Category Archives: God

Raising the Bar

One of my greatest joys as a philosophy professor is that I get to be bad on a regular basis. There were a number of people about whom I was told little growing up, other than that they are dangerous and to be avoided like the plague. images.1I work out my rebellion against these restrictions now by ensuring that these thinkers make as many appearances on my syllabi as professional integrity will allow. So I teach Darwin, for instance, with gusto in the interdisciplinary program I direct and participate in, and took great delight a few years ago in hearing an older Benedictine monk—a biologist by training—say that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all the theologians put together.” indexI take a perverse pleasure in making sure that my mostly parochial school educated students know that Marx is more than a four letter word and, more importantly, is not an irrelevancy simply because the Berlin Wall fell twenty-five years ago.

And then there is the the biggest and the baddest of all the dangerous thinkers I was taught to fear in my youth—Friedrich Nietzsche. He’s the philosopher who infamously proclaimed that “God is Dead,” after all. But humor me for a bit, because a few moments with Friedrich will help illuminate just how radical and subversive today’s gospel—imagesthe conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount—actually is. And yet it this very text, hopelessly beyond the highest standards we can imagine for ourselves, that completes the road map for the life of faith that we all profess.

Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist, despite the fact that his father and grandfather were Lutheran ministers. Yet throughout his life he focused his philosophical and creative energies on ethics, on the ways in which human beings make moral choices and use them to shape their lives, to create their character, and to influence others. friedrich_nietzsche_in_christianity_neither_mousepad-r6e52a64025c1012fb64900ffb0cb9003_x74vi_8byvr_324It was this intense interest in morality that caused him to be one of the most eloquent and influential critics of Christianity who has ever lived. He developed his critique in response to texts such as the final paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” eye for eye copyBut I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Nietzsche complained that this is a moral framework for the weak, for those who are incapable of asserting their own excellence or even protecting themselves. Jesus is telling those lacking the power or will to be independent that it is okay to be mediocre or weak. In so doing, Nietzsche complains, Jesus is turning the natural moral order of things upside down. Nietzsche’s critique is borne out in the very next paragraph from today’s gospel.

love-your-enemiesYou have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Our natural wiring inclines us to love our friends and hate our enemies, but Jesus is asking us to embrace and love those who we should hate, as He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount. As do many moral philosophers, Nietzsche insists that moral requirements should be fitted to what human beings actually are, not to what someone might wish them to be—hence his charge that Jesus’ challenge is inhuman and unnatural. We expect that good people will be rewarded and bad people will be punished, but Jesus reminds us, just as Job found out, that it rains on both the good and the evil, that the sun shines on everyone regardless of whether they have earned or deserve it. spirituality-science-beyond-good-and-evilEventually, in one of his most important works on ethics—Beyond Good and EvilNietzsche summarizes his critique of today’s gospel and of the moral standards that arise from it.

What is it I protest against? That people should regard this paltry and peaceful mediocrity, this spiritual equilibrium which knows nothing of the fine impulses of great accumulations of strength, as something high, or possibly as the standard of all things.

Jesus is describing a moral framework for losers, one that enables the weak and exalts those who cannot make it on their own. This is a powerful critique, one that over the century and a half since it was written has for many been the basis for an outright dismissal of Christianity as a workable moral system. For persons who take a faith commitment to Christ seriously, these should be fighting words. But how should we respond? Nietzsche.2

We might start with a certain amount of defensiveness, by noting that if Friedrich thinks that what is described in the Sermon on the Mount is for sissies or for the weak, he ought to stop pontificating about it and actually try living it for a day. Anyone who has ever turned the other cheek, who has been harmed or betrayed and has actually tried to love that person in response, knows what extraordinary strength doing this even once requires. This is not a morality for wimps, Friedrich; this requires strength of character of which most persons only dream.

Recall, though, that the heart of Nietzsche’s critique is that the blueprint for a human life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is unnatural—it does not square with what we actually are. And the gospels confirm, in no uncertain terms, that Nietzsche is exactly right. Jesus’ final words in the Sermon on the Mount?be-ye-perfect1

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Really? Are you serious, Jesus? Iris Murdoch once responded to this command by asking “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to say ‘be ye therefore slightly improved?’’ The standard of divine perfection is so out of the reach of human effort that it blows our first response to Nietzsche out of the water. We might be able to turn the other cheek once in a while or even convince ourselves that we forgive and love those who have hurt us and who wish us harm, but who but an insane person would claim to have attained perfection? Nietzsche is right—Jesus is asking us to do what no one could possibly do, except by watering it down so far as to be unrecognizable. The demands of the Sermon on the Mount are humanly impossible and entirely ill-fitted to what human beings are capable of achieving.

Elijah-in-desert-lowEach of us , in a moment of honesty, should tell God “I can’t do this. This is impossible. I quit.” In the spirit of Elijah hiding in a cave from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, we might as well say “I can’t do what you are requiring of me.” And in the same still, small voice that Elijah heard, we hear “you’re right. You can’t do this. And that’s the whole point.” Nietzsche’s mistake is not in his judgment that the demands of the Sermon on the Mount are ill-fitted to human nature. His mistake is not realizing that this is the whole point—Jesus is describing a transformed human nature, a transformation made possible by the Incarnation. The bar has been raised to a level that cannot be reached by the greatest of human effort, but is the hallmark of a human life infused with divine energy and love. Those who follow Jesus can expect to see every expectation that is natural to human beings turned on its head. As Paul wrote, every person who is in Christ “is a new creature. othpa-iconOld things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation, not to endless frustration and falling short of the mark, but to the discovery of divine life within, a life that Jesus promises will “overcome the world.”

A Reluctant Rose

In spite of my love of and occasional success with flowers and plants, I have a checkered history with roses. They are temperamental, picky, and have a general attitude that I don’t appreciate. Previous owners of our house apparently had little interest in landscaping; there was nothing other than grass in the back yard and a meager collection of scrubby evergreen bushes in the front—the sort of bushes that people who don’t want to give a second thought to watering or taking care of plants place in their yard. The only exception to this general ignoring of plants was two rose bushes—one on each side of the front steps.002001 (2)

Red on the south side which gets tons of sun; pink on the north side which gets very little.  Both bushes did well for several years after we moved in, but during the past decade there have been fewer and fewer flowers, more and more spotted leaves, and this spring something new—little green worms who ate the insides out of the first few flower buds on the red rose bush. “Aaphidsphids!” the guy at Lowe’s said; “very common on rose bushes.” He directed me toward seventeen different products designed to kick aphid ass and strongly advised me to get the most expensive one (I didn’t).

The product I did purchase worked and the early returns are positive—the red rose bush is cranking out better flowers than it has for years. The pink bush was so pathetic last year that in the fall I cut it back to the ground, fully expecting it not to survive the winter. Whoever originally planted this bush knew less about plants than I do, since it is clearly in the wrong spot—roses do like at least a few minutes of sun per day. I have restrained myself from just digging the thing up year after year, since it and its red companion might be as old as the house which was built in the 1940s. Against all odds, the pink bush did survive our relatively mild winter—barely—and is now growing a few new shoots from the mulch up, currently with one meagre bud. We’ll see if it survives Morgan natural selection for another year.

Anna 1Several weeks ago I received an email from my friend Marsue, announcing that she had a birthday present for Jeanne (whose birthday was not for another month) that she needed to transfer to us as soon as possible. Marsue is an Episcopal diocesan priest and had an all-day in-service close by that day, so we rendezvoused at lunchtime to make the exchange. Her gift for Jeanne was a Rose-in-a-box named “Anna’s Promise”—after the lovely and wonderful Anna from Downton Abbey. anna and batesThis was an appropriate selection, since the love of Anna and Mr. Bates was one of our favorite story lines in the show. Furthermore, a Buzzfeed quiz once told me that if I were a Downton Abbey character, I would be Bates. Other than both being quite attractive, Jeanne and Anna are not very similar; the same Buzzfeed quiz told Jeanne that she would be Lord Grantham.

The Anna’s Rose propaganda on the box promised that the bush would produce “Large, novel tan flowers with a copper reverse, exhibiting a sweet & spicy, fruity fragrance that will freshen up your garden”—Annas promisea description probably written by the same people who write descriptions for the labels on wine bottles. Upon opening the box, I found a plant as bare and naked as Ezekiel’s dry bones. Three or four sticks upward and an equal number of them down; it took me a few moments to figure out which sticks were the branches and which were the roots. I had tried a plant-in-a-box a few times before, with consistently poor results, so I was not optimistic about Anna’s prospects. She came with extensive planting instructions, which I largely ignored. I followed my usual new plant regimen—dig a hole twice as large as the roots, throw in some manure, put the dirt back in, cover with mulch, and water. We agreed that the best location for Anna’s home would be next to the red rose bush; I planted her and we waited.

And nothing happened. Days turned into weeks, and Anna still looked like a pile of dry bones. After a couple of weeks, around the time that new plants generally reveal if they plan to survive, Marsue started emailing. “How’s the rose bush doing?’ “It’s doing nothing,” I said each time, eventually confiding that I was pretty sure that Anna was dead. Her box might actually have been a coffin. This, of course, was a disappointment to all parties involved—to me because it was an indictment of my plant skills, to Marsue because she gave a dead plant to her friend for her birthday, and to Jeanne because she received a dead plant from her friend for her birthday. More than a month after the planting and a day or so before she left for a three-week conference, Jeanne confessed that she prayed for Anna. rose boxMy complicated history with prayer did not cause me to leap to the conclusion that signs of life were immanent. A week after Jeanne left, now about six weeks since the planting, Anna was still dormant, comatose, or dead. Then a miracle occurred.

I was weeding the plant beds in front of the house and noticed Anna looking pathetic and dead; I considered pulling her up then and there, but decided to wait until Jeanne got home in a week. Two days later I was mowing the lawn and noticed that not only was Anna showing signs of life for the first time, but she had a lot of leaves on every branch I had assumed was dead. I took a picture and emailed Jeanne and Marsue: LOOK AT THISSHE’S ALIVE!!reluctant rose Jeanne took full credit for having raised Anna from the dead with her prayers; whatever happened, she’s sporting more leaves every day and I can now tell where her first flower-bearing stalk is going to be.m m and l Anna’s probably sick of my checking her out three times a day, but I’ll bet that’s what Mary and Martha did when Lazarus rose from the dead as well.

In a subsequent email, Marsue noted that there was something Biblical in the saga of Anna and she expected a blog post about it. I thought similarly and had already started typing in a few thoughts. Here’s what I think—Anna’s a good example of how things that are apparently dead are often simply taking their time gathering inner strength for a reawakening. As I have frequently written about in this blog, I am a case in point. Life is always a possibility for even those things and people who are, to all appearances, corpses. I gave a sermon once a few years ago about how this happened for me on a Sunday when the gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus.

Loose Him, and Let Him Go

Death and resurrection is part of the world we live in. It is part of each of us. There is no guarantee that Anna will produce spectacular roses—she may not produce any at all. But she’s a reminder of how things work in the larger scheme of things. Death is never the final word and there’s always the possibility of new life. The tag that was attached to the apparently dead Anna when I took her from her box/coffin read

“Anna’s Promise” praises the true heart and steadfast love that transcends the trials and tribulations endured by Downton Abbey’s character Anna Bates.

At the heart of my faith is the belief that such a transcendent, steadfast love is the backdrop for this often disappointing and difficult world that we find ourselves in. May it be so.

What I inherited from Mad Eagle

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering my Dad with whom I had a complicated relationship but who I miss very much. He has undoubtedly made more appearances in my blog in its four years of existence than any other family member other than Jeanne. This post–originally titled “Tapestries and Quilts,” was one of the first posts I ever published–it reminds me just how much of who I am is due to Mad Eagle (one of Dad’s many nicknames).

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the seven-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, during a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar a couple of semesters ago, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper not long ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid

A Free Man of Faith

I wrote this essay last Saturday as a reflection on Muhammad Ali’s memorial service that I had watched the day before and scheduled it to go out on Monday morning. Then the Orlando massacre happened early Sunday morning; I moved this post to this morning and posted something different on Monday.

The day after . . . again

As I reread today’s essay this morning, it strikes me that we can learn a great deal from the life of Muhammad Ali about how to respond as individuals and communities to such horrific events. The life of one of the greatest boxers ever should inspire us to come out of our corners.

Thowewo of the greatest sports stars of their generation—indeed, of any generation—passed away last week. Gordie Howe, known as “Mister Hockey,” died at the ripe old age of eighty-eight; he was a star on the Detroit Red Wings when I was a kid, so long ago that there were only six teams in the National Hockey League. Each team had a large collection of stars, but Howe was the greatest of them all. He played for so long (well into his fifties) that he described his play toward the end of his career as “poetry in slow motion.” He was not only one of the greatest scorers in hockey history, but he was also tough as nails—as players from bench warmers to superstars tended to be in those days. Scoring three goals in one game is called a “hat trick;” howe hat trickHowe patented the “Howe hat trick,” which was awarded to a player (often him) who scored a goal, got an assist, and got into a fight in one game.

Then there was the champ. I spent three hours on Friday afternoon watching the remarkable memorial celebration of Muhammad Ali’s life in Louisville, Kentucky. I wrote last Saturday about my admiration for Ali and the subtle influences that his life had on mine during my formative years. I am not usually inclined to watch an interminably long memorial service, even one for a man who was one of my heroes. I’m not sure that I would have sat through such an event for Jesus had there been one and had I been invited. But the service was riveting—it should be required viewing for any person who believes that our world is beyond hope. Just the visual of representatives of five different faiths on stage and delivering eulogies at a memorial celebrating the life of the world’s most famous Muslim was beautiful to behold. memorialThere was not a false note in any person’s remarks—there was nothing perfunctory going on. I turned coverage on as Ali’s funeral procession was still inching toward the downtown sports arena in Louisville where the memorial took place. Thousands of people lined the nineteen-mile route from Ali’s childhood home to the arena; many ran up to the hearse bearing Ali’s casket just to touch the side of the vehicle or to run alongside while shadow boxing as the champ used to do. Inside the arena there was no decoration other than an American flag hung with an Olympic flag next to it hanging over the stage. No pictures, no video montage of Ali’s life. Simply as many thousands of Louisvillians as could be stuffed into the arena to share in the celebration of a remarkable life.

Eulogies from two presidents were part of the program. President Obama, unable to attend because his oldest daughter was graduating from high school on Friday, sent his senior advisor Loretta Lynch to read his remarks. The program concluded with a beautiful ten-minute remembrance from Bill Clinton. clintonClinton, who is as good at capturing the mood and emotion of a room as any person—president or otherwise—that I have ever seen, did not disappoint. Describing Ali as “a universal soldier for our common humanity,” the former President chose to focus his remarks, not primarily on what made Ali unique and remarkable, but rather on what every one of us shares in common—both with the champion and with each other.

The first half of Muhammad Ali’s life was energized by his many stunning natural gifts, from physical speed and strength to intelligence and eloquence, gifts that set a unique trajectory to his story. He chose to write his own narrative and embraced the consequences of the story he lived. But Clinton’s eulogy focused on the second half of the champ’s life.

The first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts. The second part of his life was more important because he refused to be imprisoned . . . ali parkinsonsIn the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have, gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small.

The second half of Ali’s life, of a course, was lived with Parkinson’s disease, a fate which, from the outside at least, seemed particularly cruel. It was painful to see such brilliant physical and mental abilities slowly and inexorably eroded. But those who knew him, whose lives were touched by the ailing champion, experienced something quite different.

Muhammad was a truly free man of faith. Being a man of faith, he realized that he would never be fully in control of his life. Being free he realized that there would still be opportunity for choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today.

Muhammad Ali was as free as a human being can be, free because he dared to choose and to embrace the responsibility for those choices. But, as President Clinton pointed out, it was his profound and deep faith, the faith for which he was willing to sacrifice his title and place his freedom at risk, that caused him to flourish in the midst of adversity.

ProtagorasClinton’s insight is a powerful one—“Being a man of faith, he realized that he would never be fully in control of his life.” Each human individual’s natural orientation reflects what Ali so often said publicly: “I am the greatest.” As Protagoras reportedly said, each of us believes that we “are the measure of all things,” and few of us ever have as much empirical evidence to support the claim as Ali did. But a person of faith knows that there is a great deal more going on in heaven and earth than meets the eye. There is much that is beyond the control of even the most powerful and charismatic person, much that limits the choices of even the most influential and effective individual. But our choices are never entirely taken away, even when the scope of our freedom is severely limited. With his remarkable physical and intellectual gifts reduced, Ali’s choices were those that are available to even mere mortals—the choice of how to respond freely to what is beyond our control. Ali chose to release the gifts of love, gratitude, joy and peace into the world, rather than bitterness, anger, and regret. And, as Bill Clinton noted, it was those choices that defined his life and made him a beloved figure and icon in a world badly in need of something good to embrace.

The outpouring of love for Muhammad Ali over the past week is an appropriate tribute to a man who was “The Greatest” in many ways. But as several people on the platform at the memorial service reminded us, Ali’s greatness was not primarily because of his special gifts and abilities. His greatness was rather due to his having made extraordinary use, throughout a life marked both by great triumph and crushing adversity, of choices and gifts that are available to all of us on a daily basis.I am ali

We all have an Ali story. It is the gifts we all have that should be honored today. Because he released them to the world. We should honor him by letting our gifts out into the world as he did.

Here Comes This Dreamer

JoelYour old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. This, promises the obscure prophet Joel in the Hebrew Scriptures, will be one of the signs that God has “poured out [his] Spirit upon all flesh.” Exactly what I would expect a prophet to say. Unsaid, however, is that in the meantime “your old women, your young women, and your middle-aged men and women will roll up their sleeves and get shit done.” The tension between visionaries and realists, between dreamers and pragmatists, is a healthy part of the human condition—but only when each side recognizes the equal importance and necessity of the other side.

Some people confuse the dreamer/pragmatist difference with the difference between optimists and pessimists; these two distinctions are not the same. I, as an optimist and a pragmatist, am a case in point. 3 branches of govtI find that a closer parallel to the dreamer/pragmatist distinction actually can be found by remembering the differences between the three branches of government that we learned about in fifth grade civics lessons. The energies that drive the dreamer or visionary differ from those of the pragmatist in the same was that legislative energies are different from those of the executive. Not particularly being a political animal, I did not know about these crucial differences until core curriculum review began on our campus close to a decade ago. Although I participated in many focus groups and debated endlessly on line with my colleagues about the true purposes and value of a liberal arts education, I had no desire to part of the Faculty Senate legislative process that hammered out a new core curriculum that was finally approved by the college president. boots on the groundLegislators, in spite of appearances, primarily are dreamers and visionaries—persons who imagine what a better future might look like and how it might possibly best be organized, then turn the vision over to executive pragmatists to transform this vision into “boots on the ground” reality.

I am by nature one of those pragmatists and have spent the last three years leading the attempt to make a reality the central portion of the new core curriculum fashioned by the legislators, a revitalized and freshly imagined version of the large interdisciplinary program that has been the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum for four decades. This new program is not exactly the one I would have invented had it been up to me (it isn’t a radical enough change), but as a pragmatist and executive the question is no longercore curriculum “What program would I (we) have invented had it been entirely up to me (us)?” or even “Do I think this new program is a good idea?” Both of these questions are irrelevant—the horse is now out of the barn. The question now is “How are we going to make this visionary product happen?”

I recall an interesting conversation that I had no long ago with a faculty member teaching in the program who also happens have been his department’s senator during the Faculty Senate’s shaping of the new core. My colleague was not entirely in agreement with some of the new policies being developed as the new program went into real-time reality. “Vance,” he said, “These new policies don’t really reflect the vision of those who were debating the legislation a couple of years ago.” “I don’t care, Jack,” I replied (his name has been changed even though he needs no protection and is anything but innocent). “It’s one thing to plan something—it’s another thing entirely to make it happen.” Yet Jack and I are good friends, just as dreamers and pragmatists should be (hear that, politicians in Washington?).

Jacob wrestlingIn Genesis, we find the story of a classic dreamer/pragmatist clash that generated a great deal of conflict. Genesis is full of great stories, including the story of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and probably my favorite character in the Bible. Smart, manipulative, younger brother, momma’s boy, God-obsessed, believer in love at first sight—I find a lot of myself in Jacob. But then we move to “Jacob—the Next Generation” and are introduced to one of my least favorite guys in the Bible—Joseph. Joseph is son number eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons fathered by his two wives and two concubines (at least those are all Genesis tells us about). But he is the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, so it’s not surprising that as the first child of the love of Jacob’s life, Joseph is the favored son of the twelve. The subtext just below the surface of the Genesis account is that Joseph is a spoiled brat. He gets the best clothes, he doesn’t have to work in the fields doing farmer and shepherd stuff as his ten older brothers do, he probably hasn’t done a day of real work in his life—in short, his shit doesn’t stink. jacob lineageAnd he knows this, playing the superior, “special case” card with his older brothers every chance he gets. Furthermore, he has weird dreams that he interprets to support his general conviction that he is superior to his brothers in every way.

Jacob, who for a smart guy is remarkably clueless about family dynamics, sends Joseph off on his own to check up and report on his older brothers who are tending the family flocks some distance away and report back to home base. Upon seeing their “special case” brother approaching without Dad’s protection, the older brothers see an opportunity—“this time we’re going to get this little bastard.” And they do, first throwing him into a deep pit where they plan to abandon him, them deciding instead to sell him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants on their way to Egypt. This is just the beginning of Joseph’s story, carried on through the remaining twelve chapters of Genesis, but as horrific the beginning of the story is, the energies are very human and familiar. JosephThose of you with a brother and sister, be honest. Haven’t there been times in your life when you would have loved to abandon your sibling in a pit?

When the brothers see Joseph approaching, they don’t say “Here comes the spoiled brat,” “Here comes the special case,” or even “Here comes that little shit Joseph spying on us.” Instead they say “Here comes this dreamer.” As they plot throwing him into a pit, they say “We shall see what will become of his dreams!” In other words, “Let’s see how visioning visions, dreaming dreams and thinking great thoughts helps you at the bottom of this pit, you son of a bitch!” Underlying the horribly dysfunctional sibling dynamics in Jacob’s family is a classic case of dreamer vs. pragmatist. When push comes to shove, as it always does, the pragmatist wants to know just how the ethereal perspective of the visionary or dreamer is going to put food on the table, while the dreamer reminds us that, as the author of Proverbs notes, “where there is no vision the people perish.”

As the story unfolds, Joseph will learn how to turn his visionary abilities into a practical commodity, first saving himself from execution then saving his adopted country from famine and starvation. His strong intuitive abilities will manufacture a family reunion that is both just payback and unconditionally loving. grindstoneHis journey from “out there” dreamer to integrated human being is a long one, just as it is for all of us regardless of which direction we are journeying from. Just as the dreamer needs to get her head out of the clouds occasionally and find something to eat, so the pragmatist needs to lift his nose from the grindstone often enough to remember that without regular dream infusions, getting shit done will be just that.

Is Democracy Overrated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished a year and a half ago. Our most recent transformation was a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended not long ago. We have finally turned it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

Our library room has one large interior wall containing several dozen family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship almost twenty-nine years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display is the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success.

VM Ruane 8I have a new book under contract, to be a reality early next year–something I’m very excited about. I have been blessed with a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-five of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Not long ago I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

A year or so ago, Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But 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.

The Burden of LIght

TDWCeaching for close to twenty years in an interdisciplinary program with colleagues from a multitude of disciplines has provided me with the best that academe can offer a professor—a continuing education. In an academic world which so often demands narrower and narrower research focus and specialization from its members, it has been a gift to spend the majority of my career thus far at a place that welcomes breadth and encourages—and sometimes requires—its faculty to regularly wander outside their comfort zone in the classroom. In my early years at the college, a few of the older faculty—some of whom had been part of the creation of this interdisciplinary program in the seventies—used to joke that the course was really for the enjoyment and edification of the faculty. Students were allowed in only to pay the bills. I have learned more about history, theology, music, art, and literature through my participation in this program than I could have in any number of graduate courses.Caravaggio

I learned, for instance, about chiaroscuro from the art lectures offered regularly by a colleague from the history department who was frequently a member of my teaching team during my early years in the program. This colleague, now an emeritus professor, is a specialist in American Presidential history—and also knows a lot about art and music, especially opera. In painting, chiaroscuro is a technique that uses strong contrasts between light and dark, bold contrasts that affect the whole composition. Many Renaissance artists used the technique; my colleague’s preferred examples came from the work of Caravaggio. My colleague’s go-to illustration of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro was “The Calling of Saint Matthew.”

Calling of Saint Matthew

There is some debate concerning who Matthew is in this painting. Is he the guy with the beard pointing at himself (“Who, me?”)? Or is he the young counting money and not paying attention, to whom the guy with the beard is pointing (“Who, him?”)? I prefer the latter interpretation, but there is no debate about the power of light and shadow in this painting. The light shining from a window outside the top right of the canvas illuminates just enough of Jesus’ modest halo to make clear who he is, as well as the expressions on the faces of everyone at the table. But this light also makes the shadows even darker and more pronounced. Light does not dispel the darkness, but it changes everything. This light has transformed the life of the man on whom it is directed—for better and for worse.hast_ox_yoke[1]

According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus once said that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jeanne told me recently of an “aha!” moment she had not long ago related to this “burden is light” business. She (and probably everyone else aware of the passage and its context) always assumed that Jesus meant that the burden of following him is not heavy—it’s light. And I’m sure that’s what the Greek text implies as well. But thanks to the wonders of the English language, this passage can mean something entirely different and much more interesting. What if Jesus means that it is our burden—our duty—to illuminate the darkness, to bring light into a world that badly needs it? What if we read “light” in “my burden is light” as a noun rather than as an adjective? There are all sorts of light-related references attributed to Jesus, including that we are “the light of the world.” And yet Caravaggio and others show us through their skillful use of chiaroscuro that being a light-bearer comes with a built-in price—illuminating the darkness also involves revealing the shadows, both in oneself and in others. Sometimes commitment and faithfulness come with a cost.

freedomwriters[1]Jeanne went on to say that her new reading of “my burden is light” reminded her of an important scene from one of her favorite movies. “Freedom Writers” is the story of Erin Gruwell, played in the movie by Hilary Swank, a young, idealistic teacher in south Los Angeles in the 1990s who finds her enthusiasm and creativity stretched to the breaking point by students divided into gangs along racial lines and an administration who refuses to let Gruwell give the students books to read because the books might be stolen or damaged. Her unorthodox teaching methods incrementally have a positive impact on her students, but there is a price to be paid. patrick-dempsey-hilary-swank-in-freedom-writers[1]Toward the end of the movie Erin is having dinner with her father and breaks into tears. Her husband has left her, due to her 24/7 dedication to her job and a lack of time for him and their marriage. She sits, weeping, asking her father “Has any of this been worth it? Does it even matter? Have I made any difference?” Her father, who up to this point has been less than supportive of Erin’s commitment, looks at her and says, “You have been blessed with a burden, my daughter. I envy and admire that.”

Jesus told his followers that “You are the light of the world.”  Persons of faith are also blessed with a burden—a burden of light. This is not a burden of things to do, actions to perform, positions to take, any more than light considers illumination to be its job. Many centuries ago, Aristotle resonated with this insight when he argued that the moral life is far less about what a person does than it is about that person’s character, about who that person is. Just as light changes everything it comes into contact just by being what it is, so the person of character reveals herself and introduces light into the darkness simply by being, by showing up. And this is the call to persons of faith. 23390200_9895fcc823[1]Be there; show up; remember that we have the divine within us. The light may be dim, flickering, all but invisible, but it is the way in which the divine invades the darkness. It doesn’t simply remove darkness; indeed, it reveals new shadows and dark places that could not be seen before the light arrived. But our burden, shadows and all, is to be what we have chosen to be—divine light bearers.

A More Plausible God

I concluded early in my career as a philosophy professor that there are many problems in philosophy that cannot be solved—at least not as they are traditionally fashioned. Consider, for example, dualism—the popular theory that claims that human beings consist of two entirely different things: matter and something else. body and soulThe body, in other words, and something else. This something else, which is usually called the “soul” or the “mind,” is not physical, although dualists are hard pressed to say what this something else actually is. Dualism also has a very difficult time accounting for the obvious fact that the human body and mind interact constantly—something that they should not be able to do if they are substantially different. Rene Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition, when pressed to explain how two different substances can interact with each other eventually said “I don’t know—they just do.”

I have been thinking about a different philosophical problem over the past couple of weeks as I start considering the two General Ethics classes I will be teaching in the fall. Although the question of how a good and powerful God—a “perfect” God, in other words—can allow the suffering, violence, and pain that human beings and other living things are subject to in our world is not a question that fits seamlessly on the syllabus of an ethics class,just perfect I know that the question will come up. It’s difficult to avoid the problem of evil in a classroom filled with students who have, or at least the majority have, been taught in church and parochial education that God is perfect. I’ve included the problem of evil in dozens of courses over the past twenty-five years and have come to the conclusion that it can’t be solved—as long as we insist that we know the characteristics of the divine. But what if our insistence on God’s perfection is misguided? What if, in other words, we need to consider a different personality description than the one we have traditionally been saddled with? Are there more plausible ways to think about God?

In a November 2012 contribution to “The Stone,” a recurring New York Times column focusing on philosophy, Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony argues that there is a simple adjustment to the traditional, theistic conception of God as perfect that will solve the problem of evil. Stop thinking of God as perfect. HazonyHazony cuts to the chase quickly in his brief column:

Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done . . . I’d start with this: Is it really necessary to say that God is a “perfect being,” or perfect at all, for that matter? As far as I can tell, the biblical authors avoid asserting any such thing. And with good reason.

Hazony goes on to argue that the whole idea of God as a Perfect Being comes much later to theism, when Christian thinkers tried to bring the biblical text in line with the Greek philosophical tradition, in which folks like Parmeniproblem of evildes and Plato conceive of the divine as perfect. But this was a misguided project, since “you can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously.” In other words, and as usual, it’s the philosophers’ fault.

I often frame the problem of evil as a series of claims that are logically incompatible:

  • God is all good (omnibenevolent)
  • God is all-knowing (omniscient)
  • God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
  • Evil exists

The first three claims are fundamental to traditional theistic belief, while the truth of the fourth claim is self-evident to anyone who is the least bit observant of our surrounding world. Logically, all four claims cannot be true simultaneously. Blake's GodPick your favorite three to double down on, and the fourth has to be false. Which sucks, because any committed theist who is also an observant human being wants to affirm all four claims.

Heroic philosophical and theological efforts have been made to solve the problem of evil; the most obvious (but for many, the most disturbing) tactic is to stop thinking of God as a bundle of perfections. What if God is not all-knowing, all-powerful, all good, or any of the above? Hazony suggests that we ask a prior question: Where did theists ever get the idea that God is perfect in the first place? A careful look at seminal biblical texts indicates that such a conception is not to be found there. I will beConsider, for instance, God’s revelation of the divine name to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus. God says I am that I am, at least according to most English translations. That’s a name consistent with an immutable and perfect nature. But, Hazony points out, that translation comes from the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew text into Greek already showing the influence of Greek philosophy on translators and interpreters. The better translation from the Hebrew of the divine answer to “What is your name?” is I will be what I will be, an imperfect verb tense that indicates incompleteness, process, and change. Which would explain why the God of the Jewish scriptures seems so imperfect, human, arbitrary, and so unlike the perfect deity many of us were taught to believe in. The ancient Israelites did not believe in such a God.

So if the God of Exodus and the Hebrew scriptures is not a bundle of perfections, then what is he/she/it? Hazony suggests that this God is exactly what the various ancient texts, particularly the Psalms, point toward:

The God of Hebrew scripture is meant to be an embodiment of what is, of reality as we experience it . . . It is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith: we hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.God hope

God as a promise and a hope, rather than a perfect Being—that, obviously, would be a game changer. Hazony suggests that early Christian philosophers and theologians imposed Greek philosophical categories on theistic belief because they feared that an imperfect God would not attract many followers. Instead, theists have inherited a God spoken of in sweeping idealizations of perfection, a conception whose relationship to the world in which we actually live is impossible to imagine. Traditional theism is losing ground in many parts of our country and the world; as Hazony advises at the end of his column, “surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.”