Category Archives: Development of Western Civilization

ring of gyges

Someone Would Know

mall bookstoreHey Justin! What if you had a ring that made you invisible when you put it on? Would you use the ring to take the books you’ve been wanting from the kid’s section at the bookstore the next time we go to the mall?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

In the summer of 1989, as I prepared for my first PhD-candidate solo flight in the classroom scheduled for the coming fall semester, I solicited advice from anyone and everyone in the philosophy department, from fellow grad students to those breathing the rarefied air of full professor, about what to include in my introductory level ethics class. There were as many “must do” suggestions as there were colleagues. But they unanimously agreed on one suggestion—I had to put Plato’s Ring of Gyges story from Book II of the Republic on the syllabus. A guy who finds a ring of invisibility and uses it to seduce the queen, kill the king, and become top dog in the kingdom of Lydia. Using my seven-year-old son as a guinea pig, I asked him what I would be asking my students in a few months—What would you do with the ring?

floating booksWho would know?

How are they going to explain the books floating out of the store?

Well, what if anything you touch or hold when you’re wearing the ring becomes invisible? Now would you take the books?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

I wrote last Friday about my belief that this little story tucked into the early pages of the Republic was the inspiration for the Ring of Power at the center of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an epic tale that teases out the moral issues and implications of such a scenario.Ring of power

A Trip to Middle Earth

The ring put immediate pressure on each person’s most sensitive areas—what do you really want? In what ways are you hindered from getting what you want by obedience to moral norms? What would you do if the pressure to abide by moral norms were lifted? Justin, living in a house with an academic father and step-mother, was a great lover of books and regularly received a “no” answer to his requests to buy more books when visiting the local bookstore (we were living on a tight graduate student budget, after all). The ring of invisibility would give him direct access to the world he really wanted—one filled with every book his heart desired.

empty bookshelvesJustin, who would know?

There would be spaces on the bookstore shelves where I took the books from.

So you fill those holes up with books from some other part of the store that no one’s looking at. Now would you take the books?

No.

WHY NOT?

Because someone would know.

More than twenty-five years later, I would guess that I have taught the ring of gygesa class focusing on the Ring of Gyges at least fifty times. The story teaches itself. It is an extraordinarily flexible tool to get people of all ages and various life experiences to start immediately thinking about why they follow moral guidelines and principles at all. As the director of a large interdisciplinary humanities program, I am frequently asked to give “mock lectures” to weekend groups ranging from alumni and board members to prospective students and their parents. One of my two “go to” lecturse for such events is “The Ethics of Invisibility: Plato’s Republic and Gyges’ Ring.” After a few minutes of set-up, I ask my audience what I asked my son all those years ago—suppose you had the ring of invisibility. Do you think you would find yourself doing things when wearing the ring that you don’t normally do?

Who is going to know??!!

I’ll set off the alarm at the front of the store when I walk out.

So let’s say that when you’re invisible the machine can’t detect you or anything you are holding! NOW are you going to take the books?

No.

WHY NOT??

Because someone would know.

Except the occasional goody-two-shoes who claims she would use the ring for good (no guy has ever claimed this), virtually every one of my classroom companions admits that they would behave differently when wearing the ring than they normally do, pressing and eventually breaking through the envelope of basic moral expectations. When asked for specific examples, people usually start small.

  • Listen in on conversations you have not been invited to be part of.
  • Play tricks on your friends.
  • Steal something small and insignificant, just to verify that the ring actually works.

first classTo raise the bar a bit, I ask “how many of you would use the ring to give yourself a free upgrade to first class instead of sitting in the cheap seats in the back the next time you are on a plane?” Almost everyone always admits that they would.  When asked why they don’t give themselves such an upgrade without the ring, the answer is never “Because it’s wrong.” Rather, we don’t give ourselves free upgrades because we are afraid we’ll get kicked off the plane if our theft is discovered. Which is exactly the point of the Ring of Gyges scenario—we behave morally because we fear the consequences of not doing so. As soon as we are convinced that “no one will know” if we do something immoral, a world that the ring of invisibility places within our grasp, our commitment to moral behavior vanishes just as we do when we wear the ring.

As time allows me to push the envelope even further with my audience, I generally find that there is a moral glass ceiling through which very few people are willing to crash wearing the ring, even when it is guaranteed that they will never be held accountable for what they do. Other than the random person (always a guy) who says he would use it to kill people he doesn’t like, everyone stops short of murder. Many would stop long before travelling that far along the path. But only rarely is there someone like my seven-year-old son who says he would not use the ring at all. What is wrong with people like that?

YOU’RE FREAKING INVISIBLE!! NO ONE’S GOING TO KNOW!!

I would know.

frodo and samOut of the mouths of babes, as the saying goes. Where did my seven-year-old get a moral compass so true that it could (might) override even one use of the ring of power? Perhaps Jeanne and I had already brainwashed him sufficiently in the rules of proper human conduct. I doubt it. Tolkien was right when he suggested that the seemingly simple hobbits Frodo and Sam were the most appropriate persons in Middle Earth to deal with the ring—moral strength disguised as simplicity. Perhaps it really is as basic as what it says in Deuteronomy: “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Worth remembering the next time I am tempted to see what I can get away with. Someone would know.

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the six-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, at a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar last week, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper a few days ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid

Deflategate and the Nazis

deflated ballAs I write this on the morning of this evening’s Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl, I am unfortunately thinking about deflated balls. The other day Jerry Rice, an NFL Hall of Famer and wearer of several Super Bowl rings, said that if the New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX (that’s “49” for the Roman numeral challenged) there should be an asterisk next to their win in the record books. Why? Because of “Deflategate,” the tizzy arising from the possibility that someone on the Patriots reduced the ball pressure in the footballs they used during their 45-7 dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago in the AFC Championship game. cialisI’m a New England sports fan and am anything but objective, so I won’t weigh in on the controversy other than to say that I doubt footballs deflated 1.5 pounds psi can fully account for a thirty-five point win. My favorite of the thousands of media comments on the tempest in a tea pot came from “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on NPR, when Peter Sagal asked “What made people suspect that the football was underinflated? Probably when after scoring a touchdown, instead of spiking the ball, one of the Patriots just folded the ball up and put it in his pocket.”

In the world of sports, asterisks are placed next to team and individual records that are suspect for some reason or another. Barry bondsSuch as Barry Bonds’ single season and career home run chemically enhanced records. Like the record-breaking home run numbers put up by McGwire and SosaMark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, a steroid-pumped contest that is largely credited with re-energizing interest in baseball. The 1919 World Series. An asterisk is affixed in order to draw our attention to the fact that things aren’t as they seem, that someone did something out of the ordinary that makes the numbers suspect. An asterisk means that things are not as they seem on the surface. But as a matter of fact, nothing is as it ever seems on the surface. The students in my “Grace, Truth and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium are finding out during the early weeks of the semester that this applies even to those persons we think we know everything about that we need to know. People like Adolf Hitler.

truthRoughly the first half of the Development of Western Civilization colloquium I am team-teaching with a colleague and good friend from the history department is dedicated to immersing thirty-seven sophomores in the world of the Nazis, from their rise to power in the years after World War One through the devastation of World War Two and the horrors of the Holocaust. My colleague and I premiered this colloquium last spring and are back by popular demand—both times we have offered the course it has been the most requested colloquium of the twenty-five offered, with less than a quarter of the students seeking to get in actually making it onto the student roster. When another colleague asked me about the popularity of “Nazi Civ,” as the students came to call it last year, I replied that apart from the obvious spectacular reputation for teaching excellence established over the years by my teaching partner Ray and me, the real reason for the colloquium’s success is that you can’t go wrong with the Nazis. Any course with “Nazi” in the title will immediately sell out. Nazi accounting, Nazi calculus, Nazi social work, Nazi basket-weaving—there’s just something about those Nazis.devil nazis

I’m convinced that the “something” about the Nazis that makes them a guaranteed pedagogical draw is that here we are dealing with something that everyone can agree on. The Nazis were evil monsters, diabolical aberrations in apparently human form. We can all feel comfortable in despising the Nazis in the same way we could all comfortably despise flesh-eating twelve-foot green aliens from Mars—they aren’t like us. The Nazis are, as the philosophers might say, in a different ontological category than regular human beings. By considering the Nazis as evil monsters, we are able to dismiss them as horrific invaders from Planet Awful who tragically and inexplicably took control of a highly cultured and civilized nation and almost ruined human history. It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck—it’s terrible and destructive, but we can’t get enough of it. evil naziPut it on YouTube and you’ll get several million hits. There is, so to speak, a huge asterisk in our imaginations next to “Nazi”—they weren’t really like us. And it is this asterisk that my colleague Ray and I seek to start peeling away on the very first day of class.

We started with Patrick Hicks’ devastating novel The Commandant of Lubizec, a work of “documentary fiction” based on the real-life Nazi extermination camps Bełżec, Treblinka and Sobibór. The Commandant is Hans-Peter Guth, who by day administrates the murder and disposal of over fifteen hundred Jews per day, returning home in the evening to his wife and two children with whom, by all accounts, he has a strong and deep relationship. Last week’s readings focused on Adolf Hitler’s childhood and early adulthood. Hitler wwiThe product of an emotionally and physically abusive upbringing, Hitler served as a messenger in the trenches during World War One, recognized twice for bravery. An aspiring artist and architect, he was refused entrance to a prestigious Vienna art and architecture school twice in the years after the end of the war.

The various articles we read offered the above facts not as an excuse, but rather as at least partial explanation for the man Hitler became. My students found this information both important and challenging, recognizing that abuse and rejection are part of the human experience and often shape both one’s history and future. While all insisted that this information did not excuse Hitler’s actions in the least, it did something even more problematic—it humanized Hitler. As one of my students wrote perceptively in her intellectual notebook, “I learned that Hitler was not a monster, but rather was a human being who did monstrous things.” Hitler architectWith this realization, it becomes much more difficult to put an asterisk next to Hitler—he is one of us. It also becomes much more difficult to avoid the question “could I do such things in similar circumstances with a similar history?” It is an important insight to realize that, as Albert Camus wrote, “The plague is in each of us.” It is also uncomfortable and disturbing.

At the other end of the behavior spectrum we also tend to place an asterisk next to human beings who we wish to set aside as special in a positive, saintly sort of way. Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dr. King, Jesus—they all receive the saint asterisk both to honor their excellence as well as to excuse us mere mortals from the moral challenge of striving to be like them. The temptation to excuse ourselves from moral excellence is particularly strong when reading the gospels. dillardIn her essay “The Book of Luke,” Annie Dillard reflects on just how challenging it is to find out that the disciples and early Christians were just like we are—no haloes and imperfect to the core.

What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians. . . . What a pity, that here come the Christians already, flawed to the core, full of wild ideas and hurried self-importance. . . . They are smug and busy, just like us, and who could believe in them? They are not innocent, they are not shepherds and fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like us, in polyester. Who could believe salvation is for these rogues? book of lukeThat God is for these rogues? For they are just like us.

            Unless, of course—

Unless Christ’s washing the disciples’ feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture. . . . Unless those pure disciples themselves and those watercolor women—who so disconcertingly turned into The Christians overnight—were complex and selfish humans also, who lived in the material world, and whose errors and evils were not pretty but ugly, and had real consequences. If they were just like us, then Christ’s words to them are addressed to us, in full and merciful knowledge—and we are lost. There is no place to hide.

In the end, either we all are asterisks in our uniqueness or there are no asterisks in our common humanity. We are each formed by our histories, shaped by our limitations, inspired by our possibilities, and responsible for who we are and what we become. And Annie is right—there is no place to hide. Especially from ourselves.asterisk

Dogmatic Ben Franklin

The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. Richard Rodriguez

Every time someone claims that we live in a country founded on “Christian principles,” I think of Benjamin Franklin. autobiographyHis Autobiography is often a text at the appropriate time in the interdisciplinary program I teach in—it’s short, pithy, no nonsense and quintessentially American. Exactly what I would expect from Ben. He doesn’t say a lot about organized religion other than to express his distaste for and rejection of it, turning his back on the Presbyterianism of his youth because the ministers’ sermons were primarily “explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect,” clearly designed to create good Presbyterians rather than good citizens. He describes himself as a “thorough Deist” just as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were,three amigos believing in a creating God who has little to no direct engagement in the world, who is best worshipped by “doing good to man,” and who will in some manner “certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.” DeismNo miracles, no incarnation, resurrection or revelation. And no organized worship.

Ben was surrounded by religion in eighteenth century colonial America but remained as secular as they come throughout his life. He observed concerning a saintly Catholic woman who had spent her life in service to others while living in a one-room garret with only a table, bed, crucifix and picture of Saint Veronica that he was amazed “on how small an income life and health may be supported,” while being most impressed with the ability of George Whitfield—one of the primary preachers during “The Great Awakening,” a remarkable religious revival in 1700s New England—to project his voice across a large open field. He was particularly intrigued by the Dunkers, a small Baptist sect (who “dunked” the newly baptized) that would become the Church of the Brethren a couple of centuries later. With a name like that, they could have given our favorite New England donut and coffee establishment a run for its money. One of the Dunker leaders complained to Benjamin that, as often happens when religion is concerned, other religious groups frequently accused the Dunkers of “abominable practices and principles, to which they were utter strangers.” brethrenBen sensibly suggested that the Dunkers should publish “the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline,” thus reducing the opportunity for misunderstanding and slander. To which suggestion the Dunker leader made a remarkable reply.

When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression . . . we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.

creedI like the Dunkers’ attitude. Doctrine bothers me because it so easily turns into its evil and rigid twin, dogma. As I recited the Nicene Creed with a dozen or so other 8:00 service attendees a couple of Sundays ago, I made more effort than usual to pay attention to what this close-to-two-thousand-years-old affirmation of faith is actually committing me to. There’s some pretty weird stuff there. Not long ago I heard someone mention that she is comforted by the fact that the words she is saying when reciting the creed are the very same words Christian believers have recited for close to two millennia. I’m not sure why that’s something to be comforted by. On the Sunday in question, I rather was wondering what makes any of us think that what fit the bill two millennia ago is still a perfect fit. I was reminded of something IWiman read from Christopher Wiman’s My Bright Abyss the other day: “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance.”

I understand the immediate and obvious pushback from many circles, of course. I grew up in a religious world in which all of the images of belief involved stability, immutability, inflexibility and certainty. Truth does not change. If you are not stable and secure in what you believe, how are you going to be able to defend it against the inevitable onslaught of change, unbelief, secularism and relativism? We sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” and that we were “standing on the promises of Christ my king.” We would not have recognized ourselves in Christopher Wiman’s unflinching description:

Dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches.

But that was us. Wiman continues:

The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse . . . The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone.

people of the bookThose who follow the great Western monotheistic religions are often referred to as “People of the Book.” What the Dunkers realized is that writing something down, “setting it in stone,” so to speak, creates the very real possibility that worship will turn toward the book rather than focusing on what inspired it in the first place. Doctrine and dogma are just two of many ways in which human beings try to make encounters with the divine safe and predictable. And of course, the more I turn my attention toward expressions of what I believe rather than to the open spaces where the object of that belief resides, the more defensive I get. BBTAs Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

Human beings never behave so badly as when they believe they are protecting God. . . . If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.

So there’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Be like the Dunkers. It’s no way to run a successful religion—but then, Jesus wasn’t interested in doing that.

no tech

Computer Sabbath

If multitasking is the enemy of reverence, which I’m quite sure it is, then I’m in trouble. Me, a week ago

seventh dayAnd on the seventh day God rested. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s decision to take a day off after six days of hard work was intended to serve as a model for how human beings should structure their lives. If the Big Guy thought it a good idea to take a break from the usual “creating the heavens and the earth” grind, then perhaps mere mortals should also schedule regular breaks from their usual routines. Hence the Fourth Commandment:

fourth commandmentRemember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. . . . For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

To which the general contemporary American attitude is “Whatever.” You can’t run a business or a career that way—it’s not clear that a modern life can be lived that way either.

But I’ve had the first cousin of the Sabbath—sabbatical—on my radar screen for a while. The early books of the Hebrew Scriptures have a lot to say about how the newly liberated children of Israel are to organize their communities once the Promised Land is occupied and the pesky inhabitants are killed or thrown out. sabbaticalOn a once-every-seventh-year rotating basis, slaves are to be set free, fields are to be left fallow, debts are to be forgiven—behold, all things are become new. The Sabbath/sabbatical idea incorporates some sort of divine insight into how things work; fortunately, in my profession the opportunity for sabbatical is still available for the fortunate few. And I am one of them—my third sabbatical, the first one to last a full year, will begin on July 1. To my non-academic friends and family who believe that I will be on a year-long vacation doing nothing, I respond that sabbatical is not about doing nothing. It is definitely about doing different things, but even more is about doing things differently. And so, I suspect, is the core Sabbath idea. The point is not to stop doing things one day out of seven. The point rather is to include in my life a structured reminder to see, think, and act differently than usual. Doing that on a weekly basis is far more challenging than planning for a once-every-seven-years extended sabbatical.

In last Monday’s blog post I revealed that my one New Year’s resolution is to be a more reverent person in 2015:

Freelance Christianity: One Thing

I’m sure that this decision is a confluence of thinking about sabbatical and reading BBTBarbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World in which she writes engagingly about how important taking a true Sabbath every week has been to her in the years since she stepped down from the manic energies required by being the rector of a thriving Episcopal parish. As I thought about what reverence might mean outside the confines of its usual religious implications—what “secular reverence” might be, if you will—I kept circling back to a negative definition: Reverence is the opposite of multitasking. If being reverent means paying careful attention to the tasks, persons and items in my life as they show themselves, it also means not dividing that attention fifteen different ways.

As I sat in our lovely little library room before dawn last Saturday morning, the first morning after choosing reverence as the focus of my one New Year’s resolution, I wondered “What is the thing most likely to suck me into multitasking?” The answer was obvious—my greatest temptation to non-reverence was (and is) my beloved surface 2Surface II tablet, recharged and waiting for my use, laying on the bottom shelf of the table next to my chair. And I had a “What If?” moment. What if I tried to spend twenty-four hours without turning my tablet (or either of the other laptops in the house) on? What if I deliberately removed the greatest temptation to multitask and lived in a “tablet-free” zone for twenty-four hours?  What if, in other words, Saturday January 3, 2015 was a “Computer Sabbatical”?

Immediately a swarm of questions and concerns swept over me like locusts over Egypt.locusts

  1. But what if I want to work on some essays today?
  2. What if an answer to one or more of the cosmically important emails I sent out yesterday comes in today?
  3. How am I going to be able to track how my blog numbers are doing?
  4. I was going to finish the syllabus for my upcoming Philosophy of the Human Person class today.
  5. Should I tell Jeanne what I’m doing?
  6. Would using my cell phone count as a violation of computer sabbatical?
  7. How am I going to print off the essay I wrote yesterday that I’ll be using at Living Stones seminar tomorrow after church?
  8. Most importantly, how am I going to find out when the Friars game this afternoon is?

As the above concerns flooded into my awareness (all within five minutes of my declaring the day “computer free”), I scribbled them down in a yellow pad of paper. Which immediately answered concerns 1 and 4 above—there is a remarkable invention, almost as amazing as tablets, called “paper” upon which one can record one’s most profound thoughts even when no computer is available. I did indeed write a new essay last Saturday; I dutifully typed it into my tablet on Sunday. I also finished off a few syllabus-related items in long hand. I had forgotten how horrible my handwriting is.

I’m not sure how #5 ever came up, since the sight of me without my tablet surgically attached everywhere I go would have alerted Jeanne that something was up. I did tell her what I was up to as soon as she arose because I needed her wisdom concerning #6. androidDoes my computer sabbatical apply to my phone (which isn’t technically a computer after all)? “Yes it does apply,” she immediately said, “since you use your phone like a computer instead of a phone.” True enough. I hate getting phone calls, but love checking my emails and blog numbers on my phone. Which focused my attention on #2 and #3. On Sunday morning I found out that although about twenty-five emails came in on Saturday, none of them were the responses I was looking for; I deleted all but two of the twenty-five without even reading them. Which tells me, I guess, that perhaps the emails I sent weren’t cosmically important after all.

As for checking my blog numbers, this was a big problem. I had no idea how often I do this habitually until computer sabbatical day. I have taught logic classes before and know all about the post hoc“post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy, but I have been convinced for a long time that the number of visits to my blog during a given day is directly proportional to the number of times I check my blog numbers. And guess what? Computer sabbatical day proved my theory to be correct. Last Saturday was my worst blog activity day in close to a year—obviously because I didn’t check the numbers all day. By the way, I found out when the Friars game was when I remembered I had a calendar in my backpack with all of the college sports events for the year listed by day and time. I shouldn’t have bothered. They lost.

I did make it through the day without turning a computer on or messing with my phone. Instead I took down the Christmas tree, wrote a new essay, finished An Altar in the World, listened to the Friars lose on the radio, watched a bunch of TV (only some of it worth watching), ate more than usual, and sort of felt like I didn’t get that much done in the day. But the evidence of baby steps in reverence was there. For instance, I am in the habit of noting in the index the chapters of any book I am reading that I especially like or find insightful. Was it a coincidence that three of my four favorite chapters in altarAn Altar in the World are chapters that I read without tablet interruption on Saturday morning? And when Jeanne told me early in the evening on Saturday that I looked “extremely content” sitting in my chair in the living room, I concluded that maybe the computer sabbatical experiment is worth repeating every Saturday for the foreseeable future. As regular “no computer” days become habitual, I hope to notice that at least once a week less multitasking means more reverence. And as to #7 above: I did not have print off a hard copy of my new essay for Living Stones on Sunday morning after all. I just brought my tablet to church and read it off the screen.

Convocation_2007_16

Nice Work If You Can Get It

The new semester begins in a week. I was interested a few days ago to read a Huffington Post article summarizing the results of what a bunch of anthropologists found out concerning the daily work habits of university faculty.

What Do Professors Do All Day?

After spending two weeks with a non-random sample of sixteen faculty of different ranks at boise stateBoise State University, the researchers found out that on the average the faculty worked 51 hours during the work week and 10 hours on the weekend at a host of different tasks. Amazing. It took a study to find out that teachers have full-time jobs after all and actually do work-related things on the weekend (although the numbers for both week and weekend seem a bit low). I’m wondering how to square these remarkable results with an article I read a year ago claiming that “University Professor” topped the list of “Least Stressful jobs of 2013.” Of course I had to respond . . .

Those who read this blog regularly or even occasionally know that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. For those who are finding this out for the first time, let me repeat—I have the greatest job in the world. As a matter of fact, it is so great that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. For me, teaching is a vocation rather than a job, something that I truly believe I am called and was born to do. Convocation_2007_16I raise eyebrows occasionally on the campus of the Catholic college at which I teach when I say that I consider teaching to be a vocation for me just as much as being a priest is the vocation of the guys who walk around campus in white robes. But even though I love what I do to an almost unhealthy extent, I taken aback when I learned from a colleague via Facebook that “University Professor” is listed by CareerCast.com at number one in its top ten list of “Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.”

The Ten Least Stressful Jobs of 2013

Really? Or as one of my colleagues commented on Facebook “Bullshit!!! [pardon my advanced degree French].” I guess I must have failed to notice how non-stressful my job is during my 25 year university professor career.

Every person who teaches in higher education has a virtual file full of stories about how difficult it is to get a non-academic friend or family member to understand exactly what is involved with being a college professor. pic_short_teaching_courses_londonMost difficult is getting someone to understand that this is not a part-time job. For instance, Cousin Bob finds out that the typical teaching load for a faculty member at a teaching college or university is three or four three-credit courses per semester (or perhaps five at a two-year college), meaning that the faculty member is in class at most fifteen hours per week. Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! Cousin Bob remarks. Early in my career I often patiently pointed out to the Cousin Bobs in my family that a good rule of thumb is that a teacher spends three to four hours outside of class (preparation, reading, grading, meeting with students, etc.) for every hour spent in class. “Really?” Cousin Bob replies. But he clearly is not convinced, since as we all know, easy working hours is the main reason that a person becomes a teacher.

Then, of course, Cousin Bob wonders about all of the weeks of the calendar year that I am not in the classroom. Christmas break, Spring break, the summer—teachers apparently get at least twenty weeks per year off.images Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! With what begins to feel like infinite patience, I explain to Cousin Bob that teaching is only one part of a university professor’s job. In order to advance through the ranks of promotion and, more importantly, in order to get tenure, one must research and publish on a regular basis. For most college faculty, the time and focus required for this aspect of the profession is not available during the semester, so the “breaks” are all about research, writing, and praying for publication. But I’m not in the classroom, right? Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! You get the idea. A colleague once told me about his frustrated response to a relative after one too many such conversations. Upon hearing Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! one too many times, my colleague replied “It actually is really nice. If you were smart enough you could have a job like that too.”

CareerCast’s explanation of why University Professor is the least stressful job of 2013 has more than a whiff of Cousin Bob behind it, just expressed in a slightly less aggressive fashion. For instance, the article explains that

University professors are at the pinnacle of the education field. Their students are largely those who choose the classes they attend, and thus want to be in class. Unlike elementary and secondary educators, the performance of college professors isn’t evaluated based on standardized tests. 15rfd-image-custom3University professors also have the opportunity to earn tenure, which guarantees lifetime employment.

A full response would require something more like a book chapter than a blog post. Suffice it to say that the author of the article (1) has apparently never heard of core requirements if he thinks that college professors face “students . . . who choose the classes they attend, and thus want to be in class,” (2) is not aware that despite the (usual) lack of standardized tests, college teachers are evaluated by their peers, answerable for the results of student evaluations, and are under regular scrutiny in every aspect of what they do, and (3) needs to learn something about the tenure process (assuming that the faculty member is fortunate enough to be teaching at an institution that uses the tenure process).

Tenure. Such job security is certainly unusual in today’s job market and tenure is an attractive “perk” of the academic life. Once one earns it, that is. one-does-not-simply-become-an-adjunct-professorTenure-track positions are hard to come by in academia, more and more so as many institutions opt for hiring year-to-year adjunct professors or special lecturers then proceed to treat them as well-dressed slave labor (don’t get me started on that one). Should a teacher be fortunate to land a tenure-track position in today’s heavily buyer-skewed academic marketplace, the stress she or he will experience in the next several years leading to the tenure decision will be sufficient to last a lifetime. As is undoubtedly the case in many workplace environments, the tenure decision is often as much or more about internal campus politics as it is about the qualifications of the candidate and those things that she or he can control. “The opportunity to earn tenure” is indeed that—an opportunity that, unfortunately, for many talented and qualified teachers will never be available.

Then there’s the money. The article author points out that

csreport_header02_r1_c1_s1Harvard University pays full-time professors $198,400, with a 7:1 professor-to-student ratio, while University of Chicago professors receive $197,800 per year with a 6:1 ratio. Among public universities, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) is highest paying, with an average wage of $162,600 for its full-time staff.

Really? All of them? At all levels? In all disciplines? Such “statistics” are useless without context, about as useless as telling a lawyer in a public defender’s office working 80-100 hours per week and struggling to make ends meet that the senior lawyers in the top firms on Wall Street often make seven-figures annually. Here’s an anecdote from the real world. At least a dozen years into my teaching career, still paying off the loans from ten years of college in order to earn the PhD required to teach at the college level in my discipline,business-ethics it occurred to me one day that the second semester seniors in my Business Ethics class, most of whom would be entering the work force shortly after graduation as entry-level persons with undergraduate business degrees, would be starting at a monthly salary noticeably higher than my own. As I once told a younger colleague when I was chair of my department, in response to his complaints about how little he was being paid, “if you became a teacher for the money, you’re a moron.”

1385581_616281185091038_1215320450_nI have reached the level of experience and rank (a tenured, full professor) at which one could expect that maybe stress levels might reduce and ultimately disappear. But persons such as I are those who are tapped, appropriately, to significantly commit themselves to the third leg of the academic stool (along with teaching and research): service. After four years as chair of a department of 25 faculty and now in the middle of a four-year stint as the director of the core academic program at my college, responsible for 80 faculty and upwards of 1700 students at any given time, I realize that one sort of stress just gets replaced by another.

And actually that’s fine, since it is all part of the vocation I was born to inhabit. There are many attractive features to the life of a university professor. I can think of no other profession in which one’s creativity is required more often or in which one has more autonomy and flexibility. But it is anything but stress-free. A teacher never leaves the office. Your work goes with you everywhere. I realized at one point early last December that, other than Thanksgiving Day,  I literally had not had a day off since the middle of August. This is why I have recommended the teaching profession to no more than a half-dozen of my best students in more than twenty years of teaching. If you are looking for a profession that will fit nicely with your family obligations and other interests, don’t become a teacher.nice-work-if-you-can-get-it-1180 If you want to make a living wage at a stimulating 40-45 hour per week job, don’t become a teacher. If you want to “work to live” rather than “live to work,” you probably should not become a teacher. If you think of teaching as one among many equally interesting career possibilities, don’t become a teacher. But if you are incurably obsessed with the life of learning, if the dynamic of new ideas exhilarates you, if you suspect that you might have the heart of a teacher and nothing else will fulfill you, then this highly stressful but highly rewarding vocation might just be for you. It’s nice work if you can get it.

moving on

Moving On

“Get a picture of yourself ten years from now in your mind,” I said to my eighteen-year old freshmen. “Your job, whether you’ll be in a permanent relationship, whether you will have kids or have considered having them, where you’ll be living, graduate school or not. The works.” Most of them had smiles on their faces as they constructed their future selves in their imaginations. We were studying the Stoics, so I suspect they were wondering what this exercise had to do with the day’s material. “Got the picture?” I asked—they all nodded. “None of it is going to happen, or at least not at all in the way you think.” life is what happensThis appeared to be a surprise to some of them—at eighteen it is still easy to believe that much of your future is within your control.

We have all heard the related truisms: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans” and so on. Anyone past a certain age—say thirty—nods bemusedly when hearing them because unlike many bumper sticker summaries of the complexities of human life, these sound bites are completely true. Sometimes the unexpected changes are welcome, other times we are surprised by events so challenging and disturbing that we doubt we’ll survive them. under constructionBut we do. The persons we are and will become have been and will be constructed out of what we never saw and won’t see coming.

I’m fifty-eight, well established in a profession that I deeply love, happily in love with and married to my best friend, living in my favorite part of the country—Jeanne and I have carved out a life that seems comfortable, predictable, and stable. She observed positively upon returning from visiting her family and the latest drama in New York a couple of weeks ago that “we really live a peaceful life.” Exactly as we want it. But on this New Year’s Eve I am on the brink of a year of significant change and am reminded that even within the boundaries of apparent stability, things never stay the same for long.

I am entering my final semester of directing a large academic program on my campus, a task that has consumed and defined my life both on campus and off for the past four years. When July 1 of next year arrives and I hand the reins over to my successor, I DWCwill have spent eight of my last eleven professional years as both an administrator and teacher (four years as department chair, four years as program director). I did not go into the teaching profession to be an administrator; although it’s part of the academic life to play administrator on occasion, I’m looking forward to finding out what it’s like to be just a full-time teacher. And yet . . . in a strange way I’m going to miss being a program director. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I juggle scheduling, faculty herding and student management on a daily basis. There are many indications that the program has become better over the past few years—and I sort of like being in charge. But all things come to an end, including this.

The timing of my stepping down from directing this program is intentionally coordinated with the beginning of my next sabbatical next July 1. sabbaticalThis will be my third sabbatical. I wrote a book during my first one, my life was changed during my second one, so who knows what this one will bring? It will be my first full-year sabbatical—I’ve told everyone that I wanted to have one full-year sabbatical during my career, and this is the time. By the time my next one comes around, I may be too decrepit and crotchety to appreciate it. I have a plan for what I want to do, but where it will happen and how is totally up in the air. Proposals have been sent, contacts have been made, feelers have been extended—and I won’t know how things will be shaping up for at least two or three months.

Outside of work things are also in flux. Jeanne’s job was eliminated a couple of months ago—who knows when or if someone will be smart enough to recognize what an asset she will be for them?Trinity Everything is moving on at the church we have attended and been involved with for the past four years. Our good friend Marsue, who is the reason why we started going to the church has retired (at least for a couple of weeks) and a new rector has been hired. Marsue used to turn the pulpit over to me about once every three or four months to give the sermon—I’ve probably given my last sermon at Trinity. A couple of months before Marsue’s retirement a full-time music minister was hired, which means three years of frequent, interim organ playing—one of the loveliest surprises that has come my way in many years—are at an end. Everyone at Trinity knows we started attending because of Marsue—will we be staying? Jeanne and I have answered regularly that it depends on what Big Bird is doing. The wind blows where it will, and no one can tell where it’s coming from or where it is going—so it is with all things Big Bird.

A couple of Sundays ago I was lector at church and read the Old Testament lesson from Second Samuel. After cementing his rise from shepherd to king through a series of struggles over many years against challenges both internal and external, David is ready to enjoy his middle-age years as monarch and to turn his attention toward God. arkHe tells his prophet advisor and sidekick Nathan of his plans to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, a place for God to settle down and enjoy himself just as David plans to. Given that God’s dwelling has been a tent or movable tabernacle for centuries, Nathan approves of David’s plans. Until God sets Nathan straight in a dream, that is. When did I ever say I wanted a permanent place to live? God asks. Do I look like someone who want to settle down? I haven’t stopped being a nomad since I delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and don’t plan to stop now. If you want to hang out with me, don’t get too comfortable and be ready to move. Then this wonderful promise passed on to David through Nathan: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”

WimanIn other words, God already has a house—Us. You and me. That restless spirit of change that permeates everyone’s life? That’s God. As Christopher Wiman writes in his wonderful My Bright Abyss,

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.

This, Richard Rodriguez suggests, is what monotheists get for believing in a desert God.rodriquez

The desert’s uninhabitability convinces Jew and Christian and Muslim that we are meant for another place.

Which means that trying to confine this restless deity in buildings, dogma, or certainty is a mistake of cosmic proportions.

Desert is the fossil of water. Is dogma a fossil of the living God—the shell of God’s passage—but God is otherwise or opposite?

For those not inclined toward religious belief, feel free to come up with your own explanation for the contingency and uncertainty of human existence. You don’t need a pillar of fire to convince you that it’s all about moving on.moving on

Siobhan

Too Soon

Thanksgiving Break last week was a bit less relaxing than usual for Jeanne and me because, even though we are the old people in our immediate family, we did the travelling this year. We met on the day before Thanksgiving twenty-seven years ago; because of court ordered travel to their mother’s house for Christmas (the wonders of blended families) Thanksgiving was the one holiday we knew we would have my sons in house, so Thanksgiving has always been “our holiday.” It still is—people come from far and wide to make sure we are in one place at the end of November—but usually our house is the place we all gather. 002Last Thanksgiving we agreed to travel to my son and daughter-in-law’s in Florida the next time, last week was the next time, so for only the second time in recent or not-so-recent memory we were not home for Thanksgiving. We had a great time as always, although Jeanne and I agreed that for the foreseeable future we are playing the age card and having everyone revisit the tradition of coming to us. It’s a long trip for just a few days, and finding canine-care for our three four-legged daughters over a holiday was not easy.

I was committed to not checking my Facebook or email accounts while away, but of course utterly failed to honor my commitment. At around 11:00 PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my phone gave its “you have a new thing to look at on Facebook” beep and I took a look. I found, to my dismay, a Providence Journal news update posted by a colleague from work reporting that Siobhán, a much-loved and respected member of our college community, had been killed in a car accident on slippery Rhode Island roads a few hours earlier that afternoon. The thread of comments from my campus colleagues—“Oh no!” “Oh my God!” ross-siobhan-headshot“This is terrible!” “I’m shocked and numb”—reflected my own immediate response. I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me with a punch in the solar plexus. I had just had a brief email exchange with Siobhán a couple of days earlier setting up a meeting time the week after Thanksgiving when she could provide me with some tech advice—and now she was gone.

If someone asked me to provide a list (which would be a very short list) of people, from among the thousands of students, faculty and staff on campus, who everyone liked, Siobhán would have been at the top of the list. She would most likely have been the only person on the list. Siobhán was the college’s Instructional Technology Development Program Coordinator, a position that put her in charge, among other things, of bringing the faculty into the twenty-first century technologically (after guiding them first through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Over the past few years I had dozens of interactions with Siobhán both in person and via email, sometimes asking for help with something that a two-year old probably would know how to do, other times asking for advice concerning what new technology might be useful and user-friendly for the faculty in the program I direct. She always had the answer, delivered both in language that I could easily understand and without a hint of condescension or impatience (even though I undoubtedly deserved both). Often Siobhán provided solutions for the next eight problems to follow that I didn’t even know about yet. Siobhan 2She was gracious, creative, generous, funny, and had a smile that lit up every space she entered. I pride myself in responding to emails quickly, but Siobhán was the fastest I have ever encountered. I once complimented her on her immediate helpfulness; she responded “That’s because I like you!” I asked “What do you do to people you don’t like?” “I make them wait a week.”

I wish I had known Siobhán outside of work; my guess is that she was a wonderful friend. I found upon returning to campus last Monday that everyone continues to be stunned, struggling with her passing. The following comments copied randomly from one of the many Facebook reminiscences that have popped up over the past few days are a testament to what a hole has been torn in the fabric of our academic community by the untimely loss of this beautiful colleague and friend:

I’m in shock at the news – what a profound loss for the PC family. We’ll always love that smile…

She was such a beautiful presence on campus. Unbelievable.

Siobhan on bikeSiobhan was someone who always knew how to help, and she really got what it meant to be a student at PC. I will miss her a lot.

I am shocked by the news–she was perhaps the most patient and generous person I knew. I’m still having trouble processing the news.

I’m just hearing this news now —just devastating- she was a wonderful woman

This is so devastating. Siobhan had such positive energy, always with a smile and always willing to think creatively about helping students learn… She will be missed immensely.

Oh no–this is heartbreaking news! Siobhan was one of the most generous people I knew. Her positive energy always lit up the room and lifted the spirits of those around her.

This really hurts. I served on many committees with her. We shared a passion for alternative approaches to learning. Even when I had no “business” with her, I often stopped into her office to talk. What a loss.

I didn’t know her well, but from the short time I knew her, I could tell how much love and energy she carried with her and shared with the world. I had really hoped to get to know her better and become friends.

There will be a memorial service today on campus for Siobhán; I know that my teaching teammate and I are not the only professors who have cancelled class in order to attend. The chapel will be full. There will be a number of beautiful things said about Siobhan’s impact and influence on everyone privileged enough to have known and worked with her—all of them true. SiobhanThere will also be many things said about life after death, about God’s plan, about comfort in knowing that we will see Siobhán again, about Jesus having said “I am the resurrection and the life.” Somebody said that the angels must have really wanted Siobhan badly to take her so soon. I do not know what Siobhán believed, whether or not she was religious, or whether she believed in God at all. But such words are more for those who remain than for those who have died—and I must confess that they really don’t help very much. I profess to believe all of those things but haven’t a clue at the moment about what they ultimately mean other than serving as comforting platitudes. The fact is Siobhán is gone, taken decades before her time, and I’m not sure that I am—that we are—ready to “feel better.”

But I do know what helped a bit. Last Tuesday afternoon a colleague on campus organized an impromptu gathering for Siobhán’s friends and colleagues since—as the VP for Mission and Ministry said—we didn’t want to wait until Friday. At least seventy-five people gathered in a space designed for half that many; after an opening prayer there were several moments of silence. In twenty-one years at the college, I have never seen a gathering such as this one. Faculty, administrators and staff from all over campus, people who might go a whole semester without seeing each other or speaking, all in one space to express their sadness and gratitude. One by one various people began to tell brief stories and vignettes. Many were funny, all were touching—there were few dry eyes in the room. One woman told of a time when Siobhan was helping her with a tech problem and said that what she loved about Siobhán was her ability to not make you feel like an idiot—even when you knew that you were an idiot. “The nugget that Siobhán left me with is to always meet people where they are at, then raise them up from there.” Thanks for the take away, Siobhán. Rest in peace.

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evil_santa[1]

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]

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