Category Archives: family

The Time of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

In her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made testament of youthinto a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch grapples directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

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

A Liberal and a Christian Walk Into a Bar . . .

As we approach a day many of us never saw coming, the inauguration of Donald Trump as President, pundits and experts are still trying to figure out what happened. I have lost count of the explanations out there for why so many people were so wrong. A couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic published an article by Emma Green entitled “Democrats Have a Religion Problem,” consisting largely of an interview with Michael Wear, author of Reclaiming Hope and a former director of soon-to-be-former President Obama’s faith-outreach initiative in 2012.

The Atlantic: Democrats have a religion problem

The article begins by pointing out that Democrats, once again, have proven themselves to be illiterate, ignorant, and clueless concerning religion and persons of faith, given President-elect Trump’s garnering of 81% of the white, evangelical Christian vote in the November election. In the interview, Wear not only describes his frustration as a conservative, evangelical Christian surrounded by folks who were not during his days working for Obama, but also offers a number of comments that are “interesting,” to say the least.

  • Wear was surprised to discover that apparently not everyone is as thoroughly familiar with the various things Jesus is reported to have said in the gospels as Wear is. The title of one of his faith-outreach fact sheets was “Economic Fairness and the Least of These”; one of his colleagues, unaware of who or what “the least of these” are, thought it was a typo.
  • In the never-ending battles between pro-life and pro-choice positions, Wear is convinced that it is the pro-choice folks in the Democratic party who, through their shrillness and inflexibility, are keeping pro-life people from considering voting for Democrats. “Some portion of voters would likely identify as both pro-life and Democrat, but from a party point of view, it’s basically impossible to be a pro-life Democrat . . . Reaching out to evangelicals doesn’t mean you have to become pro-life. It just means you have to not be so in love with how pro-choice you are, and so opposed to how pro-life we are.”
  • One could read the entire article and conclude that the only real Christians in the United States are conservative Evangelicals—the rest who claim to be Christians are just posers. I was particularly struck by the following: “The Democratic Party is effectively broken up into three even thirds right now: religiously unaffiliated people, white Christians who are cultural Christians, and then people of color who are religious.”

This is very strange, since I find no slice of this Democratic pie that includes me—a white liberal who takes his Christian commitments very seriously. I’ve written frequently in this blog over the past four-plus years that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. The stereotype that liberal Christians are “cultural Christians,” that they don’t really believe in anything other than trendy and politically correct social causes, and that no liberal claiming to be a Christian could possibly be a real follower of Jesus, is not only wrong—it is patently absurd.

There are many problems lurking underneath Wear’s analysis, beginning with his assumption that party platforms have much of anything to do with how individuals vote. I have voted for the Democratic candidate in virtually every election I have participated in over the past forty years, not because I am a Democrat, but because the issues and commitments that are most important to me have most often been more closely represented by the Democratic candidate than any of her or his opponents. I vote as the person my experiences and commitments have made me into—those experiences and commitments have most often been shaped by my Christian faith. With regard to Wear’s claim “it is virtually impossible to be a pro-life Democrat,” I simply observe that I have any number of friends and colleagues—many of them Catholic—who are both pro-life and vote regularly for Democratic candidates, simply because other issues they are equally committed to are best represented by those candidates. Whether these friends and colleagues are officially members of the Democratic, or any other, party is irrelevant. Broadening the scope a bit, I live in the most Catholic state, per capita, in the country. It also votes overwhelmingly Democrat both in national and state-level elections.

I first learned of the article in The Atlantic when a friend and colleague, who reads my blog regularly, forwarded a link to a New York Magazine article to me, suggesting that it might be of interest for my blog.

New York Magazine: The case for democratic outreach to religious liberals

The author of this article, Ed Kilgore, provides a link to and briefly critiques Green’s interview of Wear, then proceeds to blast the Democratic party for not paying attention to a demographic that should fall into its camp as easily as “low-hanging fruit”—liberal and progressive persons of faith. Although I do not appreciate being described as low-hanging fruit, I get the point. Assuming that “liberal, progressive persons of faith” is a demographic that can easily be described, it would make great sense for the more liberal of our two major political parties to do what it can to both understand and reach out to such persons.

But somehow, I don’t feel that I am part of a demographic, at least not of the sort that politicians, pundits, and pollsters tend to describe in sound bites and tweets. I don’t vote for liberal candidates because I am a Christian. I vote for liberal candidates because I am a liberal—and, as noted earlier, it is my faith commitment that, over time, has turned me into the liberal that I am. It’s a subtle, but important, difference. Liberal persons of faith tend not to carry their faith on their sleeves, not because they are ashamed of their faith, but because their faith is not a list of dogmas, a collection of rules, or a checklist of required beliefs. A liberal Christian’s faith is on display in the life that she or he lives, the sort of evidence that is more convincing, but also more difficult to describe easily, than what one might hear on a stump speech or read in a policy platform.

A liberal and a Christian walk into a bar . . .

And discover that they are the same person.

Holy Family Values

Each week for the past many years, Garrison Keillor has told “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake WobeLake-Wobegon[1]gon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an attraction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.

An Epiphany

“It’s the cold mornings that it’s the hardest. You want nothing more than to wake up in your own place, look out the window, make some coffee, and not have to go anywhere.”

–“They’ve given me 10 days. Who the hell can find a place to live in 10 days? The only place you can find in the winter in 10 days is an abandoned building.”

“But I’ll live anywhere instead of going to a shelter. Some of the people in shelters are nasty. No matter how hard you try to mind your own business, somebody just has to get in your face and then it’s on.”

–“You’re telling me. A lot of those people never take showers, not that I blame them because the shelter bathrooms are disgusting. Animals wouldn’t want to use them.”

–“I sat too close to someone’s backpack one time and he kicked me.”

ripta_bus1_20081008103712_320_240[1]Not the sort of conversation I usually hear on a Sunday morning. But then I don’t usually ride the RIPTA #1 bus to church. “It’ll be fun,” I thought to myself; “It will be an adventure.” And it was. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have walked across the street to go to church, but here I was spending two hours riding buses, waiting for buses, and walking just to get to church, a trip that takes 10-15 minutes in a car. But Jeanne had the car in New Jersey and I felt like going to church. I spent a half hour on the RIPTA website the night before, eventually calculating that it is possible to get there from here, but just barely.

imagesCA1Q13KYEight-fifteen on a cold, January Sunday morning at Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence. The local #50 bus just deposited me at the central RIPTA station. In a perfect world, the bus would have picked me up at my front door, the driver would have handed me a Dunkin’ Donuts medium decaf Toasted Almond regular as I boarded, and she would have dropped me off at Trinity Episcopal in 20 minutes. In the real world,  all bus lines go through Kennedy plaza. With 25 minutes before the #1 bus arrives, I look inside the terminal. It is filled with at least 100 people of various sizes, shapes, ages and races. Most are dressed in some sort of winter garb, designer or makeshift—given the light Sunday bus service on all lines, I’ll bet half of them aren’t even waiting for a bus. This is the only warm place they can find this morning. A few muffled conversations are going on, and everyone is giving me the look. I decide it would be fun to freeze my ass off and check out what the Riverwal4897635079_e53ed9fb7d_b[1]k is up to while I wait for the #1. It’s doing fine, by the way, and says hi.

I’m followed onto the bus by two gentlemen—early forties and late fifties, I guess—who  sit across the aisle and converse about trying to preserve a shred of dignity while being homeless. Neither of them “looks” homeless—it always shocks me how easily I fall into stereotypical thinking. But as I listen to them I am grateful for my good fortune and blessings and silently ask for a blessing on them. Please help our elected officials to figure something out. You are a God of love and justice and these men need a lot of both. Amen—and they get off the bus at Eddy and Thurbers, leaving me to travel the remaining ten minutes to Trinity in silence.

It is the season of Epiphany—“epiphany” means “to show forth.” This is the liturgical season to celebrate Jesus’s coming out party, first to the wise men, then at his baptism. The Old Testament readings are great. Psalm 29 tells us that “the voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of firePraying-the-Psalms-Psalm-29-Berger-300x231[1] . . . the voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” Now that’s what I’m talking about! That’s a God who can straighten things out and bring on justice like a flood. Enough with our puny human attempts! But Isaiah says something different about the one who is to come, the one who “will bring forth justice to the nations.”

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

I’m confused. How is someone so gentle that he won’t break a bruised reed or snuff out an almost spent candle going to bring about justice?

But then it dawns on me—a little epiphany, I suppose—that I encountered the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks of my day and age this morning on the way to church. These are the people I read about in the paper and hear the talking heads screech about on MSNBC and Fox NewsIBrOGLoxmYhmNiT-556x313-noPad[1], but with real faces, wearing real winter clothes, and living real histories. These guys really exist, not as units in a collection or a specimen from the social category labeled “homeless,” but as men, exactly like me, who were one day stamped with a special mark by affliction and misfortune.

But how to respond? I might begin just by paying attention. Simone Weil writes that “those who are unhappy have no need for anything but people capable of giving them their attention . . . The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” In other words, before I try to solve your problem, tell me your story. Justice for bruised reeds and almost-extinguished wicks must begin in peace, gentleness, and silent attentiveness. Various sorts of force have just about finished them off. Any more might be the end.

isaiah 2[1]But who on earth could do this? Isaiah’s answer is disturbingly direct.

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness . . . I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness . . . See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

4862498560_a90b6be430_z[1]Epiphany basks in the glorious light of the Incarnation, of the divine made flesh. And nowadays that’s me. That’s you. That’s us. Only from that very unpromising source will justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

What’s Next?

As a Christmas present to each other, Jeanne and I purchased our first HD television a few weeks ago–one equipped with access to Amazon, Netflix, and multiple other sites I have not had time to explore. As I wandered through Amazon offerings (I’ve been a “Prime” member for years), I encountered all seven seasons of “The West Wing,” probably my favorite television show of all time. We already own all seven seasons of the show in DVD, so this is a bit of overkill, but who could have enough of the best President ever, especially given our current executive office prospects?

I love all of the ten or so main characters from “The West Wing,” none more than President Josiah Bartlet himself. “The West Wing” premiered in September of 1999, bumper stickerjust a few weeks before the presidential election that eventually brought George W. Bush to the White House. During the two terms of the Bush presidency Jeanne and I had a Don’t blame me—I voted for Bartlet bumper sticker on our car. I think I’ll order a new one for the next four years. President Bartlet had Bill Clinton’s charisma and political savvy joined with the moral fiber of Jimmy Carter—what was not to like (especially for liberals and idealists)?

A typical episode portrayed the controlled chaos of a day or a few days in the White House, with several scenes each week taking place in the Oval Office itself. As Bartlet and his ever-present entourage move swiftly from issue to issue and one impending disaster to another, they multi-task with endless energy and Olympian ability. As one brush fire appears to have been temporarily stamped out and another awaits attention, there is no time to take a few extra breaths or reflect before pressing forward. bartlet entourage“What’s next?” the president typically would ask Leo, Toby, Sam, Josh, C.J., Charlie, General Fitzwallace, Mrs. Landingham, or whoever happened to be standing next to him. No time for savoring victories or regretting failures—there’s always more shit to get done.

I completely understand the energy of “What’s Next?” and was plugged into it for just about all of the eight years out of the last ten that I was an administrator on campus, first as chair of my department, then as director of a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores. Teaching four classes per semester, usually with three separate preparations, is more than a full-time job in itself; adding the administrative tasks on top frequently pushed me close to the point of “I can’t do this.” Whats nextBut I did, in large part because I learned to be ultra-organized, looking at my calendar each morning to prioritize each of the dozen Whack-a-Moles that promised to pop up over the following hours, and seldom diverging from that prioritization. In service to my overall “What’s Next?” attitude I had a three page, single-spaced “Important Dates” document for the semester taped on the wall next to my computer just to remind me that things keep coming and disaster awaits those who don’t keep up. Rigorous organization, energy always directed forward, never looking back—these are necessary features of the “get it done” attitude of American success. And it’s no way to live a life.

As I described in my blog post a week ago, I learned during my Spring 2009 sabbatical semester that focus, centeredness and peace are available in the midst of the most manic schedule because I carry a space in which those welcome things live everywhere I go.

Clouds of Glory

I identified this space as the place where the divine in me hangs out, agreeing with C of genoaCatherine of Genoa that “my deepest me is God.” I also began to learn how to access that space deliberately by directing my attention properly. This new awareness and skill served me well during my four years as program director that began a year later—when I remembered to pay attention and make use of it. My mantra coming out of sabbatical was from Psalm 131—“Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace”—something I intended to use as the screen saver on my computer and to frame on my office wall when I returned to campus. But I did neither one; I was on my computer so much that it wouldn’t have mattered what I had on my screen saver. I established the practice of reading the Psalms from the daily lectionary every morning, a habit that served me well in terms of starting the day off in the right place. Get it doneBut the vortex of “What’s Next?” and “Get It Done” frequently sucked me in by the middle of the morning, swamping my space of intentionality and attention before I was aware of what had happened.

Away from work, I have done a better job over the past few years of avoiding the “What’s Next?” syndrome, but I still have to be very conscious and attentive to escape the guilt that often is paired with “doing nothing.” The key is to reject the nagging idea that one’s value and space on this planet has to be earned on a daily basis by what one does. We were talking about this not long ago in a monthly discussion group that I lead at church; one of the participants observed that there is not just a point about human psychology to be made here. It is not only good for a person’s mental and emotional well-being to find internal spaces of peace and quietness as resources for addressing a world that is anything but peaceful and quiet, but these also appear to be the very spaces where direct connections to what is greater than us are made. Tmustard seedhere are all sorts of theological reasons to conclude that what I do, my “works,” are not the key to a healthy relationship with the divine, but the authors of scripture have something deeper than right belief in mind when they continually emphasize the importance of stillness and quietness when seeking God. The divine is born in us as a tiny seed that is nurtured not by manic activity, but by patience, daily attention, and perpetual care. It is very challenging to be still when everything around us screams that time is of the essence and must not be wasted. God is said not to be a respecter of persons; God is most definitely not a respecter of our schedules.

My New Year’s resolution is committing myself to the retooling and honing of my practices of attentiveness, silence and peace. I find that in spite of my regular failure to access my core of centeredness over the past few years since I first became aware of its existence, my inner attunement to it has become stronger without my even being aware. thin placesIt takes less time to get there than it used to—like water seeping through a rock, the wall between outer demands and inner strength has become one of those “thin places” that various writers love to ruminate about. Or at least thinner—it’s always a work in progress. My hope for the New Year is that each of you find your own thin places. The places where the divine is always waiting to say “hello.”

Learning Our Lessons

I’ve often said during my close to three decades of teaching philosophy on the college level that I did not enter academia because it’s one of the few places a philosopher can find to make a living. I entered academia because I wanted to be a college professor—philosophy just happened to be the disciplinary vehicle that got me there. If it hadn’t been philosophy, it would have been history (and if it hadn’t been history it would have been literature . . .). Whatever it took to get me into the academic life. My approach to philosophy has always been contextual and historical; I have taken great delight in teaching regularly in an interdisciplinary course with a historian for over twenty years. As it turns out, my reading for the first ten days or so of Winter Break has reflected my love of history. Moving backwards from the first decade of the twentieth century to Ancient Rome, I have been reminded of just how relevant history is to understanding the present.

Everyone knows a version of the truism that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” but few know where the original of the truism came from. As it turns out, lots of people have said something along these lines, from Edmund Burke (“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”) and George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) to Jesse Ventura (“Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it”) and Lemony Snickett (“Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it”). I finished the second half of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit just before Christmas. Goodwin tells the story of the first decade of the twentieth century, focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, two of the towering political figures of the time. I am a great fan of Goodwin’s work and anxiously awaited reading The Bully Pulpit between semesters after her October lecture on campus as part of my college’s centennial celebration.

The period of American history between the Civil War and the Great Depression has always been somewhat of an empty field for me, so I was fascinated to find that the politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a remarkably contemporary feel. A progressive movement (within the Republican party, no less) favoring the rights and interests of “the little man” is being resisted by big money, huge trusts and corporations run by fabulously wealthy individuals who are loath to release even a molecule of their power. The centers of activity are different from today—the progressive movement is centered in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and the West with conservative resistance centered in the Northeast, but questions about how economics, politics, the common good, and foreign interests should be balanced were the same then as they are today. The Great Depression that followed within a decade after the end of the events in The Bully Pulpit shows that they did not figure things out very well back then—will we do better? The best I can say is that the jury is out on that one.

My favorite takeaway from The Bully Pulpit is entirely personal. Threaded throughout the book are the stories of two remarkable marriages, Teddy and Edith Roosevelt, side by side with William and Nelly Taft. The letters exchanged were intimate and revealing, including the following tribute from William to Nelly which I copied verbatim into Jeanne’s Christmas card:

I cannot tell you what a comfort it is to me to think of you as my wife and helpmeet. I measure every woman I meet with you and they are all found wanting. Your character, your independence, your straight mode of thinking, your quiet planning, your loyalty, your sympathy when I need it (as I do too readily), your affection and love (for I know I have it), all these make me happy just to think about them.

“Wow,” Jeanne said on Christmas morning, “you could have written that!” She also claimed, as did Nellie, that she didn’t deserve such a tribute—but Bill and I know better.

Photo by Chris Boland, www.christopherinessex.co.uk

After The Bully Pulpit, it was on to SPQR (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus–“the Senate and people of Rome”), Mary Beard’s recent history of ancient Rome. One of my teaching partners this past semester in the interdisciplinary course in which I regularly teach is a classicist whose specialty is ancient Rome; when Fred gave the book an enthusiastic thumbs-up, I put it on my between-semesters reading list. I’m currently about half way through the book, and am reminded on almost every page to what extent the ancient Romans shaped our contemporary world. The issues they grappled with are still with us, issues almost too numerous to list. One in particular has caught my attention in SPQR, something about the Romans that I did not know until my colleague stressed it in a couple of lectures this past semester. Unique among ancient civilizations, the Romans were remarkably willing to incorporate outsiders into their world, not just as visitors, marginal members of society, or conquered people, but as citizens. The Romans were notably tolerant of different ways of doing things, an attitude that is, at least theoretically, something that we value in our country. Although the Romans were often suspicious and xenophobic in their initial actions toward others, the inhabitants of conquered territories were gradually given full Roman citizenship, along with the legal rights and protections that went with it. This openness, at least in theory, is something that we have aspired to during our country’s short history—which makes the current swing toward suspicion and concern about “the Other” in our politics and social attitudes so disturbing.

There are reasons, of course, to be careful about openness—like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, one never knows what one might end up with. One interesting example from SPQR illustrates the point. Roman religion was complex, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses and a dizzying array of practices and festivals to honor them, events that also marked celebration of culture and what it meant to be Roman. But the Romans were also remarkably open to incorporating new deities and practices into their religion. In the early part of the second century BCE, the Great Mother goddess, the focus of worship in part of Roman territories in Asia Minor, was brought with great fanfare into Rome, at the advice of an ancient oracle, to be incorporated into the Roman pantheon. She was the patron deity of Troy, the mythical ancestral home of Rome, so in a sense the Great Mother belonged in Rome. Beard reports that the temple built to house her “would be the first building in Rome, so far as we know, constructed using that most Roman of materials . . . concrete.” A deputation was sent to Asia Minor to collect the image of the goddess and transport her back—a deputation that included a highly placed senator and a Vestal Virgin. But, as Beard relates, “not everything was quite as it seemed.”

The image of the goddess was not what the Romans could possibly have been expecting. It was a large black meteorite, not a conventional statue in human form. And the meteorite came accompanied by a retinue of priests. These were self-castrated eunuchs, with long hair, tambourines and a passion for self-flagellation. This was all about as un-Roman as you could imagine. And forever after it raised uncomfortable questions about “the Roman” and “the foreign,” and where the boundary between them lay.

These are exactly the sorts of questions we must struggle with today. We might say that we will be accepting of the “Other” just as long as that Other over time becomes like we are. But what exactly are we? Romans regularly welcomed all sorts of people and practices into their sphere, and then had to grapple with the implications of openness. We must do the same, all the time remembering that were it not for a fundamental openness to strangers and the “Other” in our history, most of us would not be here.

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

Who Comes This Night?

Aleppo, Russians tampering with our election, a sharply polarized country, general mistrust in all sort of institutions, a truck driving into holiday celebrators in Berlin—the clashing of our world with the Christmas season has never been more dissonant. In his lovely holiday song “Who Comes This Night?’, James Taylor asks some very pressing questions:

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking?

If there was ever a time when accumulated layers of consumerism and tradition needed to be peeled back from the Christmas narrative to reveal what lies beneath, it is now.

Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday,” “Love, Actually,” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.” “The Nativity Story” presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.

These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? A friend, who recently passed away, tended to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.” Our lives are built from stories that we embrace and own as ours—this story is one of the best. As I reported in this blog recently, a student of mine once said that even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, she would “still be a Christian, because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the Incarnation is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight. At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” The message of Christmas cuts across every one of the boundaries that we spend so much time drawing and protecting, for it tells us that the human and the divine belong together and that the only way that God gets into the world is in human form. That’s you. That’s me. That’s us.

The heart and soul of Christianity is remarkable both in its simplicity and its iconoclasm. God made into flesh. Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas

How Can This Be?

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

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” But I love Advent, Mary is a major Advent player, testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring It On

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being, Jesuit author and spiritual advisor James Martin spoke of how we have sanitized the Christmas story into something appropriate for polite conversation, crèches, cards, and movies.

I think it’s been tamed. It’s not only been commodified and commercialized; it’s been tamed. It’s a nice, pretty story about two nice, good-looking people, usually white, who had a pretty baby in a manger. But in a sense, it’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo. And it’s also—I have to say—it is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And I think we’ve tamed it. And in a sense, it doesn’t demand our belief. We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute” . . . And I actually have to say, I am really getting to the point where I’m starting to loathe the Christmas season.

One of the ways to avoid loathing the Christmas season is to pay close attention to what the gospel narratives actually tell us about the people chosen to usher Jesus into the world. They are just like we are—normal, challenged, hard-working human beings, just living their lives, who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of events larger than they could comprehend.

Each new lectionary year begins with Advent, and each year a different gospel is on display. This year, Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, we get the first of the four gospels, Matthew. It is a book written by a Jew for Jews about a Jew. Scholars tell us that this gospel was written 30-40 years after Jesus’ ascension; its author’s primary focus is to look back to events a half century past and convince a Jewish audience that Jesus, a Jewish man who was crucified as a common criminal, was actually the promised Messiah. The author’s intentions are clear from the start when the gospel begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back from Joseph through King David—from royal tribe of Judah from which the Messiah is to come—to Abraham. The author even points out some interesting details in this genealogy that the well-versed Jewish reader or listener would not miss.

It turns out that there are some questionable women in Joseph’s family tree. Salmon, David’s great-grandfather, for instance, marries Rahab whose story is told in the book of Joshua from the Jewish scriptures. The invading children of Israel send spies into the Promised Land to scout out the area; they end up in Jericho, a walled fortress that is the most important and powerful city in Canaan. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab (what were they doing there?), who hides them from the king of Jericho and helps them escape from the city by dropping a rope from her window so they can climb down the wall to safety in the middle of the night. For her efforts, this non-Israelite prostitute and her family are the only inhabitants of Jericho spared when Joshua and his army, using information from the spies Rahab saved, conquers and destroys Jericho a few chapters later.

Salmon and Rahab’s son is Boaz. Perhaps it is because he is a half-breed that he is willing to marry the foreign widow Ruth. The story of Ruth and Boaz is beautifully told in the Book of Ruth, a hidden and seldom-read gem in the Hebrew Scriptures. During a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Judah with their two sons in search of sustenance, which they find in the neighboring land of Moab. The sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, something which the Mosaic Law prohibited (just as it prohibited Salmon from marrying a foreigner, let alone a prostitute). But all of the men in the story die. Devastated by loss and with no means of support, Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem after saying goodbye to her former daughters-in-law. Orpah sadly heads back to her family home, but Ruth will not leave Naomi, touchingly saying “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

It’s the beginning of an unexpected love story—foreign woman meets wealthy Jewish guy (Boaz). Ruth and Boaz’s grandson, Jesse (who is no more than half Jewish), has eight sons. The eighth son and runt of the litter, consigned to writing poems and killing lions while tending sheep, is David whom Samuel anoints as the second king of Israel. The line continues through Solomon, who is the product of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Even the Messiah’s line has its questionable elements and characters—which should tell us something about the divine plan and priorities.

The birth of Jesus is set up by Matthew not with the women of the story, Elizabeth and Mary, in central roles but rather with Joseph, the descendant of David. He is the central character both in today’s gospel reading as well as the text in two weeks when he runs to Egypt in the middle of the night with his young family to escape King Herod’s murderous plans. What do we learn from Matthew and from Luke, the only other gospel in which Joseph appears, about Joseph? First, Joseph is the strong, silent type. While other major players in the stories of Jesus’ birth and formative years get major speaking parts, we have no record of Joseph ever saying anything. Mary gets the Magnificat, angels are singing and messaging at the drop of a hat, John the Baptist gets to yell “Repent,” Zachariah has the “Song of Zachariah,” the wise men have a brief speaking role, and even the minor character Simeon gets to contribute a song before he dies. But Joseph is silent. In reality, I suspect, he was capable of speech when necessary, such when he’ trying to find a place to stay in Bethlehem for his wife who has gone into labor, but he gets no gospel speaking role.

Second, Joseph is in touch with his inner self in a way that would make modern therapists proud. He pays attention to his dreams and acts on them. Mary briefly argues with the angel at the annunciation in Luke, but Joseph hears an angel in a dream, wakes up, and acts on what he’s heard, both in this week’s gospel and two weeks from now. No questions asked. In fact, he’s perhaps the greatest dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake and distant ancestor Joseph from Genesis. The difference between them is that Joseph in Genesis is not the strong, silent type, can’t stop blabbing about his dreams to everyone, and ends up in a well. Joseph knows that some things are meant to be acted on and not talked about.

Third, Joseph clearly is flexible and able to roll with the punches. One would think that the angel Gabriel might have made the annunciation to Mary and Joseph together, but no. Only Mary gets the message. We aren’t told if Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant because she tells him her story or because he happens to notice that she’s putting on weight, but because he is a “just man” he chooses to break their betrothal privately rather than making a public display of it as the law would have allowed. Finally, an angel gets around to telling Joseph in a dream and the betrothal is back on—but no sex until Jesus is born. The New Testament and tradition indicate that Mary and Joseph did have several children in the years after Jesus was born, so at least that worked out.

Finally, Joseph was a stepfather. As part of a “blended family” for the past three decades, I have had the opportunity to observe the challenges of the impossible job of step-parenting from close range. 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 step-family 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, located for the past many years on the grounds of a downtown hotel, 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.

I tend to consider such stories to be apocryphal legend; we don’t even find out that Joseph is a carpenter until much later in Matthew when the people of Nazareth reject Jesus because this “carpenter’s son” claims to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. But this does sound like something that Joseph would do. There’s something spectacularly ordinary and efficient about Joseph. Something needs to be done, and he does it. After dealing with a pregnant fiancée he’s never had sex with, sleep-talking angels, a murderous king, lost reservations at the inn, delivering a baby in a barn, and being a stepfather, building a staircase that defies gravity for a bunch of nuns is nothing. Bring it on.

As I had the opportunity this semester to discuss some of the seminal texts of the Christian faith with my freshman students, I reminded them that at the heart of the Christmas story is an outrageously ridiculous, but beautifully attractive, idea: God chose to become human. God continues to engage with the world through humans. We have surrounded ourselves with all sorts of distractions in order to avoid grappling with a most basic truth, a truth worth remembering as we head into the final week before Christmas: God loves us. That changes everything.