Category Archives: evil

hypocrisy

Are Philosophers Hypocrites? (Or are they just normal human beings?)

Last Saturday I said something less than complimentary on social media site about a fellow sports fanatic, a person who made the mistake of talking trash about my Providence College Friars hockey team the morning after they were eliminated from the NCAA hockey tournament in double overtime. After finding out (presumably by looking me up on Facebook) that I am a philosophy professor, he expressed great surprise and mock outrage that a professor would stoop to talking trash about sports. It reminded me of something I wrote a few months ago in response to an article accusing philosophers of being hypocrites . . .

Uatlanticpon returning home the other day I noticed that this month’s copy of The Atlantic had arrived. One of the headlines on the cover was “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” a title I brought to Jeanne’s attention. “Yeah,” she mentioned, “and there’s also an article in there about you philosophers being immoral.” Thinking that this might be the article about being a jerk, I looked it up in the Table of Contents. But no—“Why It Pays to Be a Jerk” is one of the lead articles, while “Philosophers are Hypocrites (and ethicists are less than totally ethical)” gets its own brief three-column spread under a monthly category entitled “Study of Studies.” As both a professional philosopher and an occasional jerk, I was intrigued. I discovered some interesting survey findings about philosophers and academics at large.

  • red meatSixty percent of a couple hundred ethicists interviewed in one study rated eating red meat as “morally bad,” but only 27 percent said they didn’t regularly eat red meat. Not that I was surveyed, but I stopped eating red meat six or seven years ago. As soon as chickens and turkeys are reclassified as plants, I’ll be all set.
  • Ethicists and political philosophers were no more likely to vote than other kinds of professors, nor were ethicists more likely to donate blood or register as organ donors. And your point is? Plato, one of the greatest political philosophers ever, claims that the more one knows, the less likely one is to willingly participate in the political process. And maybe the reluctant ethicists are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • Compared with other philosophy texts, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were roughly 50 percent more likely to be permanently missing. vice and virtueLots of assumptions here. I presume that some of the “contemporary ethics books” under discussion are the sorts of anthologies that applied ethics professors such as I use in their undergraduate courses, anthologies that undergo unnecessary revisions ever two or three years so that the authors can make more money and thoroughly annoy their colleagues who now have to revise the page numbers in their syllabi. And why, I might add, do such authors always find it necessary to remove the one or two articles or stories I find most useful from the previous edition and replace them with a bunch of crap I’ll never use (usually written by the author of the anthology)?
  • Philosophers are vulnerable to biases. One study found that, compared with introverted peers, extroverted experts in philosophy and psychology were more likely to hold certain beliefs about free will. Here my finely honed skills as a critical reader kick in—doesn’t everyone hold “certain beliefs about free will”? Maybe it would be helpful to specify which certain beliefs extroverted philosophers and psychologists are more likely to hold about free will than my fellow introverts and I hold. introvertWhatever those beliefs are, I’ll be they are both offensive and wrong. I find that extroverts often are.
  • People with advanced philosophy degrees answered a pair of ethical questions differently depending on which was posed first. Which, I suspect, means that contrary to all appearances and to popular opinion, people with advanced philosophy degrees are still normal human beings when they are not on the clock.
  • People with damage to their brain’s prefrontal cortex tended to have an abnormally “utilitarian” pattern of judgments on moral dilemmas. I always wondered what was wrong with John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer.
  • Compared with everyone else, philosophers seem to be worse about calling their mothers. call motherMy mother has been gone for twenty-seven years and never lived to see me earn my PhD and embark on my career as a philosophy professor. So I wouldn’t know. Maybe the mothers of philosophers have asked their children not to call so often because they hear enough about Heraclitus and Foucault at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Anyone who thinks that earning an advanced degree of any sort somehow transforms the degree-earner automatically into a clearer thinking and more consistent human being needs to spend ten minutes in a Faculty Senate or academic department meeting on any college or university campus anywhere. PlatoPlato once famously claimed that “to know the good is to do the good”—in other words, that knowledge and moral behavior are intimately connected. Upon hearing this claim for the first time, my undergraduate students quickly identify it as refined bullshit. Just ask how many people in any given room have ever known what the right thing to do is and chose to do something else just because they felt like it and watch every hand go up. Plato’s claim that all evil is energized by a perceived, but mistaken good leads him to argue for the proper education as a firewall against doing the wrong thing.

But no amount of education of any sort is a guarantee against bad and immoral behavior. The PhD wielding ethicist is no more likely to be a moral exemplar than an ordained minister, priest, rabbi or imam is guaranteed to be a model of virtue, just as being a doctor does not guarantee one is likely to live a healthy lifestyle. Nor is a great deal of education even necessary for moral excellence, let alone sufficient. Just think about the persons in your history who were or are both short on formal education and high on moral integrity. akrasiaThe ancient Greeks knew about akrasia, weakness of the will—the tendency not to do the right thing even when you know what it is. Various Christian groups like to call this original sin. Plato denied the existence of akrasia, claiming that “no one goes willingly toward the bad,” but even the smartest people can be wrong on a regular basis.

So if training in philosophy and ethics does not produce better people, what is philosophy good for? Lots of things; in the present context, for instance, a trained ethicist is not hired by a hospital or corporation to provide a model of how to live so much as to identify moral complexities, uncover moral issues where no one even suspected there were any, and to provide insight and guidance on how to walk through the minefields of conflicting interests and goods that each of us finds ourselves in on a daily basis. ethicistThe ethicist, rather than simplifying and clarifying, often will make choices and actions more difficult by digging below the surface of moral platitudes and revealing that life almost never provides us with neat, “yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong” binaries. It’s a lot more interesting and complicated than that. An ethicist should at least be able to do the above as well as provide her students or clients with some tools that will help. If not, you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

I have spent close to three decades studying, thinking about and teaching ethics and find that while all of it helps me think moral issues through more clearly than I would without my training, none of it makes me a better person—that requires commitments and energies that learning does not provide—or even guarantees sharper moral vision. tough nutFor instance, I have probably worked on the capital punishment issue two dozen times with students in classes over the years. It’s a tough philosophical nut to crack, and I’m convinced that the anti-capital punishment and anti-death penalty arguments are the strongest. And yet if someone murdered Jeanne or another member of my family, I very well might not only want that person dead but would be happy to administer the injection or pull the switch myself. Does that make me a hypocrite? No, it makes me a human being seeking to live with integrity in a challenging world. If nothing else, philosophy lets me know just how difficult that is.

Old White Guys

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Looking in the mirror for the first time every morning is always a sobering shock, but the other day it was a bit more disturbing than usual. “Wow, you old white guy,” I thought to myself.” “The success of Donald Trump’s run for president thus far is due to people like you.”owg

A couple of days later, this came up in a locker room conversation. One of my favorite conversation people to talk with is a retired professor from the history department, with whom I had the privilege of team-teaching a course a couple of years ago during his final year in the classroom. J is curmudgeonly, direct, opinionated, and very insightful—all reasons that I enjoy conversing with him. Our most recent conversation took place in the locker room at our on-campus gym; we tend to work out around the same late morning time on weekdays.

Him: History proves that human beings are the worst thing that’s ever happened to our planet. Things would be a lot better if about seventy-five percent of the people now alive were wiped out.

Me: Really?

Him: Yeah—a motorcycle-riding buddy of mine once said that he agreed with me until I reminded him that this included children.dt and owg

Me: You know, the typical Donald Trump supporters are predominantly old white guys. I’d be happy to start by wiping out old white guys, except that’s my demographic.

Him: Mine too. That’s a problem.

During our current Presidential election cycle my sixty-year-old whiteness has come to my attention more frequently than in the past—I hear and read over and over again that certain elements of U. S. citizenry are angry, upset about all sorts of things, an anger that has made outsider candidates such Ben Carson, early on, and Donald Trump attractive in spite of their complete lack of traditional qualifications for the Presidency. And what sorts of people are angriest? Older white people, particularly older white guys. My demographic, in other words. What are older white guys mad about? Just about everything, apparently; the general sense is a gnawing fear that things they have taken for granted their whole lives are changing and that the world they thought they could depend on seems not quite so dependable any more. pogoA world which used to make perfect sense isn’t making sense any more. Perhaps more to the point, older white guys aren’t happy about an emerging world in which whiteness, maleness, and entitlement are no longer synonymous. I refer to these guys as “they” and often rail against their fear and rigidity—but as Pogo once said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Like it or not, I’m getting older and I’m a white male. “They” are my people.

I have written about white privilege before, noting that even though older white folks such as I have been the beneficiaries of generations of accumulated and embedded privilege our whole lives—often without our even being aware—it can be jarring to be told forcefully in various ways that what we take for granted has been institutionally denied to those unlike us throughout the history of our country.

White Privilege

But as Bob Dylan observed more than a half century ago, “the times, they are a-changin’.” For those who long for the world they thought had been guaranteed to them and to which they believe they are entitled, the news is not good. Those days are not coming back.still life

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, the first installment in her award-winning Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series that I have just begun reading, the Chief Inspector and Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, have a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. For twenty-five years Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. Why did she do it?

I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn’t changing because he didn’t want to. nmfHe had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.

This puts a different spin on things. The world around us is what it is, as Jeanne would say, and there is often little or nothing we can do about it. But as the ancient Stoics, Myrna’s point is that what really matters is how I will respond to those things outside my control, how I will process what comes to me on a daily basis, particularly those things that impose themselves on me without my permission or agreement. And the choice of how to respond, react, and process is entirely up to me.

Most of us are great with change, as long as it was our idea. But change imposed from the outside sends most people into a tailspin.  If we can accept that nothing is permanent, and change is inevitable, if we can adapt, then we’re going to be happier people.

I recall clearly my first “old white guy” reaction to change—marquetteit happened over twenty-five years ago, well before I officially entered the old white guy demographic. I was applying to my first college teaching positions with my Ph.D. soon to be in hand; I had terrific recommendations, straight A’s, teaching experience, and even a couple of published articles. And no one was calling me for interviews. After a certain amount of frustration, I managed to put two and two together—and didn’t like the resulting sum. I knew that 85-90% of all the college level university philosophy professors in America at that time were white males. I was aware that I am white and male. But I had not joined these promising facts together with the fact that the world had changed and was continuing to change in ways that did not particularly favor people in my demographic. In short, I was born with two tickets—whiteness and maleness—that in the past were the most useful tickets to have in our country for gaining access to just about everything that matters—jobs, housing, education, and so on.

But during my own lifetime, those tickets not only began to stop giving people like me surefire access to everything—they sometimes even became liabilities. The very characteristics that traditionally would have put me at the top of the list were now more likely to put me at the bottom.white privilege Imagine that—philosophy departments full of people who looked like me were beginning to think that perhaps qualified women and persons of color had not been treated fairly. Furthermore, armed with programs like affirmative action, they were beginning to do something about it. “Well that’s not fair!” I thought. “It’s not my fault that I’m white and male!” No it wasn’t, but neither would it have been fair for me to benefit from a skewed and unjust system that would have favored me in the past for reasons having nothing to do with my own qualifications. Change had come and was continuing to do so without my permission. My only choice was to decide how to respond to and process this development.

As their conversation continues, Myrna and the Chief Inspector draw an important conclusion, one memorably summarized by Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Myrna: Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting. Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. shakespeareThe thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it.

Gamache: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Myrna: That’s it. It’s not fate, not genetics, not bad luck . . . Ultimately it’s us and our choices. The vast majority of troubled people don’t get it. The fault is here, but so is the solution. That’s the grace.

Dodge City Ethics

Bein’ born is craps. How we live is poker. Doc Holliday

sparrowOf the dozens of novelists whose books I have read over the years, Mary Doria Russell is one of the least likely favorites. I’m not a big science fiction fan (I much prefer mysteries), but her debut novels The Sparrow and Children of God, about a Jesuit missionary expedition in outer space (you can’t beat Catholics in space!) are both beautifully written and thought-provoking. Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt during the post-World War One partitioning of Palestine, is much better than I expected it would be. And I’ve avoided her most recent novels, Doc and Epitaph, which follow Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers through late nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, for quite a while since I’ve never been a fan of Wild West fiction. But a recent reread of Dreamers of the Day reminded me of what a wonderful writer Russell is; I was looking for a new novel, so Doc and Epitaph it is. I highly recommend  them.doc

Doc is set in 1878 Dodge City where the genteel and consumptive dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday finds himself scratching out a living as a card shark by night and a sometimes-dentist for cowboys who have never seen a toothbrush by day. A Northern-educated Southern gentleman who headed west hoping that the dry Plains air might be good for his lungs, Doc finds himself in a violent world where life means little and in which most of his acquaintances can barely read, let alone appreciate his conversational references to Vergil and Dostoevsky. One exception is Morgan Earp, the youngest of three Earp brothers in town, who is a policeman along with his older brother Wyatt. Wyatt can barely read, but Doc happily loans Morgan favorite volumes from the library he brought with him from Georgia, including Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist.

One morning Morgan is in Doc’s dentist office as Doc extracts several teeth from a chloroformed Wyatt, Doc and Morgan discuss the novels Morgan is reading.holliday

  • Doc: Morgan, how are you and Mr. Dickens getting along?
  • Morgan: I lie him better than Dostoevsky. Oliver Twist reminds me of Wyatt when he was a kid.
  • Doc: You met Mr. Fagin yet?
  • Morgan: Yeah. Ain’t made up my mind about him. He’s good to feed all those boys, but he’s teaching them to be pickpockets too. That don’t seem right.
  • Doc: But that is just what makes Fagin interestin’. Raskolnikoff, too. Fagin does his good deed with a bad purpose in mind, but the boys are still fed. Raskolnikoff kills the old woman, but he wants to use her money to improve society. As Monsieur Balzac asked, May we not do a small evil for the sake of accomplishin’ a great good?
  • Morgan: I don’t know. It’s still an evil.
  • Doc: And yet, that seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.

posterAnd there, in a dentist office in dusty, dirty Dodge City, is the heart of one of the greatest quandaries in ethics. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it ever morally permissible to act immorally in the attempted achievement of a great moral good?

Philosophers love this stuff. The other day when I tried to get a colleague and friend from the English department to choose whether she would choose to support our Providence Friars basketball team or the University of Virginia Cavaliers (UVA is her beloved alma mater) if they played in the Final Four, she asked “Is this one of those philosophy games where you give someone completely unrealistic hypotheticals and then force them to make a choice?” She undoubtedly had heard philosophy puzzles such as

Suppose an out-of-control train is running down the tracks directly at a bus full of 30 people stalled on the track. You have the opportunity to redirect the train to another track where one person is stalled in a car on the track. trolleyIf you don’t pull the switch to redirect the train, thirty people will die. If you do, one person will die and thirty people’s lives will be saved. Do you pull the switch?

To complicate matters, suppose that the one person on the second track is a brilliant scientist who is on the edge of discovering a cure for cancer. Does that make a difference? What if he or she is a homeless person? You get the point.

Surprisingly, non-philosophers don’t always enjoy playing such hypothetical games (by the way, my colleague said she would cheer for UVA, which almost ended our friendship instantly). But the issues raised by Morgan and Doc’s conversation still hold. c and pWas it morally permissible for Raskolnikov to murder the useless old miserly woman in the interest of distributing the millions of rubles she was hoarding to hungry and needy people? Does Fagin’s feeding of dozens of hungry children lose its positive moral strength when we find out that he is training them to be pickpockets and becoming rich in the process?

Many philosophers and theologians have noted that in an unpredictable world filled with evil, no one’s hands are ever morally pure—regardless of their intentions. Doc and Morgan’s conversation moves in this direction.

  • Doc: We’re none of us born into Eden. World’s plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what’s the best way to play a bad hand?
  • Morgan: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • Doc: Infinitely sad, but damnably true. Bein’ born is craps, but how we live is poker. The question is how to play a bad hand well.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus could not have said it better: “For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

But on this day after Easter, I would be remiss if I did not return for a moment to Doc’s characterization of the events of Good Friday and Easter: “That seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.” hyacinthMaybe, but something tells me that a utilitarian number-crunching calculus is not the motivating factor behind Easter. At the heart of the story is radical love—God responds to our flawed human condition by becoming one of us, taking on everything that defines us including pain, injustice, suffering, and death. The new life of Easter emerges from the worst that our world can offer, just as the hyacinths are poking their heads out of the seemingly dead grass in my front yard. No matter the hand we’re dealt, that’s the way to play it.

crucifixion[1]

A Common Criminal

During the Providence Friars’ recent exciting basketball season, Jeanne and I frequently watched a replay of the team’s most recent win the next day online. Every game has its ebbs and flows, including moments when in real time it appears that we are headed for defeat. The virtues of watching a replay the next day when the positive outcome is already known include no stress and the opportunity to savor the best plays in a way that is impossible in real time. Mind you, we have never watched a replay of a Friars loss—why submit ourselves voluntarily to an experience that we know ends badly? Even the worst of times can be weathered and perhaps appreciated when one knows that things work out in the end. Jeanne’s and my habit is entirely harmless when confined to our love of college basketball, theology of glorybut this is also how millions of Christians tend to treat Good Friday, the darkest day in the liturgical year.

In the religious tradition of my youth, Good Friday was a speed bump on the way to Easter. Our theology was what scholars call a “theology of glory,” one that emphasizes the power and glory of God as exemplified through Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world on Good Friday and his triumphant resurrection from the dead three days later. It is difficult to pay more than twenty-four hours of attention to the suffering and agony of the cross when you know that it all ends up in the right place. Although I left many features of my conservative Protestant upbringing in my rear view mirror decades ago, I did not start thinking differently about Good Friday and Easter until I encountered Simone Weil’s work for the first time twenty-five years ago. SimoneWeil writes that “The death on the Cross is something more divine than the Resurrection,” and suggests that the heart of Christianity would be complete with the Crucifixion even without the Resurrection. What happens if the focus of one’s Christian faith is Good Friday rather than Easter?

The Crucifixion without anticipating the Resurrection first moves our attention away from glory, power, and triumph, instead focusing us on suffering, pain, and weakness. This in itself brings home the fundamental fact of Christian belief—God became human, with an emphasis on the human part. This is something that a theology of glory tends to de-emphasize, at the risk of turning away from the most fundamental truths of the human experience. A couple of years ago I had a discussion with my after-church adult education group about the end of the jobs-restorationBook of Job in the Jewish Scriptures, an ending tacked on long after the main story had been written in which after forty some chapters of suffering Job gets back everything that he had lost. I asked the group why someone might have found it necessary to add this “happily ever after” ending to such a dark and human story. “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another contributed. “Which makes the better story?” I asked. The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something regular participant said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. theology of the crossA theology that depends on a triumphant, happy ending is one that runs the risk of failing to address the human condition as we find it.

In contrast to a theology of glory, the God of a theology of the cross addresses the human condition, not by overcoming it, but by becoming part of it. The vast distance between the human and the divine is mediated by the divine becoming incarnated in flesh and thus becoming subject to everything that human beings are subject to—including suffering and death.

Incarnation and crucifixion are expressions of love; resurrection is an expression both of love and power. Simone Weil focuses on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection in order to counter our common tendency to rush ahead to the Resurrection, thus failing to recognize the depth of the agony and suffering required for Christ’s mediation. She does not deny the Resurrection; rather, she asks us not to let our joy at the risen Christ diminish our understanding of the price required for us to be made the friends of God.

After the Resurrection the infamous character of his ordeal was effaced by glory, and today, across twenty centuries of adoration, the degradation which is the very essence of the Passion is hardly felt by us . . . We no longer imagine the dying Christ as a common criminal.all flesh is like the grass

The Incarnation and the Crucifixion focus our attention on unlimited love, something that we often are too quick to move past in our rush to a happy ending. But as Job tells us, “mortals die, and are laid low.” Good Friday reminds us that because of divine love the incarnated God did not seek to avoid this fundamental human experience.

St. Paul argued that the focal point of the Christian faith is the Resurrection: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain.” Simone Weil, however, asks us not to forget that more foundationally the Christian faith is vain if there is no Cross, no suffering and death of the divine mediator between God and humanity. Only when we see, as did the penitent thief, that the criminal hanging on a cross, rejected and despised by all, is the perfectly just God-man paying the ultimate sacrifice to achieve mediation between God and humanity will we begin to truly experience the mystery of the Christian faith. If the story ended with Jesus executed as a criminal and dead in a tomb, we still would have reason to believe in a God of love. Our very existence, as well as the existence of the reality we inhabit, is evidence of God’s choice to create in order to love. The story of a God who becomes fully human, who lives a life in time subject to all things each human being is subject to, including suffering, pain, loss, tragedy, injustice, and death serves to drive the point deeper.god is with us Good Friday reveals just how far the divine chooses to go with us—into the depths of despair and death.

The other day Jeanne and I were talking about what the indispensable heart of Christianity might be. My contribution was that “God is love, and God is with us.” Stripped of millennia of doctrinal and dogmatic accretions, that’s what the Christian faith amounts to. And it is on full display on Good Friday with Jesus dying on the cross. Even if there was no Resurrection, the Crucifixion and Incarnation provide everything one needs to know about the human relationship with the divine. God is love. God is with us.

A Practicing Atheist

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted the following:

When I say I’m an atheist, what I’m saying is that my personal journey of education and introspection has brought me to that conclusion. It’s about me and my choices. If you take that as an insult, please realize that, although Christians in this country get preferential treatment, not everything is actually about you. I am not bothered by belief. I do not consider the existence of every church a personal insult. Please enjoy your privilege and stop making atheism about you.

My response: “From a progressive Christian, thank you.” Her post reminded me of something Simone Weil once wrote about atheism. I reflected on it in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

Simone Weil writes that “Atheism is a purification.” Not where I come from. No word or phrase was more mysterious or terror producing for a young Baptist boy than “atheist.” I certainly didn’t know any, nor did my parents, nor did anyone in my extended family, nor did anyone who attended our church. But none of us knew any serial killers, either. Apparently atheists were out there somewhere, running Hollywood, teaching in secular universities, and generally sticking their thumbs in the eye of what they denied the existence of. It wasn’t clear to me how an atheist could even stay alive. If God snuffed out Uzzah just for putting his hand on the Ark in the Old Testament, how did people who had the nerve to say “God doesn’t exist” manage to last? I came to suspect that atheists were mythical creatures like unicorns and Big Foot, until one day I heard my aunt Gloria, who had a very loud voice, whispering to my mother in the next room about the new high school science teacher. “He spends a lot of time teaching evolution; I’ll bet he’s a practicing atheist.”

Now that’s a very interesting concept—a “practicing atheist.” What exactly does that mean? Is that someone who is very serious about atheism, who has gone beyond the lazy “God doesn’t exist” verbal stage and is actually putting this stuff into action? Does one practice atheism as I practiced the piano as a child, in hopes of becoming a concert atheist? Is the “practicing atheist” an atheist in training, sort of a double- or triple-AAA newbie practicing and honing his atheist skills until he gets to the atheist big leagues? Does the “practicing atheist” try it out for a while to see how she likes it? I mean, I could be a “practicing” any number of things, like a practicing vegetarian. I could do it for a while, and even realize that it was good for me, but before long I’d just have to eat some meat. Given my general obsession with the “God question,” maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul, just as vegetarianism would be good for my bodily well-being.

Practicing atheism would put an end to creating God in my own image. I have known many gods in my lifetime, and every one of them is either a projection of myself or of the person(s) who introduced me.

  • A now silent God who stopped communicating directly with human beings several centuries ago, once the dictation of the divine word in print was finished.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language.”
  • A God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An arbitrary God whose ire will be raised by the consumption of meat on Fridays during Lent, but who does not particularly care about pre-marital sex.
  • An exclusively masculine God.
  • A God who is more concerned with the length of male hair and female skirts than with the breadth and depth of one’s spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose paramount concerns are one’s positions on sexual orientation, abortion, or universal health care.
  •  A God who micromanages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects, and oil spills.
  •  A God who is more honored by self-reliance than by compassion for those in need.

 And many more. As a practicing atheist I might still have anthropomorphic issues, but an anthropomorphic God would not be one of them.

Practicing atheism would be an effective antidote to any remaining obsession from my youth with what happens after physical death. We all sang songs about what a day of rejoicing it will be when we all get heaven. I don’t know any atheist hymns, so perhaps I should write one which draws my attention to now. As a child I thought that the only reason to become a Christian was to get an ironclad fire insurance policy from hell. We used to sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Maybe I should love this world that is my home, one that I only get to live in for a short while. This is the world I’ve been given.

Atheism would provide me with new tools to apply to the problem of suffering and evil. Once I stop wondering why God allows the innocent to suffer, the guilty not to suffer, earthquakes to obliterate thousands, and the world generally to operate contrary to my wishes, the landscape looks quite different. Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.

Atheism would make it much more difficult for me to seek false consolations for disappointments, difficulties, and perceived injustices. I am reminded, year after year, that a significant majority of my students, most of whom are parochial school educated, believe that consolation is the only real reason to believe in God. But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie. If my only response to human pain, mine or someone else’s, is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us,” then pretty soon I become incapable of even seeing much of the suffering around me. There are times when Albert Camus’ project in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “to see if I can live without appeal,” has to be my project. What if this is all there is? What if the only responses available to suffering and pain are ours? What if I don’t get to pass the buck on to the divine?

“Atheism is a purification” is not a call to become an atheist. Rather, for me a serious season of practicing atheism would serve as a purgative, a process of spiritual cleansing, eliminating loose vocabulary, sloppy habits, and lazy certainties which dull my spiritual sensibilities. If my Christian faith means anything, it means God in the flesh, incarnated in all features of this difficult, troublesome, exhilarating and precious world that is a divine gift. Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world. Practicing atheism can help. As Simone Weil writes, “Let us love this country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.”

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I have team-taught twice with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era”—we will be teaching it for a third time in Spring 2017. In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. In the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

Hope in Exile

As is the case with any profession, the life of an academic includes some great and some not-so-great features. After twenty-five years of being a college professor, here’s a brief list:

Great:

• Sabbatical

• Being in the classroomlove teaching

• Team-teaching with colleagues

• Planning courses

• Writing

• Beer with fellow teachers on Friday afternoons

Not So Much:

• Gradingtechnology

• Being in a dysfunctional department

• Trying to get what you have written published

• Technology in the classroom

And academic conferences. Especially academic conferences

I have written in the past about my dislike of academic conferences. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenure and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. Not to mention overheated and ugly seminar rooms along with stale pastries and lukewarm coffee. I do not learn much just by listening to someone—I’m more a visual and tactile learner—but traditionally that’s been the way things go at conferences. colloquy posterOf course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

Fortunately I have not had to work the academic conference circuit vigorously since I earned promotion to full professor almost fifteen years ago. There is, however, one group of academics that I enjoy gathering with annually for a conference—the American Weil Society. If you read this blog regularly or even occasionally, you know that Simone Weil shows up on a semi-regular basis. I’ve had an intellectual affair with this strange woman from the first half of the twentieth century for at over fifteen years now (Jeanne calls Simone my mistress), a connection that has produced a book, several articles, and a paper at the Weil colloquy almost every year.

I have attended the annual Weil Society colloquy just about every year for the past couple of decades; we have hosted the Weil colloquy twice in the past ten years here at Providence College. There are a solid two dozen or so Weil scholars from North America who attend just about every colloquy. The theme of this year’s colloquy is hope in exile“Hope in Exile,” an evocative topic that prompted me to send in a brief proposal. The proposal was accepted, so now I have to write the paper. That’s one of the great things about a blog—it provides me with an opportunity to run my thoughts past intelligent people before I am responsible for them in person.

As I searched my notes and Simone Weil texts the other day for “hope” references, I was surprised to find that she doesn’t explicitly discuss the topic very often. And yet, the theme of how to avoid despair in the middle of a world that seems determined to drive us toward it on a daily basis is a thread that winds through most of her writing. In her final work, NfrThe Need for Roots, Weil considers why despair is not a necessity.

If pure good were never capable of producing on this earth true greatness in art, science, theoretical speculation, public enterprise, if in all these spheres there were only false greatness, if in all these spheres everything were despicable, and consequently condemnable, there would be no hope at all for the affairs of this world; no possible illumination of this world by the other one. But it is not so. (Emphasis mine)

This reminded me of something I just read the other day from Marilynne Robinson:

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.

One encounters this sort of “somber panic” and such proposed “terrible remedies” everywhere one turns these days. When everything is pushing intelligent people toward cynicism and/or despair, what reasons are there, if any, to cultivate hope? The cynic is likely to agree with Violet, dowager countess of downtonDownton Abbey, who says that “hope is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.” The hopeful person might counter with something like what I heard Maria Popova say on NPR’s “On Point” the other day: “Cynicism is the sewage of the soul.” My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

Simone Weil’s insight is a good place to start. If it is actually the case that human beings are incapable of producing anything of value, if it is true that even the best of human endeavors are polluted by falsity and worthy of condemnation, then cynicism or despair are the reasonable order of the day. There is no reason other than naïveté to hope for anything other than a continuation of mediocrity, violence, and death until we finally manage to snuff ourselves out. But after setting the stage for such despair, Weil opens the window a crack with just one sentence: But it is not so. RobinsonMarilynne Robinson concludes her comments on the attractiveness of cultural pessimism with a similar sentiment.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism—exactly the same grounds, in fact—that is, because we are human . . . To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

The stakes could not possibly be higher. As I begin working on this with the upcoming conference in mind, I start with the premise that what really needs to be sorted out is the relationship between critical thinking and hope, since critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Our contemporary challenge is to find a place between the scylla and charybdisScylla of cynicism and the Charybdis of naïveté, seeking to build a life in that space because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom as well as a futile self-protection mechanism. And perhaps it is worth taking note of Simone Weil’s suggestion that the illumination of this world by “the other one” might be a reason to hope. What is that other world? How might a passageway for mutual illumination be opened? Stay tuned—I welcome your ideas and contributions!

We Are Not Alone

This Christmas season seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe and in our country jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

2006_the_nativity_story_007[1]

That Mary Thing

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” Neither do I. But every fourth Sunday of Advent, including this coming Sunday, is “Mary Sunday,” testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown remarkable and glorious favor toward me and has bestowed abundant blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024

Our Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

our thoughts and prayersOn the day after the San Bernardino massacre, just the latest in what seems to be a weekly litany of mass violence in this country, I posted the following in frustration on my Facebook page:

I’m tired–really tired–of hearing people say and seeing them write that “my thoughts and prayers are with” the victims of the latest mass shooting. God isn’t going to fix this, and the victims don’t need our prayers. They need us to f__king do something about the gun insanity in this country. just another dayUntil then, as a BBC headline said today, massacres such as today’s will be “Just Another Day in the United States.”

My post was prompted by an avalanche of “my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” sentiments in social media and from every corner of politics, as candidates for President fell over each other in the race to express the sincerity of their thoughts and prayers before those of their opponents. Given the cheapness of thoughts and prayers disconnected from actual action, I was not impressed.

Not surprisingly, my post generated more activity than perhaps any Facebook message I have ever written, comments ranging from mere “likes” and brief sentences of agreement to pushback of various sorts. One person suggested that we should pay more attention to the fact that gun violence is significantly lower in this country than it was twenty years ago; instead of wringing our hands over the violence that remains, we should study carefully what we have done right in the last twenty years and continue to do likewise (this comment set off a different, very volatile discussion that I did not participate in). 2nd amendmentSomeone else wanted to know if I believe in the Second Amendment (I do, but not interpreted as unlimited license to bear arms in whatever amount and of whatever kind one chooses). But given that the main concern energizing my post was the cavalier attitude behind offering impotent and ineffective prayers in response to random bloodshed and not a debate about gun control, what caught my attention most came from a friend whose faith perspective is of the sort in which I was raised.

  • Friend: How about this. Instead of each of us approaching this problem with our own fix, we all as Christian people pray that the light of Christ shine on this country and the world so all can see the truth for what it is. Most people don’t want this. To see the truth is painful. The light of Christ exposes all things hiding in dark places including ourselves.
  • Me: With millions of people praying for this every day and the problem getting worse, what would you suggest? I’m a Christian and I’m also a pragmatist—too many people are hiding behind the defense of “we’re praying for change” while never spending an ounce of effort actually trying to make it happen.
  • Friend: You missed it. I’m not talking about praying for change. I’m talking about praying that the light of Christ will shine! If Jesus is truly the light of the world, then no dark thing can be hidden from it. Everything would be seen for what it really is.
  • Me: True—but my question still stands. The Bible says God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That’s a lot more than just praying for the light of Christ to shine.

This was the sort of conversation that could have gone on indefinitely with each of us talking past each other and making no connection. Fortunately, another Facebook acquaintance jumped in and said clearly what I should have said.

  • Facebook acquaintance: God works through us, not instead of us. We are the physical manifestation of God and, while prayers do help us see and hear what must be done, we are the ones who must do it. The God you are praying to is waiting for you to be the light you are praying to shine. How does your Jesus shine light into the world if not by you?

This brought to mind a favorite passage from Joan Chittister, one that I arrive at frequently when I take the time to wonder what being a person of faith might actually require of us rather than mere facile verbiage.joan chittister

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

As long as persons of faith believe that “my thoughts and prayers are with you” is an appropriate response to anything, let alone the tragedy of mass violence, we wait in vain for the coming of the kingdom of God for which many of us robotically pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. I have often wondered how it is that faith commitment so frequently over time becomes nothing more than rote phrases and habitual practices; the most obvious answer is that it happens in the same way that intelligent commitment platitudeis reduced to bumper sticker platitudes in any human endeavor. It happens because real commitment is difficult and cuts far deeper than the simplified ways we construct to make it through our days, weeks, months and years intact.

In the liturgical year Advent is the time to pay close attention to the ways in which the divine, according to the Christian narrative, chooses to insert itself into our human reality. It never happens in easily identifiable ways or in events so spectacular that even the densest person would have to admit that “yes, that’s God at work.” Instead God enters the world through the pregnancies of a woman past child-bearing years and of a virgin, in private communications that only one person is privy to,be the change and ultimately through a helpless baby in a manger surrounded by animals.
This is good news, because it says that each of us—no matter how insignificant and powerless—can be the vehicle of divine change. But as it was in the stories, so it is now. We have to decide to be that change. We have to say “be it unto me according to your word.” This requires a lot more than thoughts and prayers.