Category Archives: God

When the Well Runs Dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean Hands

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. Psalm 24

magdaAs she waited for the ceremony to begin in Jerusalem, Magda Trocmé might have remembered the above lines from Psalm 24. This is a psalm of “ascent,” sung by ancient pilgrims as they climbed to Solomon’s great temple at the top of Mount Zion. Magda was there in 1972 to participate in the ceremony awarding her husband André—posthumously—the Medal of Righteousness. Those recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” are non-Jews who risked their lives or liberty to save Jews during the Holocaust. There is a tree in Israel for each of the “Righteous Among the Nations”; part of this ceremony was the planting of a tree in André’s memory. During the ceremony, one of the speakers said something that Magda would never forget: “The righteous are not exempt from evil. The righteous must often pay a price for their righteousness: their own ethical purity.” Magda knew all about this.

Andre and MagdaMagda and André Trocmé were the heart and soul of Le Chambon, a tiny, unremarkable town in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Between 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. I wrote in this blog a few days ago about this seemingly insignificant town that shone like a beacon in the midst of some of the darkest days in human history.

http://freelancechristianity.com/come-in-and-come-in/

When I shared this story with a church group that I lead on a monthly basis, several members of the group were astounded by the moral excellence of these simple French peasants, wanting to know where they could get their hands on the full story. The Trocmés, indeed all of the Chambonnais interviewed in the subsequent decades concerning their remarkable story, insisted that their actions were nothing special, clean handsthat they were not moral giants or saints, and that anyone would have done the same. Humility aside, Magda learned something during those years when she helped save the lives of strangers in the face of imminent danger—in this world, no one has clean hands or a pure heart. Even apparent moral heroes find themselves sinning no matter what their intentions are. The best we can do is acknowledge the price that has to be paid in order to be good and lessen the collateral internal damage as much as possible.

One of the most important features of the network of protection in Le Chambon was the constant need to make false identity and ration cards for the Jewish strangers who showed up in the village at all times of the day and night. Identity cards were needed to protect against roundups, when identity cards were usually checked; ration cards protected against hunger, since the basic foods were rationed and the Chambonnais were so poor that they could not share their own food with refugees and hope to ration cardssurvive themselves. Magda remembers that “Jews were running all over the place after a while, and we had to help them quickly. We had no time to engage in deep debates. We had to help them—or let them die, perhaps—and in order to help them, unfortunately we had to lie.”

During the first winter of the Nazi occupation, Magda recalls Edouard TheisEduard_Theis, André Trocmé’s assistant pastor, coming into the presbytery and telling her about the making of the first counterfeit card. “I have just made a false card for Monsieur Lévy. It is the only way to save his life.” Magda remembers her horror at that moment: duplicity, for any reason, was simply wrong. Neither she nor any of the other leaders in Le Chambon doubted for a moment the need for counterfeit identity and ration cards, but none of them ever became reconciled to making the cards, though they made hundreds of them during the occupation. Until her death many decades later, she found her integrity diminished when she thought about those cards. She remained sad over what she called “our lost candor.” André was even more troubled by the necessity to lie, fearing that he was “sliding toward those compromises that God has not called upon me to make.”

It is very easy, looking back, to minimize this conflict since everyone “knows” that when the directive “do not lie” and the directive “help those in need” are in conflict, “do not lie” gives way. But this immediate and often facile ranking of moral directives is often an exercise in justifying or excusing moral failings, an exercise André and Magda refused to participate in. They did not excuse themselves from the moral principle of truth-telling by saying that “in circumstances such as these that principle does not apply.” Rather, they did what they could to save lives all the time carrying the heavy heart that always accompanies deliberate and conscious wrongdoing. They learned that they could not dissolve the contradiction by neat, clear logic. In such situations, one must simply bet upon a certain course of action—one must, in an act of faith, throw oneself into action in a certain direction. And in doing so, one’s hands often are made dirty and one’s heart sacrifices its purity.ethics

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s major work Ethics, compiled by his best friend from scattered notes found in Bonhoeffer’s study and in his prison cell after Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer writes that

Ethical discourse cannot be conducted in a vacuum, in the abstract, but only in a concrete context. Ethical discourse, therefore, is not a system of propositions which are correct in themselves, a system which is available for anyone to apply at any time and in any place, but it is inseparably linked with particular persons, times and places.

And while systems of propositions can be arranged in a relational hierarchy with close to mathematical precision, human existence cannot. Hence the struggle of the Chambonnais with life-saving tainted with lying. Hence Bonhoeffer, a dedicated pacifist and advocate of nonviolence, becoming involved with various plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler, involvement that led to his arrest and, two years later, his death.Doblmeier

In his powerful documentary Bonhoeffer, director Martin Doblmeier includes a brief vignette from an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose life and thought have been shaped by the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. tutuIn response to the question “how does one know what the will of God is?” Tutu replies that

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

Perhaps on that “other side” clean hands and pure hearts will be available. But not before.

Come In, and Come In

Once many years ago, a couple I was close friends with was having marital problems. For the first (and only) time in my life, I found myself frequently playing the role of telephone confessor and therapist for each of them—I’m quite sure that neither was aware that I was doing this with the other. imagesThe phone calls became so frequent that one evening as I talked to the male in the relationship, the woman beeped in on call waiting. Toward the end of their relationship, she complained to me one evening that “There is no problem so great that he can’t ignore it!” These informal therapy sessions were unsuccessful; the couple soon divorced, one of them remarried, and both seem to have spent the past twenty years far happier than they were when together. Maybe that means my input was successful after all.

My friend’s complaint about her husband was, unfortunately, all too recognizable as a typical human reaction to information or truths that we don’t want to hear. il_570xn_240184042In the Gospel of John, Jesus is reported as having said “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I don’t think so. I think the real situation is more like what one of my students wrote in a recent intellectual notebook entry: “The truth doesn’t set a person free, but it does complicate their life.” So what is one to do when the truth about something is so obvious that it cannot be ignored—and you don’t want to deal with it?

  Along with a colleague from the history department, this semester I am in the middle of a colloquium entitled mein kampf“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom, and Truth during the Nazi Era.” After several weeks of immersion in the world of the Nazis, including Mein Kampf and Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, I could tell that everyone was feeling the same way I was—worn out by exposure to human pain, suffering, and evil and how these are facilitated by deliberate ignorance and evasion created through the choices we make. LIBBSWe returned from Spring Break to a different sort of story altogether: Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The subtitle of Hallie’s remarkable book is “The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” It is, in many ways, more challenging and disturbing than being immersed in the depths of human depravity.

Hallie’s book is the little-known story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small and insignificant Protestant village in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Le ChambonBetween 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, and at great risk to their own safety and lives, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. As a woman whose three children’s lives were saved by these villagers told Philip Hallie decades later, “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain—and Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Hallie comments that Rainbow“The rainbow reminds God and man that life is precious to God, that God offers not only sentimental hope, but a promise that living will have the last word, not killing. The rainbow means realistic hope,” a hope that was incarnated in Le Chambon.

It is a beautiful story, one that is virtually unknown in comparison to more familiar and dramatic narratives. Everyone who cares about the human spirit should read it—I dare you to make it through with dry eyes. My first question to the thirty-some students in the colloquium at our first class on this text yesterday was simply “How did this happen?” There is nothing special about Le Chambon—there are hundreds of similar rural villages throughout Europe. There were dozens of them within a short train ride of Le Chambon. Yet none of them did anything like what the Chambonnais did; indeed, many of them collaborated with the Vichy police and turned their Jewish neighbors and Jewish refugees in to the authorities as the occupying Nazis demanded. What made Le Chambon different? Andre and MagdaHow did goodness happen here?

According to the Chambonnais in virtually every interview Hallie conducted, there was nothing special about what they did at all. After being described as a “hero” or simply as “good,” Magda Trocmé, wife of the village’s dynamic pastor André Trocmé, asked in annoyance

How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people. Who else would have taken care of them if we didn’t? They needed our help and they needed it then. Anyone else would have done the same thing.

“Is she right?” I asked my students? “How many think anyone else would have done the same?” Not a hand was raised—certainly not mine. So the question remains. How did this happen? How did goodness happen here?

As with a giant jigsaw puzzle, a possible answer can be assembled from various facts throughout Hallie’s book. 130528-004-C0524E59The Chambonnais, for instance, are Huguenots, descendants of French Protestants who were a persecuted minority from the sixteenth century forward in predominantly Catholic France. What it means to be in danger and what it means to resist, to stubbornly stand for something in the face of persecution and death, is embedded in the DNA of these villagers. Le Chambon was also blessed during the war years and the decade before with the daring and lived leadership of men and women who by example showed them what it means to be a true community. But the most important reason that goodness happened in Le Chambon is so simple and basic that it cannot be overlooked. The Chambonnais believed one fundamental thing concerning human beings—that all human life, whether French, Jewish, or Nazi, is fundamentally precious and must not be harmed. Period. Many people, then and now, profess to believe this; the Chambonnais not only believed it—they acted on it. Consistently and regularly. Without questioning or equivocation. For such people, Hallie describes, “The good of others becomes a thing naturally and necessarily attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence. For certain people, helping the distressed is as natural and necessary as feeding themselves.” TrocmeThe villagers of Le Chambon were such people.

The source of this simple but powerful lived commitment depended on the person. For Pastor André Trocmé, on the one hand, his commitment to nonviolence and active goodness was rooted in his commitment to emulate Jesus and to take seriously, in a remarkably straightforward way, the message of the gospel. During his theological training, for instance, he was taught by his professors that the 6a00d8341bffb053ef0134818071ae970c-500wiSermon on the Mount is intended to be read as an allegory or as a standard set impossibly high so we can understand our sins and failures more clearly. André had no patience for such evasions. In a book written shortly after the end of the war, he asks

If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic ethical theory? If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth; and if he existed, God has shown us in flesh and blood what goodness is for flesh-and-blood people.

André’s wife Magda, on the other hand, had no patience for doctrine, religion, or any esoteric debate that might take her attention away from what was right in front of her. MagdaShe did not believe that something was evil because it violated God’s commands. She believed that something is evil simply because it hurts people. A person’s need was the basis of her moral vision, not any sentimental love she might or might not feel for the person in need, and certainly not any calling to moral or religious excellence. There is a need and I will address it was her motivating energy. Simple as that.

I have taught this book a number of times in ethics classes, but not for a few years. As I worked through the story with my students yesterday, I realized with a new depth just how disturbing and shocking the story of Le Chambon is. “I think I know why I haven’t taught this book in a while,” I told them. “These people make me uncomfortable. They let me know just how wide a gap there is between what I say I believe and what I actually do.” When the truth of what I profess is laid out in front of me in a way that I cannot ignore, I want to look away. I shift into philosopher mode—“This is idealistic, this won’t work in real life, real human beings won’t treat each other this way,” and so on. And my students would have been very happy to be told all of this, because they were just as uncomfortable with the Chambonnais as I was and am. 14992918595385727520But goodness did happen there in the midst of some of the worst evil humans have ever manufactured. Real people created goodness in the midst of evil by actually taking what they believed seriously enough to do it. I have another two-hour class with my students tomorrow afternoon that will continue our exploration of this book. The best I can do, which is perhaps a lot better than I could have done not long ago, is to make Hallie’s closing words in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed my own and invite my students to come along.

I, who share Trocme’s and the Chambonnais’ beliefs in the  preciousness of human life, may never have the moral strength to be much like the Chambonnais or like Trocmé; but I know I want to have the power to be. I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from the depths, “Naturally, come in, and come in.”

What Silence Sounds Like

Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again. “The Sound of Silence”

One Sunday a couple of months ago as I was listening to our local NPR station in the car during an errand run, I heard a brief piece on “Disturbed,” a heavy metal band that had just received its second Grammy nomination. Their first was in 2009; now, eight years later, they had another one. My knowledge of contemporary heavy metal is non-existent, as is my interest in that musical genre—this would have usually been reason for me to switch to the Boston NPR station to see what they were up to. But Disturbed’s Grammy nomination was for their acoustic cover of a song that was a central tune in the sound track of my youth: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” I had to listen.

For those familiar with Simon and Garfunkel’s original (link below), a remake or cover of their iconic masterpiece is close to sacrilegious. But the intensity and power of Disturbed’s version is not to be missed—I agree with one commenter on Youtube who called it “chilling and magnificent.” The NPR piece included a brief interview with David Draiman, Disturbed’s lead vocalist. Noting that the choice not to go “heavy metal” with “The Sound of Silence” was the drummer’s idea, Draiman said that the acoustic demands of the song took him to vocal spaces he had not visited in many years.

I was trained to be a cantor, which is someone that leads the Jewish congregation in prayer. So I learned classical vocal technique from a very young age . . . I hadn’t attempted to go to that spot of my vocal ability for very many years. I was so overwhelmed with emotion listening to the way my vocals sounded in that beautiful bed of music. And not having heard my voice in that way for so long, it was really just very, very overwhelming.

I’ve been reminded of this story a number of times over the past two months during the first half of the current semester. I find that questions that ask how human beings are to think about what is greater than us—is there anything greater than us? And if so, what are the implications?—make frequent appearances in my various classes, some planned and some not. This semester has been no exception. Many (a significant majority) of my students come from religious backgrounds (mostly Catholic), but have never analyzed critically or sufficiently exactly what going on when we mere mortals attempt to establish a line of communication with what is greater than us. The formalized version of these attempts is usually called prayer; various worship activities in each of the great monotheistic religion include prayer on a regular basis. As a cantor, David Draiman led such collective attempts to make contact with God, and in response we often get exactly what Paul Simon’s lyrics describe—the sound of silence. Crickets chirping. It’s enough to drive a person of faith nuts. As C. S. Lewis once wrote to his brother Warnie in a letter,

The trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong.

I grew up in a prayer-obsessed world; Wednesday nights at church were marked as the time to obsess collectively. As a creative youngster, I usually was able to find something in every foray to church to pique my interest, however briefly. I liked some of the hymns we sang on Sunday morning and evening, for instance, and enjoyed the stories in Sunday school. But we didn’t sing on Wednesday nights—people gave testimonies, and then we prayed. For a very, very, VERY long time. I remember prayers that were more like speeches than anything else, insistent, complaining sorts of speeches whose intent was apparently to wear God down. Not that the things being asked for were unimportant—“please bring X to a saving knowledge of you,” “please heal Y of diabetes,” “please help Z find a job”—but the tone was often strange, petulantly childish, demanding, insinuating that this time, for once, God had damn well better get off His ass and do something. Of course anyone actually saying that at Wednesday prayer service would have been in danger of hellfire, but that’s the atmosphere I remember.

How to pray was a mystery to me—I recall my mother saying frequently that I should just talk to God the same way I talked to her. That never struck me as one of my mother’s better pieces of advice, since I clearly couldn’t talk to an invisible, far away, scary “something” in the same way I could talk to her. But I did learn, as all good Baptist kids learned, how to make up a convincing sounding prayer at the drop of a hat. It’s just that it never seemed to go past the ceiling. Many years later, in a text we are using in one of my courses this semester, Annie Dillard expressed the frustration as clearly as I’ve ever seen.

Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already. . . Who is like you, O Lord, among the silent, remaining silent through the suffering of His children?

The best advice I ever received concerning prayer, not surprisingly, came from the person who knows me best. A number of years ago, in response to one of my frequent complaints about divine silence and inscrutability as a “response” to ineffective prayer, Jeanne said “Vance, for you thinking is praying.” It has taken me many years to recognize just how right she was. Although her comment was for me, the larger point is for everyone. Prayer understood on the transactional model, as an attempt at bargaining or pleading with a silent partner who might not even exist, is a guaranteed recipe for frustration and failure. But what if prayer is not something the person of faith is supposed to do? What if, instead, prayer is something that we are called to be? Being a prayer is a matter of learning to recognize and trust the places where the divine is most likely to be found—in myself and in others, in those thin places where the barrier between human and divine dissolves. And people of the book should know this—it’s right in there, both in the Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. Where is the divine to be found?

It is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea . . . But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

If prayer is a call for the divine to enter the world, we need to be attentive to where that might be happening—in us and around us. It probably will not be where we expect. As Paul Simon wrote in the last verse of “The Sound of Silence,” the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.

It Must Be A Miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and Karl Marx walk into a bar . . .

We should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debate concerning the existence or nature of another world. Richard Rorty, “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes”

One of the many things I enjoy about teaching philosophy is that I regularly get to engage with students in studying the texts of thinkers labelled as “dangerous” or worse by various authority figures in my youth. Darwin . . . Freud . . . Nietzsche . . . Marx . . . these were some of the influential thinkers that good Christians needed to stay away and be protected from, recent Western civilization’s version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. At least three of the four admitted to being atheists, and the fourth (Darwin) was at least an agnostic by the time he died. I doubt anyone in my youth who warned against the diabolical and anti-Christian energies of these authors had much (or any) first-hand familiarity with the texts in question, but one thing was certain—no God-fearing person would read, or allow her or his children to read, such disruptive and destructive filth. It’s almost enough to make one want to home school their kids.

This is the first semester in recent memory that I am getting to engage with all four of these worrisome guys in class. Nietzsche and Freud have already made appearances in my General Ethics class, we just spent two weeks with Darwin in my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium, and I was reminded the other day that Karl Marx will be showing up in my American Philosophy course a few weeks from now. Why? Because of a fascinating article by Richard Rorty, one of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century’s most influential and controversial American philosophers and public intellectuals (another atheist, btw). Rorty dominates the last few weeks of my course; since I have not taught the course in a few years, I am rereading everything before the date it shows up in the syllabus. I remembered Rorty’s essay “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes” as one of the most controversial readings on the syllabus—as I reread it a few days ago I thought “Wow, that’s really out there—and I agree with just about all of it.”

Rorty’s essay is focused on a comparison of two highly influential texts that don’t usually go together: the New Testament and The Communist Manifesto. But the juxtaposition is not as strange as it might seem. Rorty suggests that

We should read both as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human decency.

So imagine that Jesus and Karl Marx walk into a bar together—what would their conversation be like? Let’s get past the obvious jokes (“Jesus and Karl walk into a bar, which happens to be out of Karl’s favorite red wine. Jesus gets a glass of water and makes him some.”) and listen in.

  • Jesus: Did you really write that religion is the opiate of the masses?
  • Karl: Yeah . . . you got a problem with that?
  • Jesus: No. I wish I had said it first.
  • Karl: What ever happened to your prediction that you were going to come back, the Second Coming and all that?
  • Jesus: What ever happened to your prediction of the breakdown of capitalism and the rise of an enlightened proletariat?

As Rorty points out, the “failed prophecies” parts of both of these texts are pretty embarrassing; the failures of either text to transform humanity are downright tragic.

We have been waiting a long time for Christians to behave better than pagans . . . We have waited a long time for regimes calling themselves “Marxist” to explain to us exactly what these new ideals look like, and how they are to be realized in practice . . . Many millions of people were enslaved, tortured or starved to death by sincere, morally earnest people who recited passages from one or the other text in order to justify their deeds . . . Most of us can no longer take either Christian or Marxist postponements and reassurances seriously.

But Jesus and Karl share a lot more in common than unfulfilled prophecies and misguided followers.

  • Jesus: The problem with followers is that in short order they lose sight of what really matters.
  • Karl: You’ve got that right—I wonder if the people claiming to be my followers ever actually read my book.
  • Jesus: The percentage of your “followers” who have studied your book carefully is probably about the same as the percentage of my “followers” who’ve read mine carefully.
  • Karl: Your core message and mine are actually very similar. I read this the other day: “We should find inspiration and encouragement in the New Testament and the Manifesto. For both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the same respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love.”
  • Jesus: I like that! Who wrote it?
  • Karl: A guy named Richard Rorty. Why didn’t you know that? I thought you knew everything!
  • Jesus: Hey, I’m human! Wasn’t Rorty an atheist?
  • Karl: Yeah—you got a problem with that?
  • Jesus: Not at all—I like atheists. A lot less bullshit to cut through.

Once one gets past the failed predictions and the misguided actions of less-than-perfect followers, Rorty says, both the New Testament and The Communist Manifesto are hopeful texts—embodiments of our greatest aspirations and dreams.

When reading the texts themselves, we should skip lightly past the predictions, and concentrate on the expressions of hope . . . There is a difference between knowledge and hope. Hope often takes the form of false prediction, as it did in both documents. But hope for social justice is nevertheless the only basis for a worthwhile human life.

Marx believed that religion is an opiate because its promise of a better life after one dies dulls a person’s senses to what needs to be done now in order to make our lives better and our societies more just in this world. But the message of the gospels can be read in the same way—the Sermon on the Mount is about this world, not one in a prophesied future.

At the end of his essay, Rorty fuses the two texts into a call that might strike some as . . . well . . . radical.

“Christian Socialism” is a pleonastic [I had to look that word up]: nowadays you cannot hope for the fraternity which the Gospels preach without hoping that democratic governments will redistribute money and opportunity in a way that the market never will. There is no way to take the New Testament seriously as a moral imperative, rather than as a prophecy, without taking the need for such redistribution equally seriously.

Those, of course, are fighting words for many who call themselves followers of Jesus. But they can be summarily dismissed only if the inspiration for one’s Christian faith is cherry picked from parts of the New Testament that leave out vast portions of what Jesus reportedly said as well as descriptions of how the early Christian communities organized themselves economically. Jesus and Karl have a lot in common—I wonder who is picking up the tab.

Parents and teachers should encourage young people to read both books. The young will be morally better for having done so.

The Problem of Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Truth Laugh

One of the many enjoyable occurrences at the end of each semester is occasionally receiving thank-you notes from students. Often they come from quiet students who said little in class but eloquently mention a moment or a text from the semester that made a difference or that will stick with them. The bookshelves in my philosophy department office are lined with such cards and notes, welcome reminders that once in a while something works better than expected.

A couple of years ago I received such a note from a student in the Honors interdisciplinary class that I teach with two colleagues. The student wrote that our class was “the best college course I’ve ever taken,” a judgment tempered slightly by the fact that she was a freshman and at the time had only taken six college courses so far. Later in her note, however, she thanked the three of us for our senses of humor, writing that “I have never laughed so hard or as often in any class I have ever taken.”simone weil[1] That one I’ll cherish for a long time, because my teaching philosophy for years has been shaped by Simone Weil’s observation that “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” For this student, at least, mission accomplished.

chickenthoreau[1]When it comes to learning, laughter is serious business. Although they often do not occupy front row seats in the pantheon of philosophical greats, many of my favorite philosophers—Epictetus, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche and others—depend on various forms of humor to shape their thought. Irreverence is a particularly effective philosophical tool. A logical argument demonstrating that human capacities do not match human pretensions is not as effective as Montaigne’s126763672545178[1] “even on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own ass.” Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest master of irreverence in the philosophical Western tradition, undermines commitment to logical precision with “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!” and scoffs at piety with “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” As I told a junior faculty member after observing a skilled but humorless performance in his logic class, “philosophy is serious, but it isn’t deadly serious.”

nameoftherose[1]In Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose, laughter plays an unexpectedly central role. Set in a fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery, Eco weaves murder, heresy, liturgy, medieval medicine, sexual deviance, the Inquisition, opulence in the face of abject poverty, and political intrigues between the Emperor and two competing popes into a memorable fictional tapestry. A central thread in that tapestry is a question that sparks frequent and passionate debate: Did Christ ever laugh?protectedimage[1] This seemingly random question becomes the center of an intense debate that ultimately involves far more than academic curiosity. Jorge, the venerable and blind former librarian insists that Christ never laughed. Not only is there no record of such a thing happening, but there are also solid theological reasons for denying laughter to Jesus. “Laughter foments doubt,” Jorge argues, and doubt undermines those things about which we must be certain. Those in doubt must turn to the relevant authority—a priest, abbot, text—to remove uncertainty. 4349348690_947b4e3701[1]Laughter makes light of what is most serious and most indubitable.

William of Baskerville, the visiting Franciscan monk who becomes the medieval Sherlock Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of several murders at the abbey, counters that there is nothing in the sacred texts indicating that Jesus did not laugh, and also points out that laughter is part of human nature (and Jesus was human, after all). Furthermore, William claims, “sometimes it is right to doubt,” given that doubt and uncertainty are part of the natural human rational thought process. “Our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason must also please divine reason.” William is not given to hilarity, but has a keen eye for the ironic and incongruous throughout the novel, frequently showing that the true pursuit of truth often takes one down paths of uncertainty and irreverence. The adventure and openness of the process is far more instructive than any certainty that hypothetically lies at the end of the path.

As the novel progresses to its dramatic conclusion and the body count of dead monks increases, the depth of Jorge’s commitment to certainty and rejection of the twin demons of laughter and doubt is revealed. For decades, Jorge has been the self-appointed concealer of the only existing copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, in which Aristotle show that the value of comedy is to cause us to laugh at power, at pretension to greatness, and at human aspirations. Laughter allows us, at least temporarily, to abandon fear. In Jorge’s estimation, laughter is the enemy of authority, both temporal and spiritual, and must be snuffed out at all costs. Accordingly, he has murdered those in the abbey whom heJorge_&_William[1] suspected of knowing about and lusting after this dangerous text.

In the climactic confrontation  between Jorge and William at the novel’s denouement, as the depths of Jorge’s insane commitment to protecting certainty and truth  becomes apparent, William exposes the true nature of Jorge’s obsession. “You are the Devil. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” Jorge has shaped his life and actions according to his conviction that truth is to be protected, that it must be defended against all threats—there is a strong element of fear in his conviction that he owns the truth. He is absolutely right about one thing, though—laughter and doubt are direct threats to everything he considers holy. Laughter can bring pretensions to certainty and truth to their knees far more effectively than argumentation.imagesCAEB25EV Rather than face such a world, Jorge destroys the book, himself, and ultimately the library and entire monastery.

In the final pages of The Name of the Rose, in the midst of smoking ruins and ashes, William reflects with his young apprentice Adso on what they have seen and experienced. William refers to the dead Jorge as the “Antichrist,” an appellation that Adso does not understand.images[5]  “The Antichrist,” William explains, “can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear those who are willing to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them.” What is to be learned from the tragic and apocalyptic events at the abbey? William’s speculation is one that all seekers of truth and lovers of human beings should take to heart. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Anne LamottAnne Lamott, whose work causes me to laugh more than any author I can think of, defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is not only uniquely human, it is one of the many signs of divine love that each of us carries into the world daily. Did Jesus laugh? That depends on whether he was a human being or not. Since incarnation, humanity infused by divinity, is at the heart of the Christian faith, laughter is a fundamental expression of God in us. “Lighten up!” is a call to holiness.

diy-quote-wall-art_856-1[1]

Nature and Nature’s God

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Books that changed my life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Ready for the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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