial education, I lean heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight that we human beings are “story telling animals”—we understand ourselves and each other by telling stories. Through the stories we tell, we make sense of our past and do our best to recreate the world by telling better and better stories projected into the future. We are lived stories, in the middle of a “never-ending story” with themes and characters that we catch only brief glimpses of. At the outset of The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a rabbi who confesses to a young listener that he’s old, his memory is failing him, and all he can do is tell stories. But, the rabbi concludes, “It is sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories.”

If my mother were here (and how often I wish she were), I’d try to convince her, with scholarly support from Plato through Nietzsche to Rorty, that my childhood conviction was right, that the stories from ancient mythology and from the Bible are true in the same, human affirming and life defining ways, mirrors of what we as human beings are and suggestions of what we can hope for and perhaps become. I’d end with “Q.E.D., Mom–What do you think of that?” And she’d reply, “That’s wonderful, honey, but the stories from the Bible are really true.”

the other

I Was a Stranger

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a 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 last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged 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. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who 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.

Yesterday’s passage from Matthew 25 is 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.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform the other day, President Obama closed 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 these 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

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Celebrating Life

I recently submitted two grant proposals related to my sabbatical that will begin next July. The stakes are high–especially since I don’t handle rejection well. But I am a bit better at it than I used to be, thanks to something that happened toward the end of my last sabbatical . . .

There’s nothing more pitiful than a grown man feeling sorry for himself. But that’s where I found myself a few years ago while on sabbatical. My first conscious thought upon awakening was of the email I received the night before informing me that Icollegeville-inst1[1] had not been accepted into a summer writing workshop at the Ecumenical Institute where I was spending my sabbatical, a workshop that I really really really wanted to be part of. My career in academia has mercifully been almost rejection free, and it’s a good thing because I don’t handle rejection well. Despite learning from the email that there had been 141 applications for 12 slots, I took the “no” as a negative judgment about the whole me, from my ponytail to my shoes. This, in addition to my second conscious thought–“I only have nine days left here on sabbatical and then I’m leaving this place I’ve come to love”–and my third thought– “I have an exit interview this morning with the Institute program director”– made for a less-than-fabulous morning.

Slouching in my usual seat in the choir stalls for noon prayer, I was definitely not in the mood. For the first time in the dozens and dozens of liturgies in which I had participated from that seat over the previous four months,100_0331 I didn’t feel like being there. The hymn was lame, followed as usual by a section from Psalm 119 extolling the wonders of God’s law and how fabulous it is to obey God’s word. Whatever.  One minute of silence. The second psalm was entirely forgettable, until the end when the solo monk for the day sucked some phlegm down his windpipe the wrong way. After several seconds of coughing and throat clearing, he finished the last three lines sounding like he’d been sucking on helium. No biggie, dude—happens to me all the time. One minute of silence. The third psalm, number forty-something, included the line “it is good that I was afflicted.” Oh really? Well if you were as afflicted as poor rejected me you wouldn’t have written that. Stand up and bow your head as you recite “Give praise to the Father Almighty . . .”.  Disobediently, I didn’t bow my head—what do they think I am, a sheep?

Sit back down, another minute of silence. Solo monk says “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia,” and we respond in kind, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia.” Stand up for the final prayer, which sounds like the grownups in the old Charlie Brown cartoons on television.charlie%20brown%20teacher[1]

“Wah, Wahwah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wawah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wahwahwahwah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

In the name of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,

Who lives and reigns and celebrates life

With You and the Holy Spirit,

One God, forever and ever, Amen.”

“Lives and reigns and celebrates life”??? That one I’d never heard before—I think solo monk added it impromptu for my benefit. In any event, it worked like the face slap in the old Aqua Velva commercials and got my attention—“Thanks, I needed that!” I guess I’d never thought of the Father, J.C., and the Holy Spirit celebrating life together as one God forever and ever. What would that look like? My first image is of a Gary Larson-like cartoon. Imagine a round table. Seated on the left is an old, somewhat overweight guy with shoulder-length white hair and big white beard, wearing a white robe and drinking 18-year-old Balvenie neat (he saves the 21-year-old for Sundays). In the middle facing you is a sandaled younger guy with dark hair, skin and beard, hoisting a pint of Guinness and saying “Brilliant!!” imagesCAR35IOXOn the right, facing the white-haired old guy, is a dove standing on the table and dipping her beak into a martini with two olives. I guess it says something about me that my first image of celebrating life involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but it’s definitely a way of celebrating life.

Well if they can celebrate life forever and ever, amen, I guess I can try it too. And the evening before the day in question, for five hours before reading the email that shall no longer be mentioned, I had been doing just that with friends. Two of my good buddies (a married resident scholar couple), 100_0369a guitar-picking monk who is a native of Montana and tends the monastery orchard, and me. Our conversation ranged from still-new President Obama’s controversial commencement speech at Notre Dame to abortion to politics at the Abbey, while eating salmon, potatoes, salad, and drinking lots of wine. We ended up sitting on the back patio overlooking the lake as it got dark.  100_0366In the dusk the lake became still and as calm as glass, reflecting the trees along the shore in upside-down perfection. Brother John serenaded us with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tunes, and talked about our colleague Conrad who had unexpectedly died (while pouring himself a martini) just a few days earlier. Conrad had loved this place, and thought it was a little bit of heaven. “I think this a bit of heaven too,” my friend said. If I believed in heaven, I would have agreed—but wait, that’s a different essay.

1852724[1]Then Brother John  started playing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” and I knew my friend was right—this was heaven. “Summertime” is a song that Jeanne sings beautifully; she had sung “Suzanne” with Brother John after a group dinner when she had visited me for a few days over Easter and he fell in love with her (he told me so in an email). I can understand that because over twenty years ago, two days after we met, Jeanne, my dad, and I were having drinks in a Wyoming lounge attached to the restaurant where we’d just had dinner (my boys went back to my folks’ condo with Grandmaw).Jeanne singing Jeanne went to the front and, accompanied by the resident lounge lizard on the piano, sang another Gershwin tune, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine.” I decided she was singing it to me and I fell off the edge of the cliff I’d been balancing on for the previous two days. I was in love. I didn’t tell her for another month, but hey, that’s pretty quick for me.

When I got back to my apartment that evening, I checked my email, got rejected, and stopped celebrating life. How stupid. I am an introverted celebrator—IMG_9677I’ll never suck the marrow out of every minute and second like my dachshund Frieda and some other people I know. My kind of celebration expresses itself in what Anne Lamott says is one of the two best prayers ever: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” (The other one is “Help! Help! Help!’) I have a lot to celebrate, as do we all, if I just remember to find it. I can’t promise that I can stick to it forever and ever, amen, but I can at least finish out the day.

As Good As We Make Them

Yesterday was midterm election day; last Sunday’s All Saint’s gospel reading was the Beatitudes from Matthew. A confluence of realities that don’t go together, right?

It is a scene so familiar in our imaginations that it has become iconic. In films, on television, the subject of countless artistic renditions, we are transported back two thousand years. It is a beautiful, cloudless day. 453a34c850f8_sf_3Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have gathered in the countryside from miles around; some have walked for hours. On the top of a hill in the middle of the impromptu gathering is the man everybody has been talking about and has gathered to check out. He doesn’t look any different from any number of other guys in the crowd. In spite of the stories that seem to pop up everywhere this guy goes, you would not have been able to pick him out of a crowd. Then he opens his mouth, and the world is forever changed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

We don’t know the details of the setting, of course—the traditional images are evocations of centuries of imagination. Maybe it was a cloudy and windy day. Maybe these words were spoken inside someone’s home or a synagogue. Maybe they were shared in private only with a few intimate friends and confidants. Maybe the man never spoke these words at all and they are intended as a brief summary, written decades after the fact, of how he lived and called others to live. beatitudesBut the Beatitudes, the opening lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel account, are so beautifully poetic, so rich yet sparse, so gentle yet powerful, so all-encompassing and embracing that over the centuries they have seeped into the Christian ethos as the summary expression, as the “mission statement” if you will, of a religion and all it professes to stand for. In many ways the Beatitudes are as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm—and this is unfortunate. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. Rome-4They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which these words came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. 240px-TissotBeatitudesThroughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and consistently throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is driven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate.  Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

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

An intriguing thought experiment, but ultimately the Beatitudes are not about transformed social institutions. They are about a transformational way of being in the world. The Beatitudes are far more than a beautifully poetic literary statement. They are the road map for how to carry our faith into the real world. The world we live in is no more naturally attuned to the challenge of the Beatitudes than was the world in which they were first spoken. Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyIndividuals infected with the energy of the Beatitudes are those whose responsibility it is to help transform reality. As Joan Chittister writes,

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, indexthe charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

Or as Annie Dillard tersely puts it, God’s works are as good as we make them. The Beatitudes are a call to get to work.