Category Archives: God

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Face to Face with the Universe

lightman[1]A recent edition of Harper’s Magazine includes a fascinating essay by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman entitled “Our Place in the Universe.” The point of the essay is to put us in our place, so to speak. Lightman tells us, for instance, of an astronomer whose specialty is exploring the greatest distances in space. The most distant galaxy this scientist has yet seen is about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth—“give or take. Contemporary scientists, Lightman writes, “have revealed a world as far removed from us as colors are from the blind.”

earth[1]It might make sense, then, to focus our attention on “this island home” where we seem to have a certain amount of central importance. Not so fast, says Lightman, who informs us that “the totality of living matter on Earth—humans and animals, plants, bacteria, and pond scum—makes up 0.00000001 percent of the mass of the planet.” Combine that figure with the current estimate that only three percent of all the stars in the universe are accompanied by a potentially life-sustaining planet, then in the unlikely event that all of those planets actually do have life, then “we can estimate that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that exists in living form is something like 0.000000000000001 percent, or one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent.” Lightman concludes the article by observing that

If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.

Such sobering numbers and observations, of course, are nothing new. The great seventeenth-century French mathematician, scientist, and religious philosopher pascal[1]Blaise Pascal has a memorable meditation on apparent human insignificance in his Pensees.

Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in its lofty and full majesty . . . This whole visible world is only an imperceptible trace in the amplitude of nature. . . . Let man consider what he is . . . as lost in this remote corner of nature, and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to estimate the just value of the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself.

After several paragraphs of his own version of putting us in our place, Pascal concludes with this haunting one-liner: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.imagesCASSRX85

Reminders that we are not special, more importantly that I am not special, are always needed regardless of whether they are welcomed. Yet what most struck me in the “Our Place in the Universe” piece occurs right at the beginning when Lightman introduces us to the astronomer who is investigating the galaxy that is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth.

The prize for exploring the greatest distance in space goes to a man named Garth Illingworth,garth-illingworth-3501[1] who works in a ten-by-fifteen-foot office at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Illingworth studies galaxies so distant that their light has traveled through space for more than 13 billion years to get here. His office is packed with tables and chairs, bookshelves, computers, scattered papers, issues of Nature, and a small refrigerator and a microwave to fuel research that can extend into the wee hours of the morning.

Within the confines of an office not much larger than a medieval monk’s cell, a human being is analyzing an image created by light that has been travelling for three times as long as the best estimated age of the Earth. Pascal reminds us to “consider our condition: we are something, and we are not everything.”

39798_1519136010640_548040_n[1]Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe does not need to take up arms to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him, because he knows he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought . . . Let us labor to think well.

The subtitle of Lightman’s essay is “Face to face with the infinite.” While this specifically refers to the infinite physical spaces that Pascal is frightened of, for those of us who are God-obsessed this leads directly to the divine. For we do not seek to establish a toe-hold on infinity just when we turn our attention away from ourselves toward the vast physical universe. We are also participating in the same sort of activity as Garth Illingworth when we seek to “think clearly” about what is greater than us—the divine, God, the infinite, the One, whatever you choose to call it.

220px-Kierkegaard[1]Often this is best done by analogy and by telling stories. In Philosophical Fragments, Soren Kierkegaard tells a lovely story about a powerful king who falls in love with a lowly maiden. The maiden is unaware of the king’s love, and the king is worried. Knowing that love is built on equality, how is the gap between his royal greatness and her humble maidenhood to be crossed? 11043_182106464599_4873655_a[1]He does not want to coerce her into loving him by revealing his love in all his splendor, nor would elevating her to royal status work, since then she would simply be the same lowly maiden with a better wardrobe and job description.

The only possible solution to the king’s problem is remarkably simple. “Since union could not be brought about by an elevation it must be attempted by a descent.” The king must step down from his royal throne and enter the maiden’s hut as an equal. Not as a king in a peasant’s costume, but as a peasant. Only then can he be sure that she might return his love because of the person he is rather than the because of the role he inhabits. The king’s advisors and courtiers are astounded—how to explain the choice to leave royalty behind for a simple girl? And this, Kierkegaard reminds us, is precisely the mystery and madness of love, not only of the king for the maiden, but also of God for human beings. “This is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth.”

Across the infinite gap separating the human and the divine, God comes to us by becoming one of us. What a remarkable response to our fear of “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces.” God is not silent—God’s love turns infinity into intimacy. If I embrace this story, if it forms the foundation of my belief, what must my response be? As Kierkegaard reminds us, this requires nothing less than my willingness for everything to change.

When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when God implants himself in human weakness unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature!wineskins-old-new[1]

Living Without God

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Perhaps it is a feature of teaching at a Catholic college, but I am frequently surprised by how many of my students are convinced that the only basis for being moral is belief in a God who will hold each of us responsible after we die for what we have done during this life. I am familiar with this attitude—fire insurance policyI was raised with the Protestant version and believed that the primary reason to be a Christian is to gain an eternal fire-insurance policy. But people old enough to be a freshman or sophomore in college have undoubtedly encountered people who do not profess any sort of religious conviction and yet apparently have managed to develop working moral frameworks. When I ask my students whether it would be possible for an atheist to be moral, just about all of them admit that such a thing is possible—they just don’t know how. So I find myself faced with a continuing task each semester—exploring with my students the strange phenomenon of living a life of moral commitment and excellence without God. Or at least without the God they have in mind.

BonhoefferIn my “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester, my students’ expectations and pre-conceptions concerning the connections between moral commitment and religious faith were challenged on a regular basis. These challenges were most pressing during the weeks that we studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant pastor and theologian who ultimately found himself in prison awaiting execution because of his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer described the many ways in which his understanding of Christian commitment and action was changing. Lurking behind his ideas was one big question—where is God in all of this? In a letter a few weeks before his death, he wrote

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. losing faithThe God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

My students found this passage challenging, to say the least. In online discussions, several expressed their sadness that this pastor, who had been such a beacon of Christian hope and light during very dark times, lost his faith in his final days of life. I responded, tentatively, that Bonhoeffer had not lost his faith—but this was a very different sort of faith than my students were accustomed to.the bell

Bonhoeffer’s striking statement reminds me of the predicament that Michael Meade, a character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, finds himself in. Michael has an intense desire for God and the transcendent, seeking at various times to become a priest and, when that fails, to create the lay religious community that is at the heart of the novel. Throughout his life, Michael has considered himself “called” to service to God and has sought for patterns and signs that confirm his “calling.” Unfortunately, as with most of us, these signs and patterns turn out to be idolatrous projections of his own self-centered hopes and dreams. When the lay religious community fails and several of the members come to tragic ruin, including a man’s suicide for which Michael considers himself at least partially responsible, Michael is understandably on the brink of despair and suicide himself. As he seeks in the midst of ruin, for the first time in his life, to look at himself and at God cleanly and without preconceptions, he comes to hard conclusions.

The pattern which he had seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic imagination. At the human level there was no pattern. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” belief in godAnd as he felt, bitterly, the grimness of these words, he put it to himself: there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.

Michael has come for the first time in his life to see the need for “dying to self,” for removing himself from the center of the universe and insisting that the world must “make sense.” God’s existence has not been threatened by the deconstruction of Michael’s hopes and dreams, but the “belief system,” the vocabulary, through which he has defined and described God has been destroyed. Michael’s God, in other words, has died.

At the end of the novel, Michael reflects and takes stock. Rather than fill the resulting vacuum with yet another projection of himself onto the transcendent, Michael chooses to let the vast gap between himself and the Other remain, at least for the present, in all its power and rawness. God has not died, but Michael’s conception of God has. And at least for now, this is a good thing. The rituals that were once consoling and uplifting remain as a reminder of his true situation.

No sharp sense of his own needs drove him to make supplication. He looked about him with the calmness of the ruined man. But what did, from his former life, remain to him was the Mass. . . . The Mass remained, not consoling, not uplifting, but in some way factual. It contained for him no assurance that all would be made well that was not well. It simply existed as a kind of pure reality separate from the weaving of his own thoughts. . . . Writualhoever celebrated it, the Mass existed and Michael existed beside it. He made no movement now, reached out no hand. He would have to be found and fetched or else he was beyond help.

Sad? Yes. Regrettable? Undoubtedly. But Michael has chosen to see if, for at least a period of time, he can refrain from creating the transcendent in his own image. Perhaps when he begins again, he’ll be more aware of the contingency of all transcendent language.

When Bonhoeffer writes that The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us, he is recognizing, as Michael Meade recognized, that all of our imaginings about what God must be and will do are human constructs guaranteed to disappoint and fail. Living in the world “without the working hypothesis of God,” embracing God’s existence without confining God to the limits of human belief, may seem to leave commitment to moral principles and behavior without a foundation. le chambonBut this need not be the case. Magda Trocme, one of the leaders of the rescue efforts in the little village of Le Chambon where thousands of refugees, Jewish and otherwise, were successfully hidden from the Gestapo and Vichy police during the dark years of World War Two, is a case in point.

Magda’s husband, Andre, was the dynamic Protestant pastor in Le Chambon whose powerful and eloquent sermons inspired his congregation to live out their faith in real time in the face of prison- and life-threatening dangers. Magda had no patience for theologicalmagda niceties and regularly scoffed at the notion that her astounding generosity and fearless hospitality made her a “saint” or even morally special. She just did what needed to be done and facilitated the efforts of others to do the same, addressing every human need within her power to address no matter who the human in need happened to be. I have studied the Le Chambon phenomenon a great deal and have used the story of this remarkable village in class many times. But it was not until a week ago while reading a new study of the village that I encountered Magda saying anything about God. In her unpublished memoirs, now in the archives at Swarthmore College, Magda provides her definition of God:

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

And that, for Magda, was sufficient for her to be one of the most remarkable moral exemplars I have ever encountered. And, I would argue, it is a sufficient foundation for moral goodness. Who knew it could be that simple?

There are More Things In Heaven and Earth . . .

Not long ago I received the following email out of the blue: “My name is ___ and I am a Christian from Pennsylvania. I am getting ready to pursue a career in the study of philosophy of religion at ____ after I graduate high school. I don’t know if you are a believer but if you are I want to ask to you about a few objections that I heard against Christianity that I can’t seem to find an answer for. But if you don’t have time I can understand. But I would really appreciate a direct answer to the questions if you have time I don’t want to be a burden. I wanted to see if you were comfortable with answering my questions before I sent them so if you want to please reply.”

I’m not sure how this young man got my name—I presume he may have sent this email to a number of persons in philosophy departments across the country—but in my response I invited him to send his questions on. Within ten minutes he sent a lengthy, rambling email with a number of very specific questions. Here are some of the highlights, condensed but unedited:

screen-shot-2011-11-10-at-11-17-36-pm[1]“The first objection to the Christian faith that I never heard refuted was the argument for Natural evil against God. . . . Natural evil is evil that arises independently of human action. . . . The free will defense does not apply to natural evil. How can one answer this objection why these things exist?”

“Why pray if God knows the future? It really doesn’t make sense to me. God already knows what is going to happen so why ask him to do something that he is already planning on doing? . . . It seems like when you are praying you are trying to inform God on something he already knows about. And what about when a tragedy happens. god-in-schools[1]Such as the Connecticut school shooting. I heard somebody say that God got kicked out of schools that is why it happened. I think that is absurd why would God do that to little children? Then I heard that someone said that little girl that survived was a miracle from God. What about the other 27 children that were murdered did God not want them to survive? It seems like one can only commit to either that God is complete free of men’s actions and he has no control over what men do to each other. OR God has complete control and makes evil things happen around the world. Which one is it?”

cowper_god_moves_in_a_mysterious_way_his_wonders_mug-p168069442141803762enqoe_216[1]“Why did God create people who he knows will go to hell? I believe again the only way to answer this is to resort to open theism. Otherwise this is a devastating attack on the benevolence and justice of God. The only response that I heard and I think is very weak is we don’t understand the way God works. I think that is true about some things but not this and it’s just a cop out.”

Here is my response to this young man:

Your excellent questions are all related to classic theodicy issues (the problem of evil, both moral and natural; free will and divine foreknowledge). These issues all arise from a very specific starting conception of God (omniscience, omnibenevolence, omnipotence, etc.). After more than two decades of working in philosophy, I’ll cut to the chase. With those starting assumptions concerning what God must be, you will fail to find a satisfactory rational/logical solution of either the problem of evil or the free will/ foreknowledge issue. My suggestion is that you challenge your assumptions. Since any conception of God is a human construct, we have no business being so rigidly attached to any single vision that we refuse to consider other possible visions and frameworks.

What if, for instance, God does not know absolutely every detail of the future?open_theism[1] What if through the gift of free will God has made human beings co-creators of the unfinished business of the world? What if Joan Chittister is right when she suggests that

Sister-Joan-Chittister-pf2[1]Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.”

What if the love of God is better understood through divine participation in our suffering instead of the elimination of suffering? The central images of the Christian faith, after all, include a fragile, helpless child and a tortured, dying human being executed as a criminal. Above all, don’t presume that you, or anyone else, michel-de-montaigne-006[1]knows with certainty what God must be like. As Montaigne writes, “there is no more notable folly in the world than to reduce these things to the measure of our capacity and competence.”

So don’t be afraid of “open theism” or any other tweaking of classical attributes of God that might help you see the issues you raise differently. I had a close friend many years ago ask me how I can possibly be both a Christian and a philosopher. I didn’t have a good answer then, but my answer now would be that the two complement each other beautifully, so long as my Christianity welcomes careful and legitimateShakespeare-More-Things1601[1] questions about absolutely everything and my philosophy recognizes that, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

Consider carefully the relationship between rational arguments concerning any particular conception of God and your own faith. Although faith is not independent of reason, faith’s vibrancy and health does not depend on rational argumentation. Will your faith be shaken if you fail to find a satisfactory logical solution to the problem of evil? Not knowing you, the best I can say is that time will tell.robinson[1] A living faith is rooted in something far more profound and primal than reason—it is the result of a real and vibrant encounter with divine reality. One of my favorite expressions of this comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Rev. Ames, a Congregational minister at the end of his life, puts it this way:

“They want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them ‘proofs.’ I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense. . . . In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp . . . It was Coleridgeportrait[1] who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”

The “mustache and walking stick” of philosophy of religion has for some time been focused on subjecting faith to sterile, logic-chopping analysis. Don’t let philosophy turn your obviously real faith into an argument or proof. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”followthrough_article_graphic[1]

Blessings on you in your future philosophical and faith endeavors!

Hats Off!

Portrait of German Music Composer Robert SchumannIn 1831, Robert Schumann published his very first review, in the form of an imaginary conversation about a recent composition by Frédéric Chopin. Both Schumann and Chopin were scarcely out of their teens, and neither was yet widely known. hats_off__gentlemen__a_genius_by_gcs211-d3krx3aRecognizing the exceptional qualities of Chopin’s music, Schumann had one of his fictitious characters introduce it by walking in the door and uttering the unforgettable words, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!”pdqface2

According to musicologist Peter Schickele, the only possible response he could make upon hearing the music of P.D.Q Bach, the “only forgotten son” of Johann Sebastian Bach, was “Hats back on, gentlemen—an idiot!” Reading the lyrics to one of P.D.Q.’s compositions,

MONK’S ARIA FROM HANSEL AND GRETEL AND TED AND ALICE

Et expecto resurrecreation; Et in unum Dominos and checkers; Qui tollis peccate mundi morning. 

Mea culpa kyrie elei-Sonny Tufts et Allah in Pompeii; Donna nobis pacem cum what mei

Agnus and her sister Doris Dei; Lord, have mercy on my solo. 

Et in terra chicken pox romana; Sic transit gloria manana;

Sanctus estes Kefauviridiana; In flagrante delicto Svetlana; Lord, have mercy on my solo. 

Credo in, at most, unum deum; Caveat nabisco mausoleum; Coitus interruptus bonus meum;

Kimo sabe watchum what you sayum; Lord, have mercy on my soul so low.

then listening to a couple of minutes of the “Prelude and Fugue in C Major” from P.D.Q’s immortal The Short-Tempered Clavier

should be sufficient for you to draw your own critical conclusions.

We all have heard that there is a fine line between genius and insanity; for most of us, it is more relevant that we spend our lives wandering the vast terrain between genius and idiocy. I have had moments of such pure inspiration that I wondered why the MacArthur Foundation and the Nobel Prize committee don’t just give me their respective “genius grant” and prize without bothering with the application and paperwork. I105 have had many more moments when my inner voice, observing what I am up to, yells “You Fucking Moron! What the hell do you think you are doing?” Socrates’ inner voice instructed him to do what he knew was right rather than obey the demands of the Athenian authorities. My inner voice usually tells me to stop acting like a fool and embarrassing myself.

I spent part of this past semester studying Albert Camus’ The Plague with a bunch of second semester sophomores. The Plague is one of my top five favorite novels ever, both to teach and just because it is a great novel. Otumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20f the many powerful characters in the story, my favorite is Grand (Camus’ characters generally don’t get a first name). Grand is a low-level bureaucrat, a paper pushing clerk acquaintance of Dr. Rieux, the narrator and central character of the novel. Grand is a simple but fundamentally decent man who eventually becomes fully committed to assisting Rieux in the impossible task of trying to act humanely and professionally in the face of increasingly inhuman circumstances. As his friendship with Rieux develops, weaving its way through the early outbreak and spread of plague throughout the city, Grand occasionally drops cryptic hints that he is secretly working on a “grand” project. One evening as they share a drink in Grand’s humble apartment, Grand reveals his secret: he is writing a novel. He has been working on it in his spare time for years and it seems to be no closer to completion than when he began it. But it consumes his life, and it is clear that Grand’s identity and self-image is tied up with the future success of his work of fiction. In response to Rieux’s wondering how much more Grand has to go before the novel is finished, Grand says

I don’t know. But that’s not the point . . . What I really want, Doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up—after he’s read it through, of course—and say to his staff, “Gentlemen, hats off!”45134267

It doesn’t take long to realize that no one will ever be taking their hat off in honor of Grand’s novel. He’s been stuck on the first sentence—“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne”—for months. We revisit the sentence, with various modifications, throughout The Plague, and it never rises above its original bland mediocrity. But Grand’s dream is shared by most of us, the dream that sometime someone somewhere will recognize our latent genius and honor it appropriately.

Grand is one of the solid anchors of the “sanitary teams” organized by Dr. Rieux and others, groups of volunteers who do whatever is necessary—removing dead bodies, comforting those left behind, struggling with bureaucracy—as the plague runs unchecked for weeks, then months. Then it unaccountably begins to subside, fewer persons die each day. But Rieux notices that he has not seen Grand for a day or two. He finds Grand in bed at home with a raging fever and swollen glands, the clear early signs of plague. In yet another absurd twist of fate, a man who has exposed himself freely and willingly to contamination for months with apparent immunity is infected with the plague just when it seemed that it the disease was finished. Rieux is crushed but administers to Grand in the same way that he has hundreds of others. In a weak and raspy voice, Grand says “If I pull through Doctor—hats off!”

Sometimes mere survival is more worthy of praise and admiration than any other accomplishment. As it turns out, Grand does survive to the end of the novel—a small and rare piece of mercy in Camus’ relentless tale. But in a story both infused with agnosticism and largely lacking in hope—much like the world we live in—Youth_Tree_webGrand strikes me as an embodiment of the prophet Micah’s simple explanation of what the divine expects of us: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. As I explored last week,

Unvisited Tombs

George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke also embodies such a life, as described in the final lines of Middlemarch:

1331772810The 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.

Hats off to the Grands, to the Dorotheas, and to all who live lives of justice, mercy, and humility under the radar. As my good friend and colleague Christopher would say, “That’s genius.”

Divine Stalking

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you are awake

big[1]Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is about Santa Claus, the most benign stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be a bit disconcerting and creepy.

n_melvin_NSA_130616.video-260x195[1]This week some of the top news stories, in the context of renewing the Patriot Act, have focused on to what extent the right to privacy of citizens in this country has been and continues to be regularly invaded by various government agencies in the professed interest of national security. At this point, a disclaimer—I am one of the least paranoid and most trusting persons on the planet. Accordingly, I have found the outrage, the self-righteous indignation, expressed by many in all sorts of ways rather amusing, especially given how each of us cavalierly leaves a trail of identifying information in our wake each day. The indignation often appears to be directly dependent upon who happens to be in charge at the time.945654_10151486576681275_89686085_n[1] I also wonder just how gullible a person has to be to imagine that this is anything new or beyond what has been the case ever since the beginning of the digital age.

A question that never fails to generate interesting classroom conversation is What do human beings want more—security or freedom? Students invariably conclude that, as is the case with many interesting questions, the answer almost entirely depends on context and circumstances. september-9-11-attacks-anniversary-ground-zero-world-trade-center-pentagon-flight-93-second-airplane-wtc_39997_600x450[1]My freshmen this year were four or five years old on September 11, 2001, and each of them could tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when the Twin Towers fell, just as I remember vividly President Kennedy’s assassination when I was six. Four short weeks after 9/11, Jeanne and I flew from Providence to Fort Lauderdale for a conference where I was giving a paper and chairing a session. All I remember about the conference is that at least a third of the academics scheduled to give papers did not come because they did not want to get on an airplane. But I clearly remember the Fort Lauderdale airport on the day we returned to Providence. It took us almost three hours to get through security, the terminal was filled with armed military personnel, all of which would have been unheard of a month earlier. tsa-lines[1]But most remarkable was the behavior of the hundreds of travelers whose schedules were being disrupted by the inordinate wait. I did not hear a single complaint; indeed, what I did hear was regular “thank you’s” from those in the lines directed toward those whose job it was to keep us safe. If anyone was bemoaning the obvious loss of freedom in exchange for at least the appearance of security, they were not saying it out loud.

After telling this brief story to my students not long ago, I asked What do you think would happen this coming weekend if people at the airport had a similar experience—hours to get through security, lines moving at less than a snail’s pace, armed soldiers at every turn? One student’s quick response summed it up concisely: “People would be pissed!” And so they would. Why? Because the overwhelming sense of insecurity that pervaded everything and everyone in the weeks after 9/11 have been replaced by a general sense of security, simply because nothing on the scale of 9/11 has happened on our turf for a number of years. heathrow-airport-london-security-scannersjpg-79ec3477441a411a_large[1]A line like the one in Fort Lauderdale in October 2011 is okay today in Tel Aviv, London, Riyadh, or some other place, but this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Don’t mess with our freedom to do what we want when we want in the way that we want—unless we don’t feel safe, then feel free to suspend our freedoms in whatever ways deemed necessary, so long as you guarantee our security. I am sure that if the news of NSA surveillance was leaked shortly after a terrorist attack, the outrage would not be over violations of our right to privacy. The outrage would be over why the surveillance had not been more extensive and more effective. As the ad slogan says, “Appearance is everything.”

Perhaps the reason why worrying about the threat of someone watching me and knowing my deepest secrets, whether Santa Claus or the government, has never been high on my radar screen is because I learned at a very early age about the impossibility of escaping the scrutiny of the most effective and omnipresent stalker imaginable.

Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it through and through.

Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me.psalm_139_1_by_beesadie-d30ijri[1]

If I climb the heavens, you are there; if I lie in the grave, you are there.

Your eyes saw all my actions, they were all of them written in your book;

Every one of my days was decreed, before even one of them came into being.

Now that is effective surveillance, straight out of Psalm 139. The first time I read Orwell’s 198459-4[1] as a sophomore in high school, I had no difficulty imagining a world in which everything about me is an open book. This is not because I sensed that the government’s intrusion into our lives was becoming more and more pervasive, but rather because I had known about the divine stalker, the God who would show me a Technicolor movie of my life at the Last Judgment, focusing on all of my sins and failings, since I had learned how to walk. Perhaps this is why I have always found the deism[1]Deist idea that God created the world then left us alone to do the best we can or the notion that God created the world partially complete and gives us the task of completing it somewhat attractive. I’ve known many people, my mother, for instance, who are comforted by Psalm 139’s information that God knew everything about me and had every detail about me planned out while I was still in utero, but not me.imagesCANNTSSE I just wanted God to get off my back and leave me the hell alone.

As long as my image of God is as the divine Big Brother—benign or otherwise—who knows everything about me before I think it or do it, the problem of squaring that sort of cosmic surveillance with even a shred of human freedom and choice cannot be solved. But perhaps the intimacy of God’s connection with my life can be understood differently. As is often the case as I ruminate on divine/human relationships, Incarnation provides a new perspective. What if God is not an external monitoring agency, keeping track and keeping score, but mysteriously interwoven with each human being so intricately that divine and human cannot be separated? What if finding God and finding me are the same search? These are open questions, but the very notion of incarnation, of a fusion between divine and humanimages[3], removes the fear factor, the concern that someone somewhere is holding me to a standard that I cannot possibly satisfy.

While on retreat a couple of summers ago, I met Cyprian Consiglio, a Benedictine monk who is a renowned and respected musician, composer, and author. My favorite of his compositions is “Behind and Before Me,” a setting of Psalm 139. In the CD liner notes, he writes the following about this song:1576301_350[1]

Ancient wisdom tells us that the beginning of the spiritual life is when we realize that God is within us—how long it takes us to reach that realization! But the next stage is when we realize that we are in God.

Justifying My Existence

It is unsettling, even scary, to relinquish who we think we are, and scary to stop clinging to what we have and what we do. Henri Nouwen

As I picked up my bag to walk to the gym, then to the office for a few hours of work, I said “I’m off to justify my existence for the day!” The idea of such daily justification comes from my father who, when he was at home rather than on the road travelling, used to ask my brother and me as we stepped into the house after school justify“What did you do today to justify your existence on this planet?” He always had a smile on his face when he said it, but there were serious undertones to the question. The challenge to not just be a piece of furniture in the room, not just to occupy space, but to prove my worth on a daily basis has stuck with me ever since. Jeanne’s response to my announcement was to laugh and say “You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not so sure.

I can talk a good talk about why, despite the Protestant work ethic and stereotypical American focus on action and productivity that pervades our culture, who one is does not amount to the same thing as what one does. chittisterAs Joan Chittister writes, humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” One should work to live, after all, not live to work. I am not, however, nearly as good at walking the walk. This has become more and more obvious as I move into sabbatical mode. Within a month I will no longer be a program director, something that has consumed me as a second full-time job for the past four years. I will not be a full-time teacher for the next sixteen months, uncharted territory for someone who believes he was born to be a professor. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen for several years that the biggest thing that being an administrator, first four years as department chair, then four more as a program director, has taken away from me is writing. But this is not entirely true. I actually have been writing a lot over the past almost-three-years on this blog—close to 300,000 words worth of writing (enough for three 250-or-so page books). What I have not done for close to a decade is academic writing of the sort that an academic must do in order to get promoted and tenured. Why? Because I don’t have to. Nor do I want to. button_tenurepromotionTenure and the last promotion came a long time ago, well before the last decade of administration piled on top of teaching. I no longer need to write and publish the sort of thing that one needs to write and publish in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this is a good thing since I don’t want to write that sort of thing and haven’t wanted to for some time.

What this means, going into sabbatical, is that for the first time in my professional life—actually for the first time in my adult life—the pressure is off. I’m being paid to be on sabbatical—undoubtedly a rare gift pretty much exclusive to the world of academia. And I’m not sure how to handle that. Over the past few years I have taken baby steps in the direction of trusting the world around me to show me what’s next rather than imposing my own expectations and structures on what’s next. sabbaticalBut they are only baby steps, insufficient to guide my plans for sabbatical. Beginning around this time last year I started planning for sabbatical by doing the usual things—setting up a series of appointments with our very helpful director of sponsored research, sending out proposals both for residential and non-residential sabbatical projects, and so on. For several months in late 2014 I waited to see what I would be doing and where I would be going on sabbatical. The response to all of my proposals? “Thanks, but no thanks.” Other than the lovely form rejection letters in various forms, I received no feedback other than “we don’t want to fund you doing that.” By the time the rejections arrived the spring semester had started, so other than a few “what the fuck??” moments, I didn’t have the time to think much about the implications until the past couple of weeks. I have plenty to work on and write about—three book projects, no less—but the usual routes to where that will happen and when have been dead ends. Now what?

Isaiah 6I was lector yesterday morning at church for the first time in months, and in one of those unexpected moments of synchronicity that I’ve noticed more and more frequently over the past several years my assigned Old Testament reading was one of my favorites from the Jewish scriptures, the call of Isaiah. As I read it from the lectern the story had immediate resonance. Isaiah has a vision of the divine throne room, where six-winged seraphim fly about and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” 24/7. After Isaiah expresses his utter unworthiness at being present for such a glorious spectacle, an angel takes a live coal with tongs from the altar and, laying it on Isaiah’s lips, says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Now you are ready, in other words. God itself asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me.” A risky thing to do, opening oneself up to whatever might come. Isaiah’s mission starts by saying “I’m ready for whatever.” Scary business, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells the brief story of a woman’s last hours before death. franklLying on her filthy cot in the barracks, the woman spoke briefly with Frankl.

“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

I am here—I am life. Maybe that’s enough. At least it’s a start.

Axl and Beatrice

Fog Chaser

If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. Christopher Wiman

The other day while at the grocery store I was surveying the vast array of Keurig coffee possibilities on display. Fog chaserAmong the offerings was something from a San Francisco based company called “Fog Chaser.” I immediately moved to the next possibility, assuming that “Fog Chaser” would something like Starbucks on steroids—West Coast people like coffee that will make your hair stand on end. Several years ago while at a conference in Berkeley, CA, Jeanne and I wandered the town’s main street looking for coffee that our New England Dunkin’ Donuts tastes could handle. Knowing from experience that both of us hate headache-producing Starbucks products, we stepped into a little coffee shop and asked “Is your coffee as strong as Starbucks?” “Hell, no!” we were told, “Our coffee is much stronger than Starbucks!” No coffee for us that morning until the institutional fare at the conference. The buried giantAnd no “Fog Chaser” for me.

The name reminded me of a novel I had just finished a couple of days earlier, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest: The Buried Giant. Ishiguro’s work is brilliant, creative, and mesmerizing, but this one was not one of my favorites, certainly not as good as The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go (which I had just used as the basis for the final paper assignment in one of my classes). But it was good enough to stay with, and—a sure sign of a novel worth reading—I’m still thinking about it even though I am now in the middle of my second novel since finishing. The Buried Giant is set in post-Roman, pre-Norman conquest England, a generation after the already mythical King Arthur and Merlin. We find through Axl and Beatrice, an old married couple at the center of the narrative, that a strange amnesia lays over the land. Axl and Beatrice clearly still love each other several decades into their relationship, but they remember only bits and pieces of their past history. They have a son, but they don’t remember why he left home years ago nor do they know where he went. They know there have been some problematic events in their years together, but can’t clearly remember what these things are. Axl and BeatriceAnd this memory malaise is not just what one might expect from a couple of people in their seventies—it afflicts everyone.

Without revealing too much of the story, it turns out that the collective amnesia is the work of the dragon Querig, lurking behind the scenes and driving the action throughout. The old couple’s wanderings as they try to find their son intersect with two knights, both claiming to be on a mission concerning the dragon with clearly conflicting intentions. The very breath of the dragon causes people to forget, to lose their memories—slaying Querig will remove this dragon-fog and restore the land to memory health. Yet, as usual, it isn’t that simple. Years earlier, Britain had been afflicted with civil war between the native Britons and the newcomer Saxons, a war with King Arthur and the wizard Merlin at the center. QuerigPeace came to the land when the dragon, empowered with Merlin’s magic, just by its breathing existence caused the warring factions to forget why they were fighting. Fast-forward several decades to the time of the novel, and the land lays under a dreamlike trance having forgotten most of the past.

But not everything has been forgotten. Wistan, one of the knights Axl and Beatrice meet in their wanderings, is on a mission from a neighboring warlord to slay Querig. The mission of the other knight, the aging Gawain from King Arthur’s court, is only revealed toward the end of the story—his mission is to protect the dragon. As long as Querig lives, the land will be at peace. But with peace comes a price—loss of memory, tradition, and identity. What price is worth paying for peace? What things are worth sacrificing one’s identity for? These questions and many others are at the heart of Ishiguro’s work.

In the days since finishing The Buried Giant, I’ve been thinking about the various ways in which I am tempted, as I suspect everyone is tempted, to live in a self-induced fog. sleepwalkingLiving in a fog is not the same as sleepwalking; rather, it is living with only partial awareness of one’s surroundings and fellow human beings, even of one’s own beliefs and commitments. I find that one of my main tasks as a professor is to provide students with some fog-lifting guidance and tools. Such tools are useful in making one’s beliefs cohere, for instance. Constructing a coherent set of beliefs is not like a trip through the cafeteria line, where everything goes with everything else. What one believes concerning God’s existence and nature should shed light on other things one chooses to believe. The position one takes on the dignity and value of human life should both illuminate and limit what one can believe concerning a host of other issues. To succumb to the temptations of compartmentalization is to choose a fog-enveloped existence in which one wanders from one commitment to the next with no awareness that these commitments are united in one human being.

A.D.On Sunday evenings for the past several weeks, NBC has been running A.D., a multi-week miniseries event about what happened to the early followers of Jesus after he headed home. In spite of the multiple liberties taken with the story, A.D. captures one thing very well—the challenges of and the dangers involved with keeping belief alive after the original inspirations are long gone. Those of us who seek to live out faiths with ancient roots in the contemporary world continue to grapple with these challenges. But as Christopher Wiman reminds us, a self-induced fog often makes the challenges even more difficult.Wiman

Just as some of Jesus’ first century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that grace takes in our everyday lives. . . . In fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.

The most effective fog chaser is to focus on something specific, something real, something that isn’t you—like the person right in front of you. bbtAs Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self—to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.

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 of Three 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 Aristotle’s Republic and 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.

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost this Sunday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

ubi_caritas_et_amor_wedding_sticker_template-re6fcd4ed855b45a3b33a27c44272a696_v9wf3_8byvr_210[1]

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, 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? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. 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 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 this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. 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. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester 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 semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just 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. indexAs 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.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. 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.