Category Archives: faith

The Right Niyyah

As I wait impatiently for my sabbatical that is under contract with a publisher to return from the editor, I’ve been thinking about some of my blog essays that “made the cut” in some sense to appear in revised form in my book-to-be. One of these essays is about the challenge of cultivating the right attitude with which to enter the world on a daily basis. I learned a lot about this from Rami Nashishibi when he was interviewed a year or so ago on Krista Tippett’s “On Being.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being,” a show that I frequently catch several minutes of on Sunday mornings as I drive the fifteen minutes from our house to the early show at church. A few weeks ago, her guest was Rami Nashashibi, Founder and Executive Director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, in Chicago. He’s also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology of Religion and Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.nashishibi

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

Graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he’s the leader of a globally-emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in post-9/11 America.

Not surprisingly, the conversation was wide-ranging, fascinating, and introduced me to a number of matters and issues that are well outside of my usual frame of reference. What particularly grabbed me, however, was a brief exchange toward the end of the interview, just as I was pulling into my usual parking spot at Trinity Episcopal.

Krista Tippett: I told you I was on your Twitter feed, and I love this. I think it was really recent. You wrote: “My 4-year-old discovers the spiritual power of her name as she looks over and seriously asks, ‘Daddy, do you have the right niyyah?’” What does niyyah mean?

Rami Nashashibi: So niyyah — in kind of Arabic-Muslim parlance — is spiritual intention. niyyahAnd oftentimes — it’s both the Swahili and Arabic word. And oftentimes, Muslims are always asked before they pray, before they do any act of service, before they engage in anything that has any kind of sense of worship associated with it, is it being done for the right niyyah? Is it being done for the right purpose? Are you attempting to get fame or credit? I think, yes, there was a song that had used her name in that way and the light went off in the middle of it and turned over to me on the couch and asked me that question. Honestly, I looked at her and I didn’t have an answer for her for I think a good 20 seconds. She nodded her head and she said, “No, probably not.”

And I said, “What?” We then had a conversation. I said, “Well, at least keep me in your prayers that I have.”

This four-year-old’s simple question—Do you have the right niyyah?—has stuck with me ever since. So has her response to her father’s lack of response—“No, probably not.” It’s hard enough to figure out what the right thing to do is on a daily basis; adding in that it should be done with the right intention, for the right reasons, seems like piling on.intentions and actions As a philosophy professor who has taught introductory ethics courses more times than I care to count over the past twenty-five years, I have thought about this a lot. When I ask my students “What is more important—what you do, or why you do it? Actions or intentions?” they usually split roughly down the middle.

And so do the great moral philosophers. There is the tradition of those who say that only results matter (since they can be observed and measured publicly) and intentions are irrelevant. Then there is the other tradition (spearheaded by Immanuel Kant) who say that results are irrelevant—the true measure of the moral life is internal. Were your intentions pure? Was your heart in the right place? If so, then you are morally in the clear, even if the results of your intended action go “tits up” (to quote my brother-in-law).

VgMKgyZMy students are pretty smart, and it doesn’t take very long before they realize that the “results or intentions” question is a false dichotomy. Because in truth, normal human beings care about both. If morality is just about doing the right thing, then the person who identifies the things that should be done and does them—even if for all of the wrong reasons, such as self-righteous smugness or the praise of others—is morally in the clear. But Nashashibi’s four-year-old daughter is right—we want not only the right thing to be done, but for it to be done with the right niyyah, the right intention or reason. And that sucks, because it takes things straight into the human heart. For those who profess the Christian faith, it also takes things straight into the world of grace.

The first thing I ever learned from Scripture about the human heart as a young boy was from JeremiahJeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked—who can know it?” Far less attention was paid to the Psalm that is recited in liturgical churches during the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” Straight from the Jewish scriptures is both the problem of and the solution for right intentions. As a flawed human being, I am incapable of doing things for the right reason, but help is available. Through divine grace the heart is changed and turned toward the good. Rami Nashishibi’s daughter is right when she doubts that her dad has the right niyyah, so long as that depends on his own energies and strength. But when the divine gets involved, everything changes.

The mystery of grace is exactly that—a mystery. Divine grace enters the world through flawed human beings, strangely enough, and there isn’t enough time to try to figure it out. Grace is something to be channeled, to be lived, not systematized and turned into dogma or doctrine. My bright abyssThe poet Christian Wiman writes beautifully about this. Through many years of cancer treatments, he learned to hear God, then to channel God, in the most unlikely places, the very places where divine grace apparently lives. Wiman writes that

God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is composed of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. . . . All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

The right niyyah is not the result of struggle, training, or calculation. And as the author of Deuteronomy tells us,deuteronomy

Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

All I have to do to have the right niyyah is to open my heart, open my mouth, and let it out.

To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.

Invading the Impossible

A couple of Sundays ago the gospel reading from Luke prompted our rector and my friend Mitch to suggest that Jesus is not someone you would ever want to invite to dinner. Why? Because Jesus’ behavior and the stories he told indicate that he had little interest in or patience with the way things are “supposed to be done.” For instance, he suggests that when you throw a dinner party, everyone is welcomeyou should not invite your best friends and closest family, the people who you know and love the most and whose presence is guaranteed to make the evening a success (they also are the people who are likely to extend a return invitation to you in the future). Rather, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind . . . because they cannot repay you.” In Providence, and I suspect in many locations, it has seemed over this past summer that every busy intersection has a person or two standing with a container and a homemade sign that says something like “Homeless—anything helps. God bless you.” There has been a lot of chatter in various places about where all these people came from, are they really homeless or is this actually an organized scam, and so on. Jesus not only would not ask those questions, homelessbut he would also bring all of these folks along to your house for a meal if you invite him to dinner. So think carefully before you invite him—there’s no telling what he might do or say.

A few days later at the opening of the semester mass that also officially kicked off my college’s 100th anniversary year, the gospel for the day was from earlier in Luke. This time Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a high fever, Jesus heals her, “and immediately she arose and served them.” The word gets around town, of course, that the healing man is here and as evening falls everyone with anything wrong with them either makes their way or is brought to Jesus. Throughout the night he heals them all. As one might expect, he’s exhausted by the time morning arrives and, as introverts will do, “he departed and went into a deserted place.” But showing a typical lack of respect for an introvert’s need for solitude and battery recharging, “the crowd sought him and came to him, and tried to keep him from leaving them.” Just a normal twenty-four hours in the life of the Son of God.

So what are we to make of such stories if one professes to be a follower of Jesus and to at least be on the fringes of Christianity? My natural and immediate reaction from my earliest years has always been twofold. First, this guy was strange. Second, his being both human and divine equipped him to do stuff that normal human beings can’t do. Neither of those reactions is profound or unusual; it’s difficult to know what one is supposed to make of the gospel stories, particularly if they are intended to provide us with guidance for how to live a human life. global awakeningsBut not long ago I came across an “out of left field” observation about Jesus in action that jerked me up short.

Jeanne spent three weeks in June at an extended conference and workshop in Pennsylvania at a place called “Global Awakenings,” returning with much to be thankful for and much to share. All of the speakers and teachers she spent the weeks with can be listened to on-line, so over the summer I spent a good deal of time listening to and becoming acquainted with what these folks are up to. I’ve enjoyed and learned a great deal from my listening, but I resonated particularly with one fellow named Bill JohnsonBill Johnson. A few days after we listened together to one of his talks, Jeanne said “I have something from one of Bill’s books that I want to read to you.” Here’s what she read:

Jesus could not heal the sick. Neither could he deliver the tormented from demons or raise the dead. To believe otherwise is to ignore what he said about himself, and more importantly, to miss the purpose of his self-imposed restriction to live as a man. Jesus said of himself, “the Son can do nothing.” He had no supernatural capabilities whatsoever. He chose to live with the same limitations that man would face once he was redeemed. He made that point over and over again. Jesus became the model for all who would embrace the invitation to invade the impossible in his name. He performed miracles, signs, and wonders as a man in right relationship to God . . . Johnsons booknot as God. If he performed miracles because he was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if he did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue his lifestyle. Recapturing this simple truth changes everything.

“Wow!” I said—“Holy shit!” I thought—“That’s really out there.” One of several endorsements at the beginning of the book describes the author, Bill Johnson, as “one of the nicest persons I know, and one of the most dangerous.” That’s not an overstatement. Because if what he writes about Jesus is true, then there is no place for those who profess to follow Jesus to hide.

One of the great theological and doctrinal debates in the early Christian church had to do, not surprisingly, with how we are supposed to understand Jesus. Human? God? Both? The winner in the debate, as embedded in the Nicene Creed that Christians in many churches recite every week, was “Both.” Which is, of course, very confusing. Various groups have tended to emphasize one aspect over the other ever since. nicene creedMy own tendency has always been to embrace the human side of Jesus rather than divinity, a tendency that over the past several years has evolved into a strong resonance with incarnation, the divine choice to be in the world in human form. I’m convinced that this was not a one-time deal. God continues to be in the world in human form, in you and in me. The passage from Bill Johnson’s book resonates fully with a strong embrace of incarnation. So far so good.

But as many, I tend to waffle when it comes to the miracles of Jesus. Amazing things happen in his wake everywhere he goes; all he has to do is show up. It’s easy simply to say “Well of course—he was the Son of God.” Bill Johnson’s argument is controversial, first and foremost, because it takes this “out” off the table. His argument also makes a lot of sense—it’s just that most followers of Jesus, including me, aren’t ready to hear it. AthanasiusAthanasius provocatively once said that “God became man so that man might become God,” exactly what Bill Johnson is arguing. Jesus is an example and model of what a human being attuned to the divine is like, of what is possible for those of us who take our faith seriously. The idea of incarnation, of God working in the world in and through human beings, is a beautiful one—but it is also intensely challenging. Jesus told his followers that they would do greater things than he did, and that includes us. Are we sure that we are ready to “invade the impossible”?

Embracing the Barbarian Invasion

Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.”  Hannah Arendt

One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. images[6]Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”

rays[1]The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.

Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, yowl-380x190[1]a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.

Conan-the-Barbarian[1]The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our 196834_112520205494582_3062546_n[1]dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.

And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. conan-barbarian-04_510[1]Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.

Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. Title[1]One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”

So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief.collegeville-lecture-31[1] During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?

As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. JCarse3YT1.2c_000[1]As James Carse writes,

This is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.

hey-relax-buddy-im-working-on-it

I’m Working On It

Any caring human being asks the question What is the right thing to do? on a regular basis. As a philosophy professor who teaches ethics regularly, IrisI am aware that in the minds of many, the whole purpose of thinking systematically and rigorously about the moral life is to provide reliable and confident answers to that very question. Moral philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Iris Murdoch, from Aristotle to MacIntyreAlasdair MacIntyre, have provided frameworks within which to answer the question. But each framework is different, they are often incompatible with each other, and philosophers do not agree on which aspects of the moral life are most important in a moral analysis. Some focus on the consequences of an action, others stress the reasons behind one’s actions, still others argue that the character of the person making the choices and doing the actions is most important of all. In short, philosophy’s answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is, at least partially, “Which philosopher are you currently studying?”

Such disagreement among those who are supposed to be the experts often leads to the conclusion that moral certainty must be sought elsewhere—in religion, for instance. If one is convinced that God not only exists but has bothered to let human beings know the divine preferences for human behavior, then faith promises to provide a far more reliable foundation for knowing the right thing to do than anything pointy-headed philosophers might come up with.is god real But scratch the surface of the religious option and a whole bunch of additional questions pop up. Which God? Which sacred text? What about conflicting claims within the same tradition or the same text? Those from outside the camp of religious faith consider these awkward and essentially unanswerable questions to provide strong evidence that atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the way to go, while those who cling to their faith tend to get defensive and judgmental toward those who disagree.

I have spent the past several weeks preparing my syllabus, assignments, and lesson plans for the two sections of introductory ethics that I’ll be teaching this fall. In my twenty-five years of professorhood, I have taught at least fifty sections of introductory or upper division ethics courses, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than throwing students headfirst into the deep end of the “What is the right thing to do?” pool. By the time they are eighteen years old, just about every human being has been exposed just enough to a possible set or two of answers to this question to assume that they’re all set and have the moral life generally figured out. disturbing the peaceMy job as a philosophy professor is to disturb the peace starting on the first day of the semester. There is nothing more gratifying than to hear at the end of the semester, as I did from a student at her final oral exam two or three years ago, that “this course really messed me up—but that’s a good thing!” Mission accomplished.

But I’m not just a philosophy professor—I’m a regular human being as well. My professional training and natural disposition makes me generally skeptical of any claims to moral certainty—I frequently tell anyone who will listen, from the classroom to the blogosphere, that certainty is vastly overrated. (A quick search just revealed that I have used that very phrase eight times in blog essays). But I am also a person of faith, raised in a religious tradition that supposedly equipped me with the tools (scripture, prayer, authority, guilty conscience, and more) to provide definitive guidance when wondering about what the right thing to do is. working on itHow do I make being a philosopher and a person of faith work together, or at least not be in perpetual tension? As my youngest son Justin likes to say when challenged concerning important things: I’m working on it. This very issue is the central theme of this blog—after four years of hanging my struggles out for public display, I’m working on it. My sabbatical book that is under contract and will be out early next year is all about this. I’m working on it. When pressed for a summary of where my working on it stands in real time, two passages come to mind.

The first is from Simone Weil, the strange and beautiful woman who, for the past two decades has been a model for me of intellectual rigor as well as integrity to one’s faith commitments. In one of her dozens of notebooks, she writes:

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think “Thy will be done,”Simone the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.

There is enough in this passage to justify many essays—what currently strikes me most strongly is Weil’s conviction that the knowledge each of us seeks is within us. Philosophers and theologians err when they tell us, implicitly or explicitly, that seeking the answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is like a treasure hunt, a search that, if successful, will once and for all provide us with proper guidance in all circumstances. Rather, as both the Pentateuch and the Apostle Paul tell us, the word is within you. It is within me. Believing this requires an act of faith that, at least at first look, is astoundingly optimistic. What reasons are there to believe that the universe, God, reality, or anything, is so attuned to what Catherine of Genoa called “my deepest me” that I can trust that this deepest me holds the answers to my most pressing questions? No reasons that can fully stand up to logical scrutiny, but in matters this important perhaps logic is as overrated as certainty. I choose not to believe that my desire for bread will inevitably produce rocks, that my deepest cries will go unheard. So sue me.tutu

Then there is a similar sentiment from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When asked for his own insights concerning the will of God and how to know one is doing the right thing, he replied that

There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you “Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.” You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.

Morality by the skin of your teeth. Tenacity and hope, along with faith, love, goodness, and as many other desirables that you care to list, are essential for even rudimentary answers to “What is the right thing to do?” This is a lot more challenging, but also a lot more fulfilling, than looking it up in a book or memorizing answers. I’m working on it.

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

My first foray into the world of podcasts a couple of weeks ago included an extended discussion of Stoicism. Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cupS. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. coffee cupThen there is my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup–a much appreciated Father’s Day gift from my youngest son–that sits proudly on a top shelf in myoffice. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over seven years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces not that long ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archaeological dig many millennia in the future.

Some time later I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says NO KIDDING–YOU REALLY ARE A BIG FUCKING DEAL! when I have emptied the liquid (not really).

I choose to consider my replacement monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past several years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The retreat I attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want007

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Four years ago this month, I finally followed the advice of several people whose opinions I respect and began this blog. Almost 100,000 visits from 160+ countries later, writing here regularly has provided me with more joy and opportunities for growth than I could have possibly imagined. Thanks so much to my regular and occasional readers–your support and comments keep me going! As is my annual custom, today I am marking my blog’s birthday by reposting my very first post from August 2012–enjoy!

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

One Nation, Under God

I’m troubled by those who say so much about what God says so little, and so little about what God says so much. William Barber

In early 2014, during an interview with the Global Evangelism Television Network, former Texas congressman Tom Delay had the following diagnosis concerning various problems facing the United States:

I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.tom delay

Tom Delay interview

Sigh. I vaguely remember Delay saying something like this but dismissed it as yet another ludicrous statement from any number of elected officials from the South to whom I pay no attention. But when I bumped into an article about the interview the other day on my Facebook news feed, I decided it would be entertaining to put the link on my wall, commenting only “And I always thought that God wrote the Ten Commandments.” Sure enough, in short order the comments started rolling in, none of them complimentary. Some suggested that Delay had been dropped on his head several times as a baby, others drew attention to the legal problems that led to Delay’s leaving Congress a decade ago. One person suggested that if God wrote the Constitution, there are some inexplicable passages.

  • Interesting that God put in the part about the government making no law about an establishment of religion, and the part about never having a religious test for any office or public trust.constitution

No need for Mr. Khan to lend that guy a copy of the Constitution—he seems to be familiar with it. Several others used the strategy I often use when pushing back against ideas such as Delay’s: looking at the historical evidence.

  • Delay has no clue about the confessional chaos that existed at that convention. Tell me with a straight face that a Catholic is going to trust an Anglican, or a Puritan is going to trust a Deist, to write laws for everyone?
    • Me: I thought everyone trusted Anglicans!
      • Only if you’re serving my ale, my friend . . .
    • At one point, Ben Franklin said “Hey, we forgot to open this convention with a prayer! We better correct that!” The motion wasn’t carried. Madison wrote that everybody was kind of annoyed.jefferson
    • Thomas Jefferson, for one, was a Deist. Delay wouldn’t know that from apple butter. And James Madison was no church lady. These were men of the Enlightenment who had a distrust of theocrats and religious governance and its bloody ruin in Europe’s Hundred Years’ War.
    • “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded in the Christian religion.” –1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by Founding Father John Adams.

To get a sense of the chaos, compromise, and principled hard work that went into the shaping of our Constitution, read James Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention of 1787. It should be required reading for all citizens of the United States. conventionFranklin, Washington, and Jefferson were all Deists, as were many other Founding Fathers; the tenets of Deism are pretty simple. There is a creating force we call God, what we do in this life matters, and we will be held responsible in some way for it. When one takes the traditional Christian God and strips away those characteristics that cannot be argued for using reason and logic alone, you get the Deist God—a God too disengaged with the everyday workings of creation to get involved with writing a founding document for a bunch of successful rebels.

So why do so many people, particularly various sorts of Protestants, insist in the face of a massive amount of contrary evidence that this country was not founded on secular principles but rather essentially as a theocracy? A comment from my cousin was most insightful.

  • Unfortunately, it is very common for fundamentalist protestants (the “born-again” crowd who simply call themselves “Christians” as if they were the only ones) to view all mentions of God or “the Almighty” within their framework only. For that reason, they actually believe that the US was founded as a Christian nation because of oblique references to the Almighty or the Creator in our founding documents. Given my fundamentalist background, I know whereof I speak.
    • Me: We were raised as insiders!
      • You’ve got that right!

Frnativismom seventh grade through high school, my cousin and I virtually lived in each other’s houses. We experienced together—and evolved from—exactly the sort of Christianity that sharply divides those who are in from those who are out, a religious form of the nativism that frequently rears its ugly head in our national discourse. This type of Christianity separates those favored by God from those who are not, just as nativism separates “us” from “them” in various ways. Tom Delay has simply taken the additional step of merging these two forms of exclusivity together.

Politicians often compete with each other as they seek to establish who is more “Christian” than their opponent. During my lifetime it is the Republican party that has owned the mantle of “most Christian,” particularly since the rise of the moral majorityMoral Majority during the 1980s. But during our current election cycle, it feels like an alternative universe. The Republican nominee for President said nothing about God, faith, or religious values during his acceptance speech at their convention, while the Democratic nominee referred explicitly to how her Methodist upbringing has shaped her life of public service. The patriotic energy of the Democratic convention was reminiscent of a Republican convention in any other Presidential election cycle.

And then there was this. William Barber, the head of North Carolina’s NAACP and leader of that state’s Moral Monday movement, demonstrated clearly in his ten-minute speech at the Democratic convention how it is possible to bring one’s faith-based values into the world without insisting that everyone must sign on to a particular religious worldview.

One person commented on YouTube: “I’m an atheist, but I’ll go to service every week wherever he preaches. Just amazing.” This is how one can bring whatever one believes God to be into the public square without assuming that every person in that square means the same thing by “God” as you do. Barber’s comments are an inspiring and eloquent expression of what I mean when I frequently say and write that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. In our nation dedicated, among other things, to the separation of church and state, ostumbling blockne should not bring one’s faith into political debates and become, as the Apostle Paul put it, “a stumbling block and an offense” to those who do not share your version of your faith or to those with no faith at all. Rather, one should enter the public arena as the person one’s faith has caused one to become.

P.S. for those who appreciate gospel music and good singing—Rev. Barber’s final reference is to two lines from an old Baptist hymn: “Revive Us Again.”

Revive us again, fill each heart with thy love

Let each soul be rekindled with fire from above

I know this hymn well—various church congregations in my youth sang it with gusto on a regular basis. If you’re interested in what a cappella singing is supposed to sound like, enjoy this recording of the hymn—the verse Reverend Barber quotes begins at 1:11. If you have no interest in or reject the theology in the lyrics (which I do, at least partially), at least enjoy the beauty of the human voice!

A Lonely Pawn

Have you never felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve. Arturo Pérez-Reverteperez reverte

As is my usual custom, I am trying to read as many non-academic, non-work-related books this month as I can before I return to the classroom in three weeks. My current author is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, an internationally acclaimed Spanish author of mysteries and thrillers notable for their intricate and labyrinthine plots. He’s good—not at the top of my list of mystery authors with Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, or P. D. James, but no more than one rung lower on the ladder of excellence. I just finished The Flanders Panel, a complicated and multi-layered story with a sixteenth-century painting by a Flemish master at the center. flanders panelThe painting depicts two men playing a game of chess, with an aristocratic woman reading a book by the window in the background—a game within a game within a game, as it turns out. I’m glad I know a little bit about chess, because its intricacies and strategies take center stage as various characters seek to decipher hidden clues in the painting that promise to reveal the story of a murder that inspired the work of art, as well as to shed light on more recent suspicious deaths.

Let me be clear—I am a horrible chess player. I learned the rules of the game and the movements of each piece from my Dad (also a horrible player), but I know nothing about strategy. The chess matches I have participated in over the years have been bloodbaths, similar to the Battle of the Bastards toward the end of the most recent season of “Game of Thrones.” battle of the bastardsI recall many games where the losing side had only a naked and solitary king left when things finally ended. You don’t need to know anything about chess to realize that when one piece is being chased around sixty-four squares by several hostile enemy pieces, checkmate will soon occur. I taught my youngest son Justin the basics of chess as my father had taught me—my older son Caleb lacked the patience. Justin took the game far more seriously than I ever have, joining the chess club in high school and practicing at home when he could get me to play. “I’ll play you until you beat me,” I said—and I was true to my word. He beat me for the first time during his freshman or sophomore year, and I never played him again. My willingness to be humiliated is limited.

The Flanders Panel is good, but the Pérez-Reverte quotation at the beginning of this essay is from a different mystery—The Seville Communion. Because it involves ideas and issues that I am perpetually fascinated by, this story is my favorite of the four Pérez-Reverte mysteries I have read so far. seville communionThe main character in The Seville Communion is Lorenzo Quart, a Jesuit priest sent from the Vatican to Seville charged with sorting out a complicated and tangled situation involving Our Lady of Tears, a historic but crumbling Catholic church built on land for which various constituencies have plans that do not include a church in which only a few dozen people worship per week. Father Quart considers himself to be a soldier in the Roman Catholic army rather than a priest; he is intelligent, effective, agnostic, and cynical. But he meets his match in Father Priamo Ferro, the aging priest in charge of the church in question. Quart expects Ferro to be an embodiment of everything Quart hates—old-style Catholicism with Latin masses for the benefit of a handful of elderly female parishioners. What he finds instead generates conversations reminiscent of another famous literary conversation set in Seville—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor converses with Jesus, who has unexpectedly and inexplicably shown up in sixteenth-century Seville. grand inquisitorTheir wide-ranging conversation focuses on the impossibility of Jesus’ message of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility—the Inquisitor points out that the Catholic church has spent centuries repackaging Christianity into something that human beings want and can handle. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. Human beings prefer security and consolation to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions for themselves. In The Seville Communion, the conversations between Fathers Quart and Ferro focus on precisely why human beings need consolation and security in the first place.

Quart is surprised to find that Ferro, who appears to be an embodiment of traditional, faithful Catholicism, has not believed in the existence of God for some time; Ferro is convinced that not even the Pope believes in God any more. But this doesn’t matter. As Ferro tells Quart, the purpose of faith is

To reassure man confronted with the horror of his own solitude, death, and the void . . . Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God. It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms. It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering. The child’s trust in the hand that leads out of darkness.lifes a bitch

The greatest human fear? That nothing means anything. That life’s a bitch and then we die. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, the purpose of faith is to convince ourselves, in the face of contrary evidence, that somewhere, somehow, there is a purpose to it all. The church’s role is to facilitate this illusion. As Ferro explains, the challenge is

How to preserve, then, the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and also knows that, unlike kings, popes, and generals, he’ll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.

In the great game of life, most of us are lonely pawns. Pawns are the most plentiful and least powerful pieces on a chessboard. pawnPawns can move only one square at a time, and only forward. It must often be tempting for a pawn to imagine that there is no point to the game, that other pieces with more options are the only ones that can make a difference, that perhaps the king who the pawn is assigned to defend does not even exist. And yet the pawn endures—until it is taken and removed from the board. No wonder we embrace stories that tell us otherwise, stories intended to convince us that there is something bigger going on in which each of us, often unwittingly and in ignorance, plays a part.

The Grand Inquisitor and Father Ferro have a point—there’s a lot to be said for exchanging the challenge of freedom and responsibility for the security of what Dostoevsky calls “miracle, mystery, and authority.” But to exchange freedom and responsibility for security and comfort, no matter how seductive, is to sacrifice both what makes us human and the heart of true faith. As Simon Critchley, in an essay focusing on the Grand Inquisitor story, writes:

It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance—submission to, even—a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again . . . Faith hopes for grace . . . Such an experience of faith is not certainty . . . On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority . . . meanking of life[Faith] is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

In the midst of uncertainty and lack of information, each lonely pawn has a continual choice to make. Does my life mean anything? Can I make a difference? When considering these questions, it is worth remembering that even the lowly pawn, once in a while, gets to move one space diagonally and perhaps change the whole landscape of the game. True faith is a leap, but not into the security of collective conformity. Rather, it is a continuing commitment to and embrace of both freedom and responsibility–the choice to pursue that most elusive of goals: the meaning of my life.

What is a Podcast?

I remember clearly the morning several years ago when a colleague from the English department, one of my teaching partners in a team-taught interdisciplinary course that semester, revealed to our sophomore students that he had just entered the twenty-first century. He had purchased his first I-pod. The students cheered enthusiastically, more or less in the same manner that I imagine our cave-dwelling ancestors might have cheered a person who figured out how to use fire several years after everyone else had been enjoying their fire-enhanced lives. IpodI didn’t mention, of course, that I did not have an I-pod. I still don’t.

Fast forward at least a decade. I received a cryptic email from a young colleague in Institutional Advancement at my college asking if we could meet to discuss a new initiative that he was involved with. We scheduled a coffee in the student center, where he first told me about his new project–the new Providence College podcast, scheduled to go live within a week or so. Here’s the description of the now live podcast on the site:

The Providence College Podcast features interviews with interesting members of the Friar Family. PC podcastThese in-depth conversations with PC students, Dominicans, faculty, staff, and alumni provide a rich look into the lives of noteworthy Friars. Occasionally we will also bring you on-campus lectures and presentations. Go Friars!

Second, my colleague asked if I would be willing to be the first faculty member interviewed on the podcast. “Sure,” I said–as the director of our signature humanities program for the four years before sabbatical, I became used to being the unofficial face of the faculty in any number of situations and venues. Shortly after our coffee meeting, though, I had a concern. I wasn’t exactly sure what a podcast is. Sure I know about their existence and have even listened to one or two of them on-line. But what makes a podcast different from, say, a video on a website? My ignorance of these things is boundless. I am not entirely ignorant about technology and social media–I’m pretty good on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn–but podcasts, apps, and such tend to blur into one fuzzy unknown for me.

Fortunately my colleague realized that I might need a bit of a primer–probably because once we scheduled the interview, I asked what I should wear. what is a podcast“A podcast is pretty much radio on demand,” he said; his colleague, the AV guy who would do the taping, assured me that I could wear whatever I wanted. Actually, as it turned out, a podcast could be recorded with everyone in the nude–but that would just be weird. I began to worry, since my colleague did not specify exactly what we would be talking about or even exactly why he had asked me to be part of this initial recording. It was only when I realized that I should approach the podcast the way I approach most of my classes–prepare a couple of good questions and see what happens–that I became less nervous.

As it turns out, we didn’t talk about the program I had directed or any number of other things I thought would be front in center. Instead, we talked about my blog, my experiences over my last two sabbaticals, and how to introduce people to philosophy. The descriptor on my podcast episode reads this way:

This episode features Dr. Vance Morgan, professor of philosophy and former director of the Development of Western Civilization Program at Providence College. Morgan recently completed a yearlong sabbatical that allowed him to finish a final draft of an upcoming book based on his popular blog,www.freelancechristianity.com. We discuss his career teaching philosophy, his foray in the blogosphere, and how he likes to throw his ethics students headfirst into moral and ethical dilemmas.

Enjoy!

Believing What I Think

Last week at the Republican National Convention, the Republicans nominated as their candidate for President of the United States a person so outside the norm, so iconoclastic in every way, that even the most experienced observers of American politics—insiders and outsiders alike—are scratching their heads. trumpHow did this happen? I suspect that it will take years for answers to fully develop, but there is one contributing factor that I have been hearing both through traditional and social media on a regular basis. Supporters of this candidate often say something along the lines of “He’s saying things that many of us have been thinking for years but have, for any number of reasons, not been able to say. He speaks for us.” Which raises the question—How much of what we believe to be true is simply a projection of what we want to be true? After all, as a bumper sticker I saw the other day insightfully pointed out, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”believe

Fall classes begin in a few weeks and I have started planning my two sections of General Ethics in earnest. Over my twenty-five-plus years of teaching, ethics has always been my favorite course—because of administrative duties, then sabbatical, this will be the first time in five years that I have taught it. I chose several weeks ago to make the class as contemporary possible—with two exceptions, every assigned text was written within the past ten years. One of the exceptions will come early in the semester from one of my three or four favorite philosophers—Michel de Montaigne. massacre[1]Montaigne lived in a polarized religious world that reminds me strongly of our current equally polarized political situation. Sixteenth-century France was not a pretty place—in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were killing each other with regularity and abandon, all in the name of Christ. Catholics and Protestants each were certain that they were right; energized by such certainty, each was willing to kill the other in the name of truth and right belief. When I heard delegates in Cleveland last week regularly chanting that the soon-to-be-official nominee of the other major political party should be locked up or worse, I thought of Montaigne’s constant efforts to convince his readers that certainty and unwarranted conviction can be deadly.

In the second week of classes, my students and I will be working on perhaps Montaigne’s most famous essay—“On Cannibals.” Reflecting on the visit to France of several Brazilians from cannibal tribes, Montaigne notes that just as cultured Europeans of his day were appalled by various Brazilian tribal practices, so the visitors were just as confused and appalled by certain European cultural norms. michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Stepping back, Montaigne argues first that a stronger case for barbarism could be leveled against the Europeans than against the cannibals, then puts his finger on an issues that is remarkably relevant to our contemporary world.

We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed, we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything.

Our own myopia and parochialisms are usually defined by something other than national borders, but Montaigne’s point is clearly as true now as it was in his day. We tend to believe that what we are most accustomed and used to is true, without ever wondering how we came to be accustomed and used to these things in the first place. We resonate most strongly with those who mirror back to us what we are already thinking.

Parochialism and attachment to what we think we know is not a problem exclusive to any particular set of beliefs or experiences. All of us, from conservative to progressive, from atheist to dedicated religious believer, assume that the way that we think is not only the epitome of common sense, but also the standard of reason well used. Yet as Adam Etinson, a contemporary commenter on Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” adam etinsonobserves,

Moral reasoning is generally something we use merely to convince others of long-held beliefs that we are unwilling to abandon . . . often, no amount of persuasive reasoning, clear argument or exposed contradiction can shake us from what we already believe.

Why are we so inclined to hang on to our most entrenched thoughts, even in the face of evidence that our most deeply held beliefs are rooted in anything but experiential evidence supported by logical reasoning?

The most obvious answer is that adopting the thoughts and beliefs of one’s culture and family is easy, while critically challenging one’s default settings and perhaps even changing them is hard work. Cultural centrism is evidence of both our intellectual laziness and our fallibility—the ever-present possibility that our beliefs might be wrong. One effective way that I have found to bring the randomness of our deepest convictions to light is to simply ask my students the following: “How many of you think that you would be a very different person today if you had been born in rural Tibet instead of where you were actually born?” All hands go up. “Why?” Because, as everyone knows, we are shaped early and often by features of our existence—our society, family, location, social status—that we do not choose. ethnocentrismYet we often wander unreflectively through life relying on these foundations that we did not choose, as if we had magically been given the universal truth about all important issues at birth. The fact that our deepest held beliefs would be different had we been born elsewhere on the planet (or even, sometimes, to different parents farther down the street) should disconcert us. In every course syllabus I include Spinoza’s observation that “I do not know how to teach philosophy without disturbing the peace.” The “What if you were born elsewhere?” exercise is one of the more effective peace disturbers in my teaching arsenal.

Of all the things I deeply believe, those that I have come to through challenging preconceptions and previously unchallenged assumptions are the ones that are now most definitive of who I am. All of us should regularly reexamine our beliefs and practices, become alert to weaknesses and inconsistencies in our own thinking, discover something plausible in another’s point of view and in so doing, become better than the parochial and myopic creatures that we naturally are. After all, none of us needs to believe everything that we think.