Category Archives: family

When the Well Runs Dry

Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Isaiah 12

Several years ago, during an infrequent return to northern Vermont where I grew up, Jeanne and I took a quick detour from Route 5 South to drive past the old homestead, the house in which I lived until age eleven. It was in poor repair, and seemed far smaller than when I was a kid. Most surprising was that Smith’s pasture, the cow pasture across the road that was the site of many childhood adventures, was gone. A tangle of trees and underbrush now grows where the gate to the pasture was. I’m hoping that if I had pushed through the brush I would have found Smith’s pasture on the other side, sort of like finding Narnia on the other side of the wardrobe. Because it was magic.

Growing up in the sticks has some definite plusses—how many city kids have a cow pasture at their disposal? Smith’s pasture was one of several unofficial playgrounds for my brother and me. Many were the summer mornings when my mother would pack us a lunch and we would climb over the fence into the pasture, limited only by the general directive to be back before dark. The generous Mr. Smith, whom I never met, gave my family free access to his pasture, while the evil Mr. Cole, who owned the adjacent pasture just down the road (and whom I also never met), refused such free access. Hiking, war games, superhero exploits—Smith’s pasture was the natural stage for just about anything two kids reaching double digits in age could come up with.

Vermont cow pastures bear little resemblance to the idyllic, flat pastures that bovines in other parts of the country enjoy. Smith’s pasture was a hill—a mountain in my childhood imagination—that  rose sharply from the road to a high plateau whose back boundary my brother and I never found. Large boulders and innumerable trees of all sorts were thickly spread across the hundreds of pasture acres. The slopes in portions of the pasture were steep enough that I often wondered what the dairy cows, not generally known for their mountain climbing abilities, thought of having to eke out their bovine existence in a less than congenial landscape.

Smith’s pasture was more than the regular locale for boyhood adventures. It was also the source of our annual Christmas tree. Each year in early December my brother and I would trudge up the hill in snow that was often waist deep, searching for the perfect tree. One year we returned at dusk with a tree so wide that it took us close to an hour to stuff it through the front door and so tall that our living room ceiling bent the top foot and a half over when we stood it upright. Only a special early infusion of Christmas spirit kept my mother from having a fit as we sawed off the bottom two feet in the middle of the living room rug.

It was only many years later that I put two and two together and figured out why Mr. Smith was so generous with access to his pasture. He may or may not have had a soft spot in his heart for children needing a place to explore—the real reason we had access to his pasture was the artesian well, located several hundred yards past the fence, which provided water for our house. A well-understood task accompanied our frequent treks into Smith’s pasture—don’t forget to check the well. It was my brother’s job to lift the hinged lid as high as he could—I was too small to do it—while I peered into the dim recesses below. “It looks fine!” “It’s a bit low!” or, one fateful afternoon—“It’s empty!!” This was distressing news, producing visions of no baths, no clothes or dish washing, and general aridness. The spring had widened a minor crack in the well wall into an exit route—it was many dollars and dry days later before the water was coaxed back into its proper location. When wells misbehave, life changes significantly.

One does not get very far reading in the Bible without encountering a well. In a largely desert landscape, of course, wells were both the source of life and the center of community activity. Isaac and Rebekah met at a well, as did Jacob and Rachel as well as Moses and Zipporah. Joseph’s older brothers threw him into a dried up well after he offended them one too many times. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4  is one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament. Battles were fought over wells. They are so prevalent and necessary in stories from a nomadic, arid land that it’s easy to imagine that they are natural parts of the landscape. But they aren’t. A well is a human attempt to harness the power of something very necessary but also very powerful—a spring of water.

As I learned at an early age in Smith’s pasture, springs do not always cooperate with our attempts to control and tame them. In ancient texts, springs and sources of water are sacred. This is not surprising, because water is necessary for life. A spring—an oasis—stands for life, for rest and refreshment. But it is the random power of a spring that most directly brings the divine to mind. Springs are as resistant to our attempts to control them as they are to our expectations.  Just when we think that we have the water under control, it decides to go somewhere else. This is the deepest secret to its living water: it transforms every obstruction into a new expression of itself: It turns every apparent barrier into a new channel..

This would be a good thing to remember every time I think I have God figured out, whenever my path to a frequently visited well becomes a bit too frequently traveled. But the divine spring has a mind and will of its own, apparently, and if I don’t pay attention, I will find my well, so carefully built to contain the spring, empty one day. And this is not a good thing—as Peter wrote, “these are wells without water . . . to whom the gloom of darkness is reserved forever.” It is easy to forget that the divine spring was never intended to be contained permanently in any external well, whether a building, a book, or any specific location. The good news, as Jesus told the woman at the well, is that the divine spring is “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And that well is me. And you. It’s a great idea—portable wells containing the most life-giving water ever imagined. I need go no further than where I happen to be to find out what the divine spring is doing.

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isa. 58:11

St. Joseph the Worker

In my religious tradition, we didn’t do saints. We did do Christmas pageants—big time. I remember in various pageants being an angel, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles. My most triumphant pageant appearance, though, was the year I got to be Joseph. Wearing a white dish towel on my head secured with a bathrobe belt, I gazed with a holy aspect at the plastic headed Jesus in the make-shift manger while the narrator read the Christmas story. Actually, I was gazing at Mary, played by Bonnie, whom I was planning to marry in 15-20 years. It was my usual pattern when I was in single digits of age. If I thought a girl was cute, I’d think “you’re cute—I wonder what our children will look like.” Of course I always thought these things—I never said them.

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Until I became familiar as an adult with what Catholics do, I didn’t know that Joseph had his own day. I wonder if he minds competing with St. Patrick, who is feted with corned beef, soda bread, parades, and green beer just two days earlier. Joseph didn’t get a lot of play (other than hanging around and looking holy in the Christmas pageant) when I was growing up. He was a necessary part of the story, doing carpenter things, banging on the doors of inns with “No Vacancy” signs, having important dreams (maybe the best dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake in Genesis)—more than a bit player, but no more than supporting cast. I’ve come to admire him more than just about anyone else in the Bible, though. I know he was the earthly father of Jesus and all, but what impresses me was that he was Jesus’ stepfather.

I’m not a step-parent, but I’ve observed one from close range for close to thirty years. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1987, my sons (ages eight and five) and I met Jeanne, a red haired, green eyed ball of energy (she’s been called a “force of nature”) at my parents’ house. My parents had known her for a number of years. I was recently divorced, nature took its course, and Jeanne and I were together just a few short weeks afterwards. But with me Jeanne got a “three-fer.” She did it willingly—I even remember her telling me that she always thought she’d end up marrying someone who already had kids. But there’s no more difficult role for any human being to step into, no more thankless task. That’s why I love Joseph, because he makes me think about the person I love the most.

I wonder how Joseph processed being handed an impossible job, with no blueprint or instruction manual. All he wanted to do was marry the person he loved. God said, “Okay, but here are a few other things you get to do too.” I wonder if Joseph and Mary, overwhelmed with the task before them, threw themselves so wholeheartedly into the process of making this stepfamily work that they neglected for long periods of time to pay attention to their own relationship with each other. Did Joseph ever wonder when it would be “his time,” when he would be valued for who he was rather than for what he could do for Jesus, or Mary, or God? I wonder if Joseph ever saw “you’re not my real dad” in Jesus’ eyes or actions. Did Joseph ever resent Jesus’ biological connection with Mary, something that nothing Joseph ever did or said could possibly balance out? I wonder if Jesus ever told Joseph, at least when he had grown up, that he appreciated Joseph and that he apologized for the times he’d been a jerk.

In Santa Fe, there is a little church called the Loretto Chapel, which contains a “miraculous staircase,” built by a stranger with a donkey and a toolbox who showed up in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. The newly built chapel needed a staircase to the choir loft; those who knew about such things said it would have to be a ladder, since a regular stairway would be too invasive of the chapel space. The stranger built an architectural marvel, a spiral staircase containing two 360 degree turns with no visible means of support and held together with wooden pegs rather than nails. The stranger disappeared without being paid after completing the staircase; not surprisingly, legend has it that the donkey-riding stranger was none other than St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

Carpenters need a patron saint—I suppose everyone in every walk of life does. I’m sure Joseph was a fabulous carpenter, maybe even capable of building a miraculous staircase. But various websites tell me that Thomas More is the patron saint of step-parents, which makes no sense. For step-parenting is a far more impossible task than the construction of any number of miraculous staircases. Joseph took it on and pulled off a real miracle—being a parent to and, along with Mary, raising a child who was not his. And just like the Sisters of Loretto, I needed a miraculous answer to an impossible situation—how was I going to raise these kids by myself? Jeanne in my parents’ living room the night before Thanksgiving was as unexpected as a stranger on a donkey with the tools and ability to build a miraculous staircase. I made out better than the Sisters of Loretto, though, because the miracle stranger didn’t leave. I can no more repay her than the Sisters could have paid Joseph—how do you repay someone who changed three lives?

Celebrating Saint Bridget’s Day

A week ago as I dressed after working out, I had a brief conversation with a campus security guard who frequently chooses to torture himself at the gym around the same time as I do. He noted how much he was dreading Saint Patrick’s Day, which this year falls on a Friday. “I’ll be here dealing with drunk students for twelve hours,” he predicted. “It’s always the worst day of the year; on a Friday, it’s gong to be especially bad” I would not go so far as to say that Saint Patrick’s Day is the worst day of the year (that would be Halloween), but it’s right up there on my list–for reasons entirely different than the security guard’s.

My brother and I seldom see each other. He is a medical doctor in rural Wyoming, and I am a real doctor in Rhode Island. But we frequently have brief Facebook conversations of the same high quality exhibited by most Facebook communication. In the midst of one of these, he made the pontifical pronouncement that “no one should ever wear corduroy clothing. Ever.”1377446_10201713065962154_1658107951_n “That shows how much you know,” I replied. “I have four pairs of corduroy pants and five corduroy jackets (navy blue, black, gray, tan, and some nondescript color Jeanne calls “taupe”). Two of the jackets have elbow patches, the sine qua non of academic sartorial splendor. Just because you dress like Doctor Grizzly Adams and haven’t worn anything other than jeans, a belt with a buckle the size of a dinner plate and a cowboy hat in twenty years doesn’t qualify you to diss corduroy.”

How to dress as an academic is something I picked up early on in my teaching career. I remember my first few classes as a Master’s student teaching a summer course at the UWUniversity of Wyoming. As an introverted fish out of water, one of my greatest fears was being laughed at, either overtly or covertly, of being the butt of everyone’s jokes outside of class—a continuation of grade school and high school, in other words. So you can imagine my horror when, in one of my very first classes, I discovered while sitting on the edge of the desk that I was wearing one black and one navy blue sock. Immediate panic set in. But on the spur of the moment, I made a decision that has served me well in the classroom for the subsequent twenty-five-plus years of teaching. I took control of the situation by choosing to give them something to laugh at from the start.imagesCAR7RNX6

Perhaps you’ve noticed I’m wearing socks of two different colors. You think that’s a mistake?—that shows how much you know! There is actually an art to dressing like an academic—it takes a lot of work to look like we do. There is, in fact, a special store (AcademicsRUs) where you can go to purchase academic clothes. untitledYou know, unmatched socks, shirts with sleeves that are too short and with ink stains on the pocket, pants that go up to here on your leg when you sit down, ratty cardigan sweaters, ties that went out of style decades ago.

            Which brings me to today. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I am not wearing anything green. I never do. This is always a bit awkward in the classroom on a campus where the majority of my students are of largely Irish, Italian, or Irish-Italian hybrid descent. There is a very good explanation for my failure to wear green—I’m somewhat colorblind (especially with the green family). Jeanne, who is the family color-meister and my fashion coordinator/critic, has frequently been on the road over the past decade or more, so rather than run the risk of wearing something brown or blue or teal thinking it was green, I generally choose to wear clothes foruntitled.1 Saint Patrick’s Day so far outside the green family that I couldn’t possibly be confronted by the Irish clothing police.

Several years ago, Saint Patrick’s Day fell on the same class day that a member of the Teaching Award Committee was observing—I was a finalist for the award and the committee members were showing up in my classrooms like stalkers. As I prepared to start class, filled with students with names like Sean Fonzarelli, Meghan Incantalupo, Angelica O’Brien and Antonio O’Rourke, I thought it necessary to explain my greenless state to my Irish/Italian students. Since the true story was somewhat boring (they already knew that I’m colorblind), I decided to make up a better story on the fly. So, I said something like this:

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not wearing green on this very special day. The reason goes back to my childhood. I’ve always been proud of my Swedish heritage through my mother’s side of the family; growing up, I always wanted to know why Irish people got their own holiday and Swedish people didn’t. In protest, I’ve always refused to wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day. imagesCAEGDOP2

This morning I was thinking about what the non-existent holiday for Swedes would be like. It would be on July 23rd; that’s Saint Bridget’s Day. She’s the patron saint of Sweden. Instead of wearing green, everyone would have to wear brilliant blue and bright yellow, the colors of the Swedish flag. Instead of drinking green beer and eating Irish food, everyone would have to drink Absolut vodkauntitled.2 and St. Bridget’s Porter, eat rye bread, pickled herring and Swedish meatballs, and tell jokes that aren’t funny (What’s the shortest book in the world? 500 years of Swedish humor). As I constructed this hypothetical holiday, I realized clearly why there is no special Swedish holiday after all. Let’s get to work.

I’m not particularly big on saints—undoubtedly a feature of my Protestant upbringing. But I am big on my Swedish heritage. On my father’s side, I am a mongrel with Welsh, English, Scottish, French, and (according to my father, at least) a tiny bit of Native American blood. On my mother’s side, though, I’m pure Swedish. imagesCAERWR96Can’t get much more Swedish than my mother’s maiden name—Thorsen (“son of Thor”). I have cousins who are 100% Swedish and was much closer to my mother’s family than my father’s growing up, so I’ve always pretended that being half Swedish is the same as being a thoroughbred. It has annoyed me greatly over more that two decades of teaching in the Development of Western Civilization program, a program that I also directed for four years, that Sweden is never mentioned. In response to one of my many queries as to why the native land of my ancestors never gets any face time, a historian I was teaching with once replied “because nothing ever happened there.” But remember the Vikings, the baddest and meanest of the barbarians who helped bring down the Roman Empire and throw civilization into the Dark Ages? Those are my ancestors. Don’t piss me off.image001

So as you spend today celebrating your Irish heritage, or at least pretending that you have an Irish heritage, mark July 23 on your calendar for a blow-out Saint Bridget’s Day celebration. Saint Bridget was not your typical Catholic saint. According to “Catholic Online” (a place where Protestants go for entertainment), Bridget was married at age thirteen and had eight children. In her early forties, after nursing her husband Ulf through an almost-fatal illness, Bridget and Ulf felt called to split and take holy orders. Bridget was a visionary in both senses of the word—she was very forward thinking and had a whole bunch of visions as well. Her visions instructed her in excruciating detail on everything from how to stop the war between France and England and get the Pope back from Avignon to Rome to the habits that the sisters in her new order would wear. She spent decades writing letters to rulers and important persons who ignored her, went to Rome in 1349 and waited for the Pope to return per her instructions (he never did during her lifetime), and never saw her new order founded. As the website says, “she never returned to Sweden but died, a worn out old lady far from home in July 1373. She can be called the Patroness of Failures.” Nice. But for some reason, she was canonized in 1391. Probably because she made outstanding meatballs.

Toward the end of Albert Camus’ The Plague, one of the main characters is accused of being a saint. “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints,” he replied. “Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me. What interests me is being a human being.” The story of Bridget reveals that defeat, humanity, and sainthood are entirely compatible in one life. That’s good news.

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It Must Be A Miracle

582184_10102003755170495_50935280_n[1]My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as my good friend Marsue says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?” I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”6012827422_f194ba4e9c[1]

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human explanation. Or at least my explanation, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

Consider what was perhaps Jesus’s most famous reported miracle—feeding 5000the feeding of the five thousand men (plus women and children). This miracle is reported in all four of the canonical gospels and, for once, they pretty much agree on the details. As is the case with all miracles, we are presented with a straightforward story of something happening that simply cannot have happened. What are we supposed to do with such a story, when we all know that thousands of people cannot be fed with five loaves of bread and two fish? How are we to think about, to be with, miracles?

I suggest that we begin with humility. Once a number of years ago, while a still untenured member of the philosophy department at my college, I participated in a symposium on the late fides et ratioJohn Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) which had been released the previous year. The symposium was a shared event between the philosophy and theology departments. One member from each department would present a 20 minute paper, and a panel of four philosophers and theologians would present brief comments. Sounds like a lot of fun, huh? The original presenters would have a chance for response, then the whole thing would be turned over to audience questions and interaction.

I was asked to present the longer paper for the philosophy department. In it I did what philosophers do—I raised what I considered to be some critical problems with the encyclical, suggesting that the Pope might even have gotten some important things wrong—for instance his conclusion that reason must always submit to the authority of faith when they are in conflict. I knew from the start, of course, that this might be a bit controversial at a Catholic college—I was right. The audience that evening was impressive in size, exceeding what I’ve seen for any academic event in subsequent years at the college.Pius The larger community, particularly the parishioners of St. Pius V church across the street, had been invited and came in droves, expecting I’m sure to hear a cheerleading love-fest for their beloved Pope. Instead they got me raining on their parade. A colleague reported afterwards that one woman complained during the paper to her neighbor in a stage whisper: “I can’t believe they let people like him teach here!”

Rumblings during my paper exploded into direct challenge during the Q and A. After defending and clarifying my position—pretty well, I thought—for a few minutes, an exasperated older gentlemen in the front row asked “Dr. Morgan, is there no place in philosophy for humility?” I responded, honestly but perhaps a bit uncharitably, with a guffaw of laughter (if introverts ever guffaw). “The longer I do philosophy, the more I realize how much I don’t know!” Now I understood where the man was coming from—a place where honest challenges to pronouncements from authority, especially authority supposedly representing God, are viewed as prideful or worse. Furthermore, philosophy has the reputation for trying to logically explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. This reputation, unfortunately, has a good deal of evidence to support it.hamlet_yorick[1]

From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

Along with humility, the other ancient starting point for philosophy is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” Wonder is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility. Woven together, they turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. bubble_croman[1]Psalm 8 gets this connection exactly right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what is greater than us (“When I see the heavens . . .”), while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what is greater than us (“What are we . . .?).

I once heard a homily on a different gospel’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. The homilist, a Benedictine priest, struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. miracles“We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of fools that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So as a spirit of generosity spreads through the crowd, gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, angenerosityd no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why was the homilist, and why are we, inclined to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the miracle of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.imagesCASHIO2A

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine who recently passed away defined a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding thousands with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

Nature and Nature’s God

What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello? Annie Dillard, “Teaching a Stone to Talk”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few weeks ago, Harvard political philosopher and professor of government Danielle Allen gave a talk on campus as part of my college’s year-long centennial celebration. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join ten or so faculty and administrators at the President’s house for dinner after the talk. Allen’s most recent book is Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality; her talk and the conversation at dinner were so good that I ordered a copy from Amazon that night. It’s terrific, so good that it should be required reading for all American citizens, starting with the President (I wish). I’m sure portions of it will be the focus of some future essays. But my first “aha!” moment while reading the book had nothing to do with politics or citizenship—it was sparked by the reference to “Nature and Nature’s God” in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s what my Honors colloquium is about.”

About once every four years I have the opportunity to teach a capstone colloquium for juniors and seniors in our Liberal Arts Honors Program. I am offering “Beauty and Violence: The Problem of Natural Evil,” this semester for the third time, a class that I have come to consider as my “signature course.” My fourteen students reflect the eclectic nature of the texts we are studying, with four Accounting majors, two in Biology, two in Sociology, two in Education, and one each in Finance, Marketing, Biochemistry, and Engineering/Physical Systems. “Mostly left-brain people,” Jeanne observed. No humanities majors, in a course taught by a philosopher who over the years has morphed into more of an interdisciplinary humanities professor than anything else. We are considering texts by theologians, biologists, philosophers, novelists, and a couple of people who cannot be categorized, with a Jesuit paleontologist, a Benedictine nun, and an Anglican physicist thrown in for good measure. My kind of course, in other words—I’m having a ball, and the students (per their comments in class and on discussion forums) are having their minds blown. Our connecting theme, as the Declaration’s phrase states, is “Nature and Nature’s God.” From careful observation of the natural world, what might we intelligently speculate concerning what or who put it in place?

Our initial three weeks were spent with reading several essays by Annie Dillard, then her brilliant Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in its entirety. I’ve written previously on this blog of how this book has influenced me over the years.

Books that changed my life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Dillard models the energy and curiosity that I seek to inspire in my students in this course. As she records her detailed observations of the natural world in all its beauty and violence, then uses them as a springboard for intense and irreverent questions shot heavenward, I am reminded of a verse from Proverbs in the Jewish Scriptures: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, and the glory of kings to search it out.” This hide-and-seek game, with the divine hiding after leaving cryptic clues behind, and we mortals trying to figure out what they point toward, is Dillard’s continuing obsession.

What have we been trying to do all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello? 

Dillard once described liturgy as a set of words and practices that human beings over the years have managed to direct toward God without getting killed; is science a similar sort of activity, attempting to get a glimpse of the most elusive of prey? Many, probably most, scientists would say that questions of what lies behind the natural world are not within their purview—their task is to figure out what is the case, not why it is the case. But one does not have to look too far to find scientists who think otherwise.

One of my favorite sources of conversations with persons who have spent their lives getting science and faith to talk to each other is Krista Tippett’s public radio program “On Being.” For instance, geneticist and Anglican priest Lindon Eaves describes how although he needs to separate his inner scientist and priest at times, he often notes just how close the energies of his two life-defining activities are.

To be a thorough-going scientist I am compelled in the short term to see really good reasons for not believing the current model for reality because that’s how science perceives . . . You can either think of, let’s say the creeds of the great traditions as it were, as telling you what you ought to think. Or you can say they are in some sense comparable to the theories of science. They are the best distillations of where we’ve been. But we don’t approach reality treating those models as if they are the last word. We treat them as operational hypotheses.

The creeds of the faith as operational hypotheses, our current best shot at what might be appropriate to believe about God? Both science and faith at their best are reflections that any conviction worth its salt must cohabit with a piece of mystery. All of our traditions insist on a reverence for what we do not know now and cannot tie up with explanations in this lifetime.

In a different conversation, Vatican observatory astronomer Fr. George Coyne tells the story of how, during the question and answer period after he gave a conference paper on the uncertainties of determining the age of the universe, an audience member commented, “Father, it must be wonderful that, with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits, that you have this faith, this rock of faith to stand upon.” Father Coyne was not amused.

I took off my Roman collar and faced him down and said, “Who told you that my faith was kind of a rock?” I said, “Every morning I wake up I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow.” Because faith is love. Love in marriage, love with friends, love of brothers and sisters is not something that’s there once and for all and always kind of a rock that gives us support. What I want to say is, ignorance in doing science creates the excitement of doing science, and anyone who does it knows that discoveries lead to a further ignorance.

Ignorance and doubt are wonderful places to be as we turn our attention toward the unknown. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told Krista Tippett, “Whatever God is, he is not as simple as we are. He is in places you would never expect him to be . . . Don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.” And than science, I might add.

One of the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s last books was Rocks of Ages, in which he argued that religion/faith and science should be treated as “non-overlapping magisteria,” equally important areas of human endeavor and belief that operate according to entirely different principles and, therefore, should not be allowed to talk to each other. At the beginning of the book, Gould favorably quotes the old cliché that “science gets the age of rocks, and religion gets the Rock of Ages.” With all due respect, Gould is wrong. Charles Sanders Peirce once wrote that the point of investigation is to find out something we don’t know by using those things that we do know. When the stakes are the highest, when the object of investigation is what is greater than us, all of our best human tools are appropriate for use.

Sixty-One Years On

I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on   Elton John

Tomorrow is my birthday! Sixty-one is nothing special, except that it’s a prime number–so there’s that. I’m reminded of what I wrote for my milestone sixtieth last year; it all still seems appropriate! 

Several years ago Jeanne surprised me with the ultimate in birthday presents—a ticket to an Elton John concert. I have been a devoted Eltonophile for years, even before everyone found out about him with the release of his blockbuster yellow brick road“Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” album in 1973, the album that made him famous. I graduated from high school in 1973, so I’ve been a fan for more than forty years. According to Wikipedia, Sir Elton currently is in fifth place all-time in record sales, just behind Madonna and just ahead of Led Zeppelin (The Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson earned the first three spots). Elton had celebrated his 60th birthday the day before and started the concert with “Sixty Years On” from his second album “Elton John” released in 1970.

The new sexagenarian went without a break for more than two hours, the first hour filled with tunes from his pre-Yellow Brick Road years, tunes that the youngsters in the crowd had probably never heard. But the real Elton fans in attendance loved it—we knew Elton’s stuff before he became Elton John.

The lyrics of “Sixty Years On” are generally incomprehensible, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often are, but there is one line that is particularly haunting: I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on. The album including “Sixty Years On” was released when Elton was 23 years old, so he can be forgiven for not wanting to live for an ungodly six decades (We are both of the generation that used to say no one over thirty should be trusted). sixty happensBut I turn sixty in two days, so indulge me as I reflect a bit on why sixty years on ain’t so bad after all.

My age has never been a negative issue for me—I passed 50 without a hitch a decade ago and don’t see 60 as any more problematic. I’m very healthy (my doctor says I’m his most boring patient), was in the best shape of my life before I broke my leg in October (and intend to get back there in short order once spring arrives and I’m back on my bike), and have always thought of myself as at least a decade younger than the calendar says. Still . . . 60 is a lot of years. In many periods of history, and in many parts of the world now, I would have been dead for a long time by this age. Even in my most optimistic moments I have to admit that I have probably already lived more than two-thirds of my allotted years on earth. Although I have regularly said that I will never retire and will die in the classroom at age 100 or so, I have heard myself say more and more frequently over the past few months in various contexts that I’ll be teaching for at least another ten years (what will I do after 70—RETIRE??). I’m already older than my mother was when she died. The older I get, the more the ancient Stoics’ advice to never forget one’s mortality makes sense, since it is much easier to pretend that one is immortal when one is twenty or thirty than when one is facing sixty. senecaThe Stoics had a great deal of good advice concerning how to be with the comparatively short human shelf life.

For instance, Seneca writes that Life is long if you know how to use it and that We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. We all know that the passage of time is subjective—a fifty-minute class can feel like fifteen or one hundred fifty minutes depending on any number of factors. Seneca’s point is that even though the objective length of my life is not within my control, how my life passes is within my control. Within the parameters of my existence, my life will be as long or as short, as meaningful or as meaningless, as I choose it to be. Stoic-EpiticusAnother great Stoic, Epictetus, describes it this way:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

On the cusp of sixty, I’ve learned a few things about how to play the part I’ve been given and about what makes my life meaningful. None of these are profound or groundbreaking, but it has taken me six decades to realize that sometimes the most obvious things are the best.

  • Enjoy the little things. I’ve always been a quirky person, no different in that regard than anyone else. But I spent a lot of my life hiding my quirks or at least pretending that they aren’t as important to me as they always have been and still are. I don’t hide them anymore. Reading with my dachshund stuffed into the chair next to me. go friarsFriars basketball. Friars hockey. Messing around with the plants in our postage-stamp-sized yard once spring comes. The newest local micro-brew porter or stout on tap at my favorite watering hole. A beer (or two or three) with the regulars on Friday afternoons. Binge-watching British police and detective television shows with Jeanne. The change of seasons in New England. Believing before every new season that the Red Sox can win the world championship—and actually have them do it once in a while.
  • Don’t sweat the stupid stuff. This is a tough one, but I’m trying to get better at not letting things outside of my control consume my day. Things like the latest idiocy from the presidential campaign trail, the most recent offensive email from a department colleague, an ignorant person on Twitter talking trash about my Friars basketball team—as the Stoics say, life is too short to insist on trying to control what other people say and do. Except for that jerk on Twitter.
  • Be grateful. I have a Facebook acquaintance who starts her day out by listing on Facebook five things that she is grateful for. t and fThat’s a wonderful habit to cultivate. I don’t do it on Facebook, but I have gotten better at remembering and occasionally writing about the things I am grateful for. Jeanne. Faith that is alive and kicking. My oldest son’s finding the life partner and profession that fit him perfectly. My youngest son finally landing the job that is worthy of his years of hard work and stubborn persistence; it is a joy to see him truly starting the life he has been seeking. My teaching vocation—as I tell my students frequently, I am inordinately blessed to be able to make a living doing what I was born to do. Living Stones—a collection of fellow spiritual travelers who never fail to surprise and delight me with their insights and stories.
  • Set appropriate goals. I have reached the point in my career where the most obvious professional goals—tenure and promotion to full professor—have been behind me for a decade and a half. What goals are appropriate going forward? I ended the chapter on “Courage” in my recently completed draft of a book that is currently under contract at a publisher–out in three months or so–with the following: I would love to write a bestseller. I would love to have my likeness be the first one carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. I would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. penguinsBut I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

As it turns out, I am perfectly happy to be living sixty years on and will be content to keep on going as long as my body and soul stay healthy and appropriately connected to each other. I have a very clear “do not resuscitate” agreement with Jeanne—as soon as I show the first signs of noticeable deterioration, pull the plug. If there is no plug, hit me over the head with a hammer. But only Jeanne knows what “signs of noticeable deterioration” means in my case, so don’t get any crazy ideas. Happy birthday to me!never underestimate

Getting Ready for the Apocalypse

A colleague and friend from the English department contacted me a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in developing a team-taught course with him to be taught for the first time in the Spring 2018 semester. This is one of the things I love about teaching at my college. Because the core program at the center of our extensive core curriculum–a program that I directed for the four years that ended just before my sabbatical last year–is taught by teams of colleagues from all over campus, the opportunities for collaboration across disciplines are abundant, as are the chances to create new courses from scratch. My colleague, with whom I taught for a semester several years ago during his first semester at the college, suggested to me that we create a course called “Apocalypse,” which we eventually described in our official proposal as follows:

This colloquium asks students to think about how civilization – and even humanity itself – might end.  With a bang? A whimper? A rapture? A zombie apocalypse? Visions of the destruction of civilization are currently experiencing a renaissance, from literature to television, film, and video games.  The “Apocalypse” colloquium is designed to connect this contemporary moment with the long tradition of apocalyptic writing and thinking.  Since their appearance, human beings have expressed their fears and hopes about the end of the world.  By asking students to think about the end of civilization and its aftermaths, we invite them to reconsider some of the fundamental questions their earlier core classes:  what is civilization? what responsibilities do human beings have to each other? what role does the divine play in promoting moral behavior? what is virtue, and does it apply in all circumstances? what things are essential in life? At a time when a poor internet connection or missed flight or speeding ticket can seem like a minor catastrophe, it can be instructive to imagine life in a world without electricity, planes, cars, police, or laws.

Truth be told, this topic is well outside my areas of expertise–I agreed to develop the course with my colleague because I thought it would be fun to teach with him again. In addition, I do have some experience with apocalyptic thinking–I was raised in it.

A new HBO miniseries called “The Leftovers” began a few years ago. TLindelof-The-Leftovers-HBOhis is the sort of series that I usually have no interest in—something weird has happened (like a huge invisible dome randomly dropping on top of a town) and the entertainment of the series is to see how people deal with the new situation. As my father would have said, it’s fun to observe a cow’s reaction to a new barn door. Shows with such premises are generally too Stephen King-ish for my taste. But the idea kernel behind “The Leftovers” is different.video-the-leftovers-trailer-shows-us-what-the-rapture-looks-like On a seemingly unimportant day, October 14th to be exact, millions of people worldwide inexplicably disappear into thin air. Here one moment, gone the next. The first episode of “The Leftovers” drops us three years later into a small Pennsylvania community as they prepare for a third year anniversary celebration (wake? remembrance?) of the dozens of friends and family members who evaporated on October 14. So what makes this bizarre premise any more interesting than a giant dome falling out of the sky? This one hits close to home, because in the parlance of the people I grew up with, the October 14 event that is at the heart of this show is the Rapture.

rapture_1_I don’t know if “Rapture Obsession” is an official medical diagnosis, but whether it is or not my family, my church, and just about everyone I knew growing up had it. In spades. The basic idea is simple—Jesus is coming back. And when he does, he’s going to take those who believe in him, who have “accepted Christ as their personal savior,” with him back to heaven (the Rapture) and leave the billions of unraptured losers here on earth for a seven-year period known as the Tribulation during which, literally, all hell will break loose. Armageddon. The Antichrist. The Apocalypse. All of these are triggered by the massive in-gathering of the faithful. At least in my youthful understanding, the primary reason to put up with all of the restrictions, limitations, and general annoyance of being a Christian was to guarantee that one is going and not staying when the Rapture occurs. Not that there was any solid guarantee that I was “in” rather than “out.” I spent many panicked moments as a youngster when my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be thinking that the Rapture had occurred and I was screwed.

Where did people get such a ridiculous idea from? The textual evidence in the Bible, surprisingly, is relatively thin and mixed at best. There are a few cryptic comments in the Gospels, a few more hints in Paul’s letters, but the bulk of the relevant material is in the Bible-closing Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew scriptures (as read through Christian filters), material containing predictions so cryptic and visions so strange as to suggest that the authors were on hallucinogenics. 375px-Tribulation_views_svgThere’s enough there to draw one’s attention if one is so inclined, but not enough for anyone to be sure about what the texts actually mean.

But that didn’t stop my church community from being sure as hell (!) that we were in and just about everyone else (including Catholics, Universalists, and tons of other people who claimed to be Christians) was out. There was plenty of debate about the details. We believed that the Rapture would be the official kick-off of the Tribulation (we were “Pre-Trib” people), but some Rapture believers thought it would happen half-way through the Tribulation (“Mid-Trib”) and some even thought it would happen at the end, just before the Final Judgment (“Post-Trib”—I never saw the point of a Post-Trib Rapture). Pastors preached on it, Bible scholars and experts gave week-long conferences piggy-backed on revivals (my Dad was one of these experts), The_Late,_Great_Planet_Earth_coverand we all went into a tizzy when in 1970 evangelical minister Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, called “the number one non-fiction bestseller of the decade” by the New York Times, exploded on the scene. And this is not a dated phenomenon. Hal Lindsey’1972 bestselling sequel had the eye-catching title Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth; a brief Internet search or a Sunday road trip to the closest megachurch will confirm that Rapture mania is also alive and well on planet Earth. “The Leftovers” is likely to be a big hit.

perrotta__120628065425-275x411I first became aware of the series when Tom Perotta, whose novel the series is based on, made the rounds of my favorite NPR shows the week before its debut. In one of the interviews, Perotta said that part of his research for the book was living as an embedded person in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian community and church for a certain amount of time, sort of like how the Soviet spies in “The Americans” live embedded in Maryland as a typical middle-class 1980s American couple. Assuming that, as always, the book would be better than the television series (it is), I ordered The Leftovers, published in 2011, from Amazon. It is clear from the outset that Perotta had done his homework well; on page 3 of the novel’s Prologue, the narrator describes that, as one might expect, there is a great deal of confusion and debate about “what just happened” in the weeks following October 14th—was it the Rapture or not? Many argued that it couldn’t have been.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th—Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were—hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. left-behind-people-on-rapture-dayAs far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

My church would have been at the forefront of those who denied that this was the Rapture on theological grounds. It would be understandable if not everyone in our congregation was raptured—not everyone was a good enough Christian. Those in the inner circle would have even been happy to predict who was not sufficiently up to snuff. But non-Christians? Atheists? Catholics, for God’s sake? Underlying Rapture obsession and mania is the very familiar human attempt to put God in a box, to figure out ahead of time what God is up to, what God is like, and what God likes best—then to act accordingly. A rapture such as fictionalized in The Leftovers is such an affront to our best efforts at putting the divine in a straitjacket that it has to be rejected as something other than the real thing. young_earthMaybe God threw this pseudo-rapture into the mix early just to test our faith, I can hear someone suggesting, sort of like God planted dinosaur fossils and made the earth appear to be several billion years old rather than the few thousand that the Bible says, just to fuck us up (for a good reason, of course).

Truth be told, though, the random harvest described in The Leftovers sounds exactly like something God might do, once as many human boxes and straitjackets for the divine as possible are left behind. God’s apparent randomness and lack of respect for our human obsession with fairness and justice is on display everywhere. It is entirely understandable that Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? has been a record-breaking bestseller. The very process of natural selection that has and continues to produce the vast diversity of living things is energized by randomness and chance. For those who insist on going to their favorite sacred text to get a handle on the divine, you need go no further than Jesus’ observations that “it rains on the just and the unjust” and “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Every time we believe we have God figured out, it is good to remember that if you want to give God a good laugh, just tell her your plans.when-will-the-rapture-happen-flowchart

Just Do It

I9780547725147_custom-7ea8f0969dfd404059558eab13a60fdfc6cf6a67-s6-c30n the early hours of a Sunday morning not long ago, I read the final pages of Daša Drndić’s Trieste, the most powerful, unrelenting and unforgiving book related to the Holocaust I have ever read. As a reviewer for Amazon wrote, “Trieste is not a book for the faint-hearted, either in style or subject. . . . Enter if you are brave enough, and if you stay the course you will be changed.” No one—those in authority, the church, those who turned their heads, those who simply did whatever they could to stay alive—are spared in this brutally honest and unflinching account of what human beings are capable of.

As I read I was reminded of something a post-Holocaust Jewish theologian wrote: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” 5210537_f248With regard to those men who were at the same time both murderous killers and yet tender fathers and husbands, Drndić writes that a father is not “a sacrosanct being. . . . There are no sacrosanct beings. Even God is not sacrosanct, perhaps He least of all.” To those who wish to excuse the culpable silence and frequent collaboration of religious institutions, she writes that “this caricatured parade and more than revolting fabrication, this costumed theatre of transparent lies and empty promises should be done away with right now, once and for all.”

And then Jeanne and I went to church. I was lector, she was chalice bearer—we couldn’t skip, but I was hardly in the mood. I was responsible for the Isaiah reading from the Jewish scriptures, a text I had briefly glanced at during the week, describing it to Jeanne as “kind of weird.” At the lectern, I found myself channeling something unexpectedly disturbing.

Isaiah 58 begins with the prophet mimicking the complaints of the “house of Jacob”: We have been fasting and humbling ourselves, just as you require. Why aren’t you answering our prayers? Why aren’t you taking notice? In response the prophet laughs with the voice of God. pisaiah“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight. Is such the fast that I choose? . . . Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” In other words, your “fast-day” is all about you. It’s all about your pitiful and self-centered attempts to twist divine favor in your direction. It’s all about having convinced yourself that skipping a few meals, attending a few extra meetings at your preferred house of worship, that arguing with each other about which forms of ritual are best, are all that it takes to draw God’s favorable attention. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

You want to know what a real fast-day would be like? What it would really be like if you humbled yourselves? Here’s a clue:

script_poster_5_isaiah_585B15DTo loose the bonds of injustice

To undo the thongs of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free

To share your bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless and poor into your house

To cover the naked when you see them

Try doing that for a while and see what happens.

As I considered in a post shortly after the November election, Jesus says this sort of thing frequently in the Gospels.

http://freelancechristianity.com/blessed/

But in Isaiah’s prophetic tones, the call to attend to the hungry, poor, widows and orphans is not a suggestion or an invitation to try out something new, as we might mistakenly read the New Testament texts. imagesThe text from Isaiah is a flat out command. Just f–king do it. And until you do, stop pretending that you are anything other than a self-centered piece of crap. And stop expecting anything other than a perpetuation of the continuing, sad human story of injustice and violence. Period.

As I haphazardly told Jeanne about some of the difficult aspects of Trieste on the drive to church, she said “I hope I die before this all happens again. Because it will—eventually no one will remember.” As my teaching colleague and I proceed through the early weeks of our colloquium on the Nazi era with very bright nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, the most frequent sort of question raised isReichsgründungsfeier, Schulklasse “How could they have done this?” or “How could people have gone along with those who were doing this?” Trieste has convinced me that before proceeding with these students, for whom the Holocaust is history as ancient as Julius Caesar and Pericles, to love, grace, truth and freedom in the midst of horror, perhaps more time should be spent in the horror part. No one in Trieste dropped in from an evil planet other than Earth—each person is a human being with darkness ready to erupt when inattentiveness and self-interest push common human decency into the background.

tumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20When one of the characters in Albert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint,” he responds “I have no interest in being a saint. I’m more interested in being a man.” This strikes me as a good place to start. A central problem illuminated by texts such as Isaiah and Trieste is the powerful human tendency to set the moral bar so low that even the most basic moral behavior looks like heroism or sainthood—a standard perhaps to be admired but not one that I hold myself to. We are told in sacred texts over and over again that God demands that we be fundamentally aware of each other. But the belief that basic morality and common decency require a conscious awareness of needs other than our own, particularly those of other human beings, need not be rooted in religious faith or practice. Whatever it takes to convince even a few of us that not only our thriving, but our very existence and survival depends on expanding the membership of our moral community to more than one is worth hanging on to.

On the final page of The Plague, at the end of a harrowing tale of individuals fighting against an out-of-control evil that could not be stopped, the main character Dr. Rieux takes stock of what he has learned now that the plague has left as inexplicably as it came. “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saint but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” 220px-William_James_b1842cThis is both a thankless and glorious assignment, one that William James in “The Will to Believe” recommends that we embrace with enthusiasm:

For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

It’s President’s Day, which for all college professors means–as do all Monday holidays in the middle of the semester–“catch up day.” It’s the Spring semester’s version of Columbus Day. I will be spending most of the day catching up on the grading that never seems to end, particularly since I have this nasty habit of assigning my students a lot of writing assignments. But it’s also a time to think about Presidents–not the current one, if I can help it–as well as social policy and politics.

There are many things that I love about visiting our friends Mike and Suzy. Included among those things are the various and random items spread about their house that make me think. We usually enter their house through the garage; next to the door into the house is an extra refrigerator/freezer containing, amongst other thing, the better-than-Bud-and-Miller beer that Michael always makes sure is on hand for my visits. I take full responsibility for raising Michael’s beer awareness over the years and proudly survey the contents each visit.

For all of the years we have been visiting, two bumper stickers on the outside of this refrigerator have frequently caught my attention. The first: When Jesus said “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them. The second: Who Would Jesus Bomb?  Striking, provocative, and very timely. Although our country always seems to be wondering who to go to war with, these bumper stickers particularly came to mind a few years ago as the most “do-nothing” U. S. Congress in recent memory debateed what should be done in response to events on the other side of the world—the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Do-Nothing-Congress1[1]This was (and continues to be) a Congress whose members had become so constitutionally incapable of true discussion and compromise that they would rather use each other’s toothbrushes than try to understand each other’s arguments. Yet they were strangely united by the question of what is the best and most appropriate violent response to violence. Although possible diplomatic solutions were proposed, the tenor of the conversation seemed to be not so much whether to respond with violence, as when and how. And the Syrian conflict continues unabated.

I do not pretend to know what is in the best interest of the United States or of those in the Middle East. Whatever votes are taken, whatever decisions are made, and whatever actions are endorsed are always fraught with uncertainty and subject to endless second-guessing. I am also strongly committed to the separation of religion and politics in the sense that public policy should not be fashioned with any particularly religious framework in mind. But over the past few years I have begun to explore the parameters of my Christian faith in new ways, discovering over and over again that these parameters are more expansive and flexible than I could have ever imagined. wwjd-bracelet[1]Questions like whether or how to respond to what the Syrian government allegedly did to its own citizens jerk me up short when considered in the light of my Christian beliefs. Because I find absolutely no justification in the seminal texts of my faith to justify violence under any circumstances, even if such violence is proposed as a measured and proportional response to violence of a different order entirely. And this concerns me.

Truth in advertising requires that I reveal that my natural tendencies lean strongly toward pacifism and non-violence. I grew up in the sixties in the midst of the Vietnam War; my brother, three-and-a-half years older than I, was a conscientious objector. The draft lottery ended just as I became old enough to be subject to it; had it continued, I would have followed in my brother’s footsteps as a conscientious objector or perhaps in the footsteps of others to Canada.Vietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967[1] So it is not surprising that I resonate with the non-violence and pacifism of the Gospel texts—they align with and confirm my natural tendencies. For exactly these reasons, I am very cautious about making claims concerning the appropriate Christian position to take in cases such as Syria. The philosopher in me knows that human beings, myself included, have a very strong tendency to interpret texts through subjective lenses and then treat that interpretation as if it was objectively true.

But I challenge anyone to find in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s parables, or his teachings from the Gospels anything that justifies responding to violence with violence, regardless of the nature of the violence that demands a response. This is what makes even sketching the outlines of a consistent Christian position in cases such as Syria so maddeningly difficult. Jesus in the Gospels continually stresses the importance of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick—the disenfranchised and powerless, in other words. _143081042209598[1]And could there be a more blatant example of abusing the powerless than killing innocent civilians, particularly children, by using chemical weapons?

A text I have used frequently in classes over the past several years is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie’s riveting account of how the villagers of Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in southeastern France, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children, under the noses of the Gestapo and the Vichy police during World War II. Inspired by the Gospel in action as taught to them by their dynamic pastor, Andre Trocme, the villagers hid and cared for refugees in their homes, farmhouses, shops and places of worship until they could safely be taken across the nearby border into neutral Switzerland. And they did all of this, at the continual risk of their own lives, in the open while fully dedicated to non-violence.

Hallie reports that upon the publication of his book recounting the story of Le Chambon, the author of one of the first letters he received sought to remind him of just how limited and insignificant the Le Chambon story really was in the larger context of World War II and the Holocaust. “Le Chambon wasn’t even in the war,” the author of the letter wrote. “Reverend Trocme and a miniscule number of equally eccentric kindred-spirits had no effect,” and mattered only to mushy-minded moralists. Only vast forces “make history,” forces energized by power that overwhelms moral niceties over and over again. Le-Chambon-before-the-war-634x397[1]“Nothing happened at Le Chambon,” the letter concluded, at least nothing worth paying much attention to.

Hallie admits that “the moral brilliance of the villagers does not light up the moral darkness around the village as much as it makes that vast darkness seem darker by contrast.” Individual and collective acts of moral bravery in the face of inhumanity, terror, and violence often appear to have no greater impact than spitting into the face of a hurricane. Force can only be met by greater force, violence often can only be thwarted by violence. Hallie himself was a combat artilleryman in the European theater during World War II, and writes “I knew that decent killers like me had done more to prevent the mass murders from continuing than this pacifist mountain village had done.” So in the real world, a world in which no one loves their enemies and no one turns the other cheek, why even try to think through violence within a framework of non-violence?

The world in which we live does not accommodate non-violence as a response to violence, peace as a response to aggression, apparent weakness as a response to power. Every attempt to institutionalize goodness and organize moral behavior ends up playing the same sort of power game that is supposedly being opposed. The message of the gospel is gutted every time it is joined to recognizably effective tools of power, even with the best of intentions. As followers of Jesus, we are saddled with a perspective and a call that is guaranteed to be a failure. Teachings_of_Jesus_6_of_40._parable_of_the_leaven._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible[1]And this should not be a surprise, since the whole Christian story is rooted in weakness, suffering, loss and apparent failure.

But this is what makes the presence of true faith and belief in this world so crucial. We are told in the gospels that “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Despite its apparent insignificance, yeast over time works its apparent magic on the lump of dough, changing it incrementally into something entirely different. Who would Jesus bomb? No one, because that is not the divine response to even the most horrific of evils. We are called to be present in the midst of it all, not proposing policies that God would endorse or solutions stamped with divine approval, but rather as witnesses of hope, of the possibility of transformation, and of an insistence that a better way is possible. As Philip Hallie wrote to his letter-writing critic, “thanks for your point of view. But something really did happen there.” We are called to be catalysts for changes that often are so small as to seem invisible. But as the proverb reminds us, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

A Hard Saying

Yesterday I introduced a bunch of college sophomores to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “Cheap grace” and “Costly grace,” the difference between committing verbally to one’s faith while allowing it to affect one’s life only on the surface level (cheap), and embracing the life-changing and completely disruptive things that will happen if one takes one’s faith seriously (costly). I likened the distinction to the difference between light beer and real beer. Light beer smells like and looks like beer, but upon taking one taste one will say “that isn’t real beer!” Neither is cheap grace the real thing.

In the Gospel of John, a number of Jesus’ followers complain after one of his teachings that “this is a hard saying; who can understand it?” When Jesus responds with a few more of his patented cryptic remarks, the writer tells us that “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These are not just hangers-on or fringe bystanders, looking to be entertained by another miracle. They are disciples, people who have been following Jesus for some time and have been witnesses to and recipients of the vast range of what the man has to offer. And they’ve had enough.

These frustrated former disciples have a point. I have to honestly admit that I might have gone with them. The sermon that causes them to finally fold up shop and go home is indeed a difficult one, wrapping up with the claim that only those who drink Jesus’ blood and eat his flesh will have eternal life. But this is by no means the only “hard saying” that they’ve heard from Jesus. From selling all you have being a prerequisite for following him, and letting your enemy smack both sides of your face while giving him your sweater to go with the coat he stole, to letting the dead bury the dead and hating your father and mother if you want to be his disciple, Jesus is full of “hard sayings.” Small wonder that Christians generally, lacking the guts to simply walk away, tend to water down and systematize the radical elements of the gospel into manageable directives. These reduced commands require behaviors and commitments that, although burdensome at times, can be carried out by any reasonably dedicated and sincere adult. For many of us, “this is a hard saying—who can understand it?” is not really a question of understanding at all. For we understand the hard sayings all too well, and conclude that they are just too much.

In October of 2006, the news of a shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA burst onto the nightly news. A neighborhood milkman carrying a small arsenal of weapons walked into the school and started shooting, killing five and wounding many more before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide. In the midst of deep grief, the interconnectedness of the Amish community was demonstrated through comprehensive mutual support and, most shockingly, immediate forgiveness. At a prayer service the night after the shootings, the Rev. Dwight Lefever of Living Faith Church of God said that earlier in the day he was in the kitchen of the shooter’s family home when an Amish neighbor came by. “He wrapped his arms around Charlie’s dad for an hour,” Lefever reported. “He said, ‘We will forgive you.’” The pastor’s conclusion: “God met us in that kitchen.”

For the past several years, I have included this tragic event and its aftermath as the central part of the midterm exam in my General Ethics class. I provide my students with a newspaper account of the Amish community’s reaction to the shootings, and then ask them to try to make sense of what happened, particularly of the immediate forgiveness offered to the shooter’s family, within the structures of the moral frameworks we have studied during the first half of the semester. They can’t do it. Furthermore, many of my mostly parochial-school educated students find something twisted, even offensive, in the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the murderer of their children. Comments range from “this is completely abnormal” to “these people are sick.” Over several semesters of this assignment, no student has yet commented favorably on a quote from a member of the Amish community included in the article: “Our faith tells us to act like Christ did on his way to the cross.”

Once shortly after reading the midterms, I was drinking a beer (not a lite one) with a colleague at the local watering hole on Friday afternoon, unwinding from the week. I described the reactions of my students to the behavior of the Amish, reactions that were still fresh in my mind. In response, he said “I also am shocked by what the Amish did, but I don’t know why. As a Christian, I should be shocked that I’m shocked. They are just trying to do what Jesus said to do.”

Perhaps I can excuse my 19-20 year old students for being unable to find a place for radical forgiveness in their moral worldviews, which have been heavily influenced not only by strong family connections but also by a culture of the self and Christianity on the cheap. But what about me, someone significantly older and more experienced than my students? As someone who has grappled with issues of Christian faith from my youth, my own temptation is to think of the Amish as über-Christians, somehow capable of moral heroics that normal persons such as I can only admire from a distance and not even aspire to. That rationale is particularly tempting because I, as many mainstream Christians, have been encouraged to think that it is the priests, pastors, monks, nuns, and missionaries who are the elite corps of Christians, freeing me to reduce expectations considerably.

But there is nothing in the Gospels to justify that easy out. Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow him does not contain a loophole or room for an amendment. Which brings me back to the beginning—“this is a hard saying.” Christ apparently demands everything of me, which is far more than I can give. I can’t love my neighbor as myself. I can’t love God more than I love Jeanne. I can’t sell all that I have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. It’s too hard, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that a lukewarm, watered-down version is sufficient. Maybe I’m one of those who should “walk with Him no more.”

But that’s not an option for me. I identify with the remaining disciples who asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So, where does that leave me? I want to follow. I can’t follow.

A still small voice offers a bit of hope. “Of course it’s too hard. Of course you can’t do any of these things. That’s the point. I can, and I am in you.” If divine love has indeed overcome the world, then perhaps it can even overcome me.