Category Archives: Development of Western Civilization

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

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

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

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

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

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Without God

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Perhaps it is a feature of teaching at a Catholic college, but I am frequently surprised by how many of my students are convinced that the only basis for being moral is belief in a God who will hold each of us responsible after we die for what we have done during this life. I am familiar with this attitude—fire insurance policyI was raised with the Protestant version and believed that the primary reason to be a Christian is to gain an eternal fire-insurance policy. But people old enough to be a freshman or sophomore in college have undoubtedly encountered people who do not profess any sort of religious conviction and yet apparently have managed to develop working moral frameworks. When I ask my students whether it would be possible for an atheist to be moral, just about all of them admit that such a thing is possible—they just don’t know how. So I find myself faced with a continuing task each semester—exploring with my students the strange phenomenon of living a life of moral commitment and excellence without God. Or at least without the God they have in mind.

BonhoefferIn my “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester, my students’ expectations and pre-conceptions concerning the connections between moral commitment and religious faith were challenged on a regular basis. These challenges were most pressing during the weeks that we studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant pastor and theologian who ultimately found himself in prison awaiting execution because of his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer described the many ways in which his understanding of Christian commitment and action was changing. Lurking behind his ideas was one big question—where is God in all of this? In a letter a few weeks before his death, he wrote

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

My students found this passage challenging, to say the least. In online discussions, several expressed their sadness that this pastor, who had been such a beacon of Christian hope and light during very dark times, lost his faith in his final days of life. I responded, tentatively, that Bonhoeffer had not lost his faith—but this was a very different sort of faith than my students were accustomed to.the bell

Bonhoeffer’s striking statement reminds me of the predicament that Michael Meade, a character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, finds himself in. Michael has an intense desire for God and the transcendent, seeking at various times to become a priest and, when that fails, to create the lay religious community that is at the heart of the novel. Throughout his life, Michael has considered himself “called” to service to God and has sought for patterns and signs that confirm his “calling.” Unfortunately, as with most of us, these signs and patterns turn out to be idolatrous projections of his own self-centered hopes and dreams. When the lay religious community fails and several of the members come to tragic ruin, including a man’s suicide for which Michael considers himself at least partially responsible, Michael is understandably on the brink of despair and suicide himself. As he seeks in the midst of ruin, for the first time in his life, to look at himself and at God cleanly and without preconceptions, he comes to hard conclusions.

The pattern which he had seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic imagination. At the human level there was no pattern. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” belief in godAnd as he felt, bitterly, the grimness of these words, he put it to himself: there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.

Michael has come for the first time in his life to see the need for “dying to self,” for removing himself from the center of the universe and insisting that the world must “make sense.” God’s existence has not been threatened by the deconstruction of Michael’s hopes and dreams, but the “belief system,” the vocabulary, through which he has defined and described God has been destroyed. Michael’s God, in other words, has died.

At the end of the novel, Michael reflects and takes stock. Rather than fill the resulting vacuum with yet another projection of himself onto the transcendent, Michael chooses to let the vast gap between himself and the Other remain, at least for the present, in all its power and rawness. God has not died, but Michael’s conception of God has. And at least for now, this is a good thing. The rituals that were once consoling and uplifting remain as a reminder of his true situation.

No sharp sense of his own needs drove him to make supplication. He looked about him with the calmness of the ruined man. But what did, from his former life, remain to him was the Mass. . . . The Mass remained, not consoling, not uplifting, but in some way factual. It contained for him no assurance that all would be made well that was not well. It simply existed as a kind of pure reality separate from the weaving of his own thoughts. . . . Writualhoever celebrated it, the Mass existed and Michael existed beside it. He made no movement now, reached out no hand. He would have to be found and fetched or else he was beyond help.

Sad? Yes. Regrettable? Undoubtedly. But Michael has chosen to see if, for at least a period of time, he can refrain from creating the transcendent in his own image. Perhaps when he begins again, he’ll be more aware of the contingency of all transcendent language.

When Bonhoeffer writes that The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us, he is recognizing, as Michael Meade recognized, that all of our imaginings about what God must be and will do are human constructs guaranteed to disappoint and fail. Living in the world “without the working hypothesis of God,” embracing God’s existence without confining God to the limits of human belief, may seem to leave commitment to moral principles and behavior without a foundation. le chambonBut this need not be the case. Magda Trocme, one of the leaders of the rescue efforts in the little village of Le Chambon where thousands of refugees, Jewish and otherwise, were successfully hidden from the Gestapo and Vichy police during the dark years of World War Two, is a case in point.

Magda’s husband, Andre, was the dynamic Protestant pastor in Le Chambon whose powerful and eloquent sermons inspired his congregation to live out their faith in real time in the face of prison- and life-threatening dangers. Magda had no patience for theologicalmagda niceties and regularly scoffed at the notion that her astounding generosity and fearless hospitality made her a “saint” or even morally special. She just did what needed to be done and facilitated the efforts of others to do the same, addressing every human need within her power to address no matter who the human in need happened to be. I have studied the Le Chambon phenomenon a great deal and have used the story of this remarkable village in class many times. But it was not until a week ago while reading a new study of the village that I encountered Magda saying anything about God. In her unpublished memoirs, now in the archives at Swarthmore College, Magda provides her definition of God:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

And that, for Magda, was sufficient for her to be one of the most remarkable moral exemplars I have ever encountered. And, I would argue, it is a sufficient foundation for moral goodness. Who knew it could be that simple?

Giotto lamentation

The Weight of this Sad Time

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

Two Plus Two Makes Four

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

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

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

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

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Democracy Overrated?

It is Memorial Day, a great day to honor those who have made sacrifices over the years, including the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to protect our freedoms. It is also a good day to consider how well we are living out the freedoms that these sacrifices were made for.

house of cardsJeanne and I are anxiously awaiting the release of Season of Three of House of Cards on DVD in July (we don’t do the streaming thing). On this Memorial Day I am thinking about politics; in one of the early second-season episodes, then Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”

senateFrank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.

lit.aristotlepolitics.coverRepublicFrank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s and Aristotle’s Republic and Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.

Socrates-on-trialThere are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” alexander-aristotle-grangerAristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.

Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.

bbcsmDoes it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “BullCarter Fordshit.”

I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. elephants and donkeysThe polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, jesusvotesrepublican1who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.

Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.

Do You Have What It Takes to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?

My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”

The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. JeffersonBut simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.

If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once or twice per year on Memorial Day or Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

second hand books

Cracked Spines

FacebookAlthough I suppose the whole point of being on Facebook is to be noticed, I always have a brief twinge of angst when someone tags me in a Facebook post. The other day one of my colleagues and friends did just that, providing a web link and commenting “Many will like this list, especially Vance Morgan.”

99 Book Nerd Problems

I’d like to say that I can’t imagine why someone would think that I would be the least bit interested in Barnes & Noble’s list of “99 Book Nerd Problems,” but my colleague was right. At least half of the items on the list were very familiar, some uncomfortably so. cracked spineIn no particular order . . .

Cracked spines. I was recently told in the results of the “What type of book are you?” Buzzfeed quiz that

What Kind of Book Are You?

You are a second-hand book! Sure, you’re a little tattered around the edges, and you might not smell the freshest. But that doesn’t matter: People are so blown away by your wit and wisdom that they want to share your words with everybody they know. Whether you’re handed from one friend to another or discovered on a travel lodge bookshelf, you bring the magic everywhere you go.

This is not true. Oh, I’m down with the wisdom and wit stuff, and I only need to look in the mirror in the morning to be reminded that I’m getting “a little tattered around the edges.” But I am not a second-hand book. Why? Because I do not like second hand booksused books—at least books that look like they are used.

“Cracked spines” sounds like a problem shared by book geeks and chiropractors. One of the early signs, twenty-five years ago, that my attraction to the beautiful redhead whom I eventually would move in with and marry was not going to be all puppies and roses was when I observed her reading a paperback for the first time. She picked it up, opened it in the middle, and bent the pages back so far with both hands that she creased the spine. I know this is hard to believe, but some people actually read books this way. I have spent a lifetime doing everything I can to make sure that my books look just as new on the exterior when I’m done with them as when I started—but not Jeanne. This is why over the past two and a half decades I have, more often than not, spent the extra money on hardback editions of books. A sturdier spine, along with dust jackets that cover a multitude of sins, has largely solved a problem that could have been a deal breaker. And they look impressive on our bookshelves.

PC-magazine-Spring-2014-coverLast summer a colleague in Publications on campus contacted me wanting to borrow some books. The summer edition of the quarterly alumni magazine was to contain various articles about the rejuvenated version of the Development of Western Civilization program that I direct; we are just concluding our first full academic year in the new DWC. Vicki-Ann mentioned several typical texts from the program—The Aeneid, The Bible, Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy and others—wondering “do you have a copy of any of these that we could borrow for a few days? We’d like to take a picture for the magazine of some of the texts used in the program.” “I have at least five versions of each of them,” I replied. “Knock yourself out.” In short order a student assistant materialized at my office to pick the books up. Later in the day Vicki-Ann sent me an email: “Do you have copies of any of these books that look like they have been used?” “No.” I can’t help it if my frequently read texts are indistinguishable on the outside from books sold back at the end of the year by students who never opened them. That’s just the way that I am.

Hand-wringing articles that claim nobody reads anymore. Just the other day a headline shouted from my computer screen that TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT READ A SINGLE BOOK LAST YEAR! Really? I find that about as hard to believe as I would find a headline screaming TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT GO TO THE BATHROOM LAST YEAR! hard to believe. achillesBut then I read comments on various articles and posts on-line, find out about the guy who failed to win thousands of dollars on Wheel of Fortune because he could not correctly pronounce the word “Achilles” when it was fully spelled out in front of him on the ‘big board,” and my disbelief begins to dissipate. Who are these people? Everybody I know not only reads, but most of them are book geeks. Of course that is not surprising, given what I do for a living and who I spend my days with. Nobody I know doesn’t read. But wait . . .nobooks

“I’m really not much of a reader”­—Caleb Morgan, oldest son of book geek Vance Morgan.

This is a shocking development. My youngest son, Justin, has his face in a book almost as often as I do. Jeanne, who was not a book geek when we met twenty-five years ago, became an honorary book geek many years ago just from breathing the same air as I breathe for long enough. But Caleb is not a reader. How did this happen? Lest you think I was a complete and total failure as a parent, Caleb is successful, happily married, has an extraordinarily full life, jets back and forth with his wife Alisha to Germany three or four times per year, sends out dozens of texts and emails per day, runs his own tattoo school, and falls asleep sprawled in front of the TV in the evening on the rare occasions when he’s actually home in the evening. How on earth does he find the time to do all of this? I know, I know—he’s “really not much of a reader” and spends the millions of hours I spend buried in a book doing something else. Books shelfShut up.

I have a number of other book geek problems that will be the focus of future posts. But at least one of the problems identified in the B & N article is not one that I struggle with.

Family members who don’t respect my shelving protocol. There aren’t any. They know better.

Fixing and Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Point of a Professor

Every summer one of my projects is to tackle a novelist of notable reputation whose work I have never read. I think this summer’s novelist is going to be J. M. Coetzee, the multiple-award-winning South African novelist of whom I have heard much but read nothing. Apparently one of the teams in the program I run assigned CoetzeeCoetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year as an example of post-modern fiction; there were a few copies on one of the bookshelves in the main office, so I picked one up and started reading on the bicycle at the gym the other day. I like it. Señor C, an aging but famous writer who is the primary narrator of the novel, has been asked to contribute several short essays on contemporary and controversial topics to a volume entitled “Strong Opinions.” Señor C’s attention span has become too short to sustain longer writing projects, and anyways, what’s not to like about this call for opinionated essays? “An opportunity to grumble in public, an opportunity to take magic revenge on the world for declining to conform to my fantasies: how could I refuse?”

SeñorCM’s prospective grumbling in public immediately reminded me of an Op-Ed in the New York Times last Sunday entitled “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Bauerleinsubmitted by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein.

What’s the Point of a Professor?

The Facebook tag for this essay is “We used to be mentors and moral authorities. Now we just hand out A’s.” The general thrust of Bauerlein’s argument is to bemoan the loss of the good old days in academe when undergraduates thirsting for meaning and a moral compass sat enthralled at the feet of brilliant professors just waiting to mentor and disciple their young charges into moral and epistemological adulthood. “I revered many of my teachers,” one colleague wistfully remembered from his 60s college education, while Bauerlein compares stumbling over the legs of dozens of English majors sitting in the hall outside the doors of their professors for consultations while a student atuntitled UCLA in the 80s with the vastly reduced number of outstretched student legs in the same halls when he returned to his alma mater in February. Students and professors don’t talk outside of class anymore. The reverence is definitely decreasing. In the good old days, “students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding. Since then, though, finding meaning and making money have traded places.” Bauerlein has the survey numbers to back it up—and they add up to an identity crisis for professors. “When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes.” But to what?

Bauerlein closes his Op-Ed with a call for the professoriate to change its ways, pointing out that “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.” If we fail to do that, “We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.” I posted the link to this essay on a Facebook page for the faculty where I teach, simply asking “Worthy of discussion?” One colleague in theology immediately asked tongue-in-cheek “Can someone summarize this for me? I’m pretty busy grading . . .” And so was everyone else—the Op-Ed came in the middle of finals, after all. But now my final grades are in and I have a few preliminary points to offer.

  • Although Bauerlein scatters some numbers from uncited surveys and a smattering of data from uncited studies into his essay, most of his argument is rooted in anecdote. bI have no problem with this in principle—as a good friend and colleague once said, “As academics get older we tend to slip farther and farther into our anecdotage.” Where I do have a problem is when anecdote turns into sermonizing. No one likes that, especially from someone who has no particular claim to authority other than having been doing what he does for a long time. In Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, Señor C’s typist and transcriber Anya exhibits this sort of annoyance after reading a little too much pontificating from the old guy. There is a tone—I don’t know the best word to describe it—a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don’t argue, it won’t get you anywhere. . . . I wish you would cut it out. Amen.
  • A number of years ago the chair of the philosophy department frequently would say in department meetings that, in her estimation, moral authorityone of the primary goals of the philosophy department was to shape and mold our students into moral human beings. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. Making moral people is well above my skill level and pay grade. I also do not believe that I am anyone’s moral authority or light, a mentor seeking disciples, or a possible object of someone’s reverence. As I posted a few months ago on this blog, I’m not even looking to be my students’ friend.  I Am Not Your Friend  I’m a teacher. More on that later.
  • Bauerlein writes that “In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were in the ‘A’ range, but now the rate is 43 percent, making ‘A’ the most common grade by far.” I’ll ignore his assumption that people who get A’s can’t possibly have also developed a moral compass or found meaning, and simply mention that apparently the memo about grade inflation hasn’t gotten to my corner of the academic world yet. grade inflationI was fully responsible for all of the grading for sixty-two students in my three classes this semester. Final grades are in, and five of those students earned an ‘A’ or ‘A-minus’. That’s 8 percent, in case you are keeping track, and it is typical. Last fall in the large program I direct, a program in which sixty faculty and just short of 1800 students were involved last semester, 13.5 percent of the grades earned were ‘A’ or ‘A-minus’. I don’t know what’s going on at Emory or UCLA—I have heard that there is serious grade inflation at some of the elite institutions of higher learning in this country—but in my anecdotage I am pleased to report that students are still receiving the grades that they earn in my corner of things.
  • I don’t know why students weren’t sitting in the hall at UCLA waiting to converse with their professors on the day that Bauerlein visited his alma mater last February, but on the frequent days when my colleagues’ and my offices are filled with students seeking advice and input I think we wish something similar might infect our students just to give us a break. e-mailAnd by the way, email communication can be a very effective and efficient form of interaction between student and professor (Bauerlein doesn’t think it can be). Students keep strange hours—I frequently spend my first early hours of the day (6:00-8:00 AM) reading and responding to a dozen or more good questions, comments, and observations about course work and life in general that I have received from my night-owl students in the early hours of the morning. They never seem to sleep (except, on occasion, in class).

As a professor, I am a facilitator of lifetime learning, a person who points students in fruitful directions, helping them identify and become skillful in the use of tools that will help them construct their own moral frameworks intelligently. The liberally educated lifetime learner is equipped both to seek and create meaning throughout her life. I take pride in playing a part in this process. I have thought a lot over the past twenty-five years about the day-to-day dynamic between professor and student; I continually return to the difference between an idol and an icon.

Idols and Icons

virgil and danteThe point of a professor is to be Virgil to the student’s Dante, guiding the educational journey, relying on knowledge and experience to point out the pitfalls and attractions of a passage that each person must encounter individually. The professor helps the student learn to identify what is important and what is not in the perpetual sifting process of education. The professor is not the main attraction at any point in this process. The professor is an icon—something to look through or past, in other words—rather than an idol—something to look at. Tlove idolatryhere is a reason, Professor Bauerlein, that the Second Commandment is a prohibition against idolatry. Human beings are inveterate idolaters, more than happy to pattern themselves after someone or something else rather than to take on responsibility for themselves. For those who are interested in creatively addressing the undoubtedly real shift in higher education toward preparation for a good job and financial success that has been going on for a while now, I highly recommend iconography. As for your call for a return to idolatry: I wish you would cut it out.

The Sun and the Other Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mulch in the Morning

snowmageddon-300x300It is the next-to-last day of April, and I think it is finally safe to say that we have survived a very tough winter. I often make fun of Rhode Islanders and what they consider a “tough winter” to be. But the winter just ended really was a bad one–one of the snowiest on record, all coming in a one-month stretch from the end of January to the end of February. We had plenty of opportunities to talk about “Snowmageddon,” the “Snowpocalypse,” the Polar Vortex, and to wonder what ridiculous name the Weather Channel would come up with for the latest storm as well as how many more days of classes would be cancelled.

A few days ago I walked out the front door of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and was struck by a distinctive scent wafting on the breeze. Somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between a pristine pine forest and an overpowering air freshener hanging on the rear-view mirror of a car,mulch this scent had rotting organic material tones, with the tangy hint of chemicals. “I love the smell of mulch in the morning! Spring has actually arrived!” There are a number of interesting sights as well as smells that accompany the arrival of spring. That same day as I approached the house returning home briefly for lunch to check up on our four-legged daughters, I saw a squirrel hanging upside down by his back feet from the top of the metal shepherd’s-crook pole that holds several bird-suet cages on our side lawn, using his front paws to open the latch on one of the cages for a free lunch. Our blue spruce that the feeder is next to has apparently grown large enough that squirrel at feederan enterprising squirrel can leap to the feeder from the closest branch at risk of falling several feet to the ground. Amazing what some people will do for a taste of bird seed encased in blocks of greasy suet.

This means that it is time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite projects of the year that I intend to attack with fervor this coming weekend. I use the word “yard” loosely, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for nineteen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn. 005 (2)Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those in the know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in late March and April, watching lilies, tulips, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter. I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front,100_0918 as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and hydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear winter, let alone Winter Storm Juno. 757854410188[1]I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. The primary purpose of the mulch for me, of course, is to get high on the aroma. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more.

19cuaresmaC3[1]Luke’s gospel tells the story of a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I have with ours.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; Holy Week Monday a few weeks ago is the day that Jesus killed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, even though it was not even the season for fig-bearing. Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]He probably was in a bad mood because he knew what was coming in a few days. I completely understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. 250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1]Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

1594489270[1]In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead. In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, Olive treewe often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree
In the house, in the house of the Lord.
I will trust in the mercies of God forever,
I will trust in the mercies of God.

I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.