Category Archives: heaven

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneOn the west side of the stone entryway to the beautiful humanities center on my campus, in only its fourth year of operation, is carved a memorable saying from the Gospel of John: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. On the top of the opposite east side of the entryway is the equally memorable closing line from Paridiso, the final book of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Ruane DanteThe Love which moves the sun and the other stars. In my estimation the choice of this passage for such an exalted position on the building is controversial; when the building was still in the planning stage, I made the tongue-in-cheek argument that nothing more appropriate could be inscribed on the front of a classroom building than what is written over the gates of Hell in Canto III of Inferno, the first book in Dante’s masterwork: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. But I lost the argument and had to settle for printing that line off and taping it on my office door. It must have worked, because very few students come to visit me in my office.

Dante’s vision at the end of Paridiso is the climax of an agonizing journey through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven. This capstone experience, strangely enough for a guy who is never at a loss for words, is one that he struggles mightily to convey. Beatific visionOne gets the impression that words fail him and his linear thought process is dissolved as he is subsumed into his long-awaited encounter with the Divine. But I’ve never found Dante’s vision compelling, simply because it’s just that. A vision. And it’s so Catholic, with multitudes of saints, angels, and Mary swirling around in a choreographed dance. I actually resonate more fully with Dante and his guide Virgil as they pick their way through the horrors of Hell and the trials of Purgatory—these portions of the journey I can resonate with because they remind me of the world I actually live in with all of its contradictory beauty and ugliness. That’s the world in which I will be embedded this coming semester that begins in two weeks with a bunch of sophomore students as we explore grace, truth and freedom in the Nazi era, finding glimmers of hope and nuggets of wisdom in the middle of the worst that humanity can devise.bonhoeffer

We will spend some of the semester with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who, imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison for more than a year because of his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, found himself in his isolation fending off despair and realizing that whatever God is, God is none of the things he had always thought and taught. In letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer put his fears, his concerns, his hopes, and his life itself on display in language that is shocking and disturbing in its directness. We will consider two passage in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge both in class and in on-line discussion forums letters from prison.

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general.

Later in the letter, he repeats that “the time of Christianity is over.” Students in past versions of this course have been shocked that a Protestant pastor could write such a thing. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that none of the old formulas or descriptions work anymore, not in a world in which millions of human beings are disappearing as smoke and ashes from death camp chimneys. In a second letter a few weeks later to Bethge, Bonhoeffer continues the theme.

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. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

God wants us to live in the world as if God does not exist, Bonhoeffer writes. What can this possibly mean? Once a student commented in our discussion forum how sad it was that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I replied, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different from what you are accustomed to.”

A few short months after he wrote this letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg Prison, just a handful of weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Far from losing his faith, Bonhoeffer exemplifies a willingness to let faith evolve rather than crumble in the face of the greatest and most intense challenges. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem entitled “Who Am I?” in his notebook which ends in a place that provides hope for all persons of faith.

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all. . . .

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!

Not long ago as I was driving to the 8:00 early show at church I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” on NPR. Her guest was Margaret Wertheim, a physicist described in the promo as “a passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions.”

http://onbeing.org/program/margaretwertheim-the-grandeur-and-limits-of-science/7472

Toward the end of the conversation Tippett notes that Wertheim, who was raised Catholic, has been described in the media as an atheist. “Are you an atheist?” Tippett asked. WertheimWertheim’s response brings us full circle back to Dante.

I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

I love Wertheim’s answer because it is infused with Bonhoeffer’s energy. Dogmas and religious formulas will always fail because God is bigger than that. Seeking the love that moves the sun and the other stars will always take us to places we do not expect, places of beauty and darkness, a search energized by a faith that cannot be lost.

I Will Bring You Home

imagesCACMK60OBaptist preacher’s kids get to do some very odd things. I memorized large portions of the Bible under duress, including–as a dutiful five-year-old–the names of the books of the Old Testament minor prophets to an obnoxious sing-songy tune. I could run through all of them in one breath—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. These obscure texts were written in a distant time for a distant people in contexts and for reasons known only to the most narrowlnot-alone[1]y focused academics.  Yet there are memorable promises buried in these forgotten pages; in a recent Sunday lectionary reading, I was reminded of Zephaniah’s : I will bring you home.

Vermont, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Florida, Wyoming, New Mexico again, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Rhode Island. These are the states in which I have lived, in chronological order. A few footnotes: I lived in Rhode Island the first time for only one month, triumphantly returning sixteen years later for a period of time that has now lasted for more than two decades. I’ve now lived in Rhode Island for a longer unbroken number of years than any other state, including Vermont, the state in which I grew up.Thumbs-up-icon[1] Some of these states I’ve loved living in Thumbs-down-icon[1](New Mexico, Wisconsin, Rhode Island), some I’ve hated (Florida, Tennessee)—these judgments are comments about me rather than about the states, all of which I’m sure are lovely and eminently livable.

A friend of mine who knows Jeanne and I well said in an email to me a few years ago that “you and Jeanne are home for each other.” And it’s a good thing. When her mother died in late 2002, the last of our four parents to pass away, Jeanne said to me “now we’re orphans.” Indeed we were officially orphans, but we had felt as if we were orphans for most of the almost fifteen years at that time that we had been together. When Jeanne and I, along with my two sons (ages 8 and 5), set up housekeeping together for the firStress-ZebraStripes-240x300[1]st time in Milwaukee in August 1988, my parents were living over 1000 miles to the west in Wyoming and Jeanne’s parents were more than 1000 miles to the east in Brooklyn. These distances deprived our new step-family of badly needed support and wisdom, a situation made even worse when my mother died of cancer within two months of our arrival in Wisconsin, followed unexpectedly by my father-in-law’s passing just two weeks later. Jeanne read an article once listing a number of the top stress creators that a human being might go through in their lifetime, including changing jobs, moving, divorce, marriage, and the death of loved ones. We experienced all of them within the first tumultuous months of our relationship.

Although it would be another fourteen years before my father and mother-in-law died within a few months of each other in 2002, Dad of heart failure and Rose after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s, the distances between the two of us and our remaining parents never decreased. I learned immediately after my mother died the truth of what I had suspected all along—she was the one connecting thread that bound me tightly to my father, my brother, and other members of my extended family. Although Jeanne’s mother and four siblings remained and would have helped if they could have, they were still over 1000 miles away. For the day to day struggles of making our new family work, we were alone, often making it up as we went along.

Which often seems to be the human condition—making it up as we go along. As I read Psalm 22 at midday prayer several years ago with a few dozen Benedictine monks and visitors, the poignancy ripped into me. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry from the cross is perhaps the most convincing evidence in the gospels, in case I needed any, that Jesus was fully human, a man just as I am. This anguish-filled cry expresses a primal human fear—aloneness and abandonment. Jesus knew it was coming, as one by one his closest friends left him first in spirit (“Could you not pray with me even one hour?”) and then in body. Jesus’ cry in Gethsemane—“Let this cup pass from me”—was not about avoiding the pain and suffering to come. It came from the depths of Jesus’ humanity, a gut-wrenching terror of being hung out to dry with no one and nothing left to fall back on, of dying alone and abandoned. And on the cross the fear became a reality. Ellul.MoneyAndPower.83000Every human being’s worst nightmare come true. Alone. Abandoned. Lost.

My father’s favorite theologian, Jacques Ellul, once wrote a book entitled Hope in Time of Abandonment. Which is what Advent is all about. The heart of this hope is expressed in a line from one of my favorite hymns—“Alleluia! Not as orphans are we left in sorrow now.”0351=351[1] The promise and reality of redemption, that we are not alone, is throughout scripture. But so often it sounds like a platitude—“I am with you always,” “I will not leave you comfortless,” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Looks good on a plaque on the wall or on a bumper sticker, but when real life happens, the truth is in line with what a friend said to me once in the middle of a difficult time—“We come into the world alone and we leave the world alone.” Hard words, but true.

I was often challenged as a youngster to make a home for Jesus in my heart. For a five-year-old with a typically literal imagination, that didn’t make a lot of sense. I also heard a lot about God preparing a home for those who love God, a place in heaven after death. That didn’t interest me very much. But if we truly are not strangers in a strange land, if there truly is a home for each of us somewhere in this world of separation and alienation, that’s great news. A manger in a barn is not much of a home, but it has served as the centering touchstone for countless persons because a home is far more than a location or a physical structure. St Athanasius the Great[1]At the heart of Advent is the outrageous promise that we humans and the divine belong together. The fourth-century  church father Athanasius said “God became man so that man might become God.” There’s more in that claim than might be unpacked in a lifetime, but that’s the mystery that Advent prepares us for—a cosmic homecoming.

Constellations

I love the stars. Not as in “Dancing with . . .” or in Hollywood or Washington DC. I mean the stars in the heavens. The night sky in rural Vermont where I grew up, far from the glare of urban lights, was a source of endless wonder and entertainment. Part of the attraction of the stars was their sheer beauty and mystery, providing a glimpse of light-years past history; this was heightened by my love of the stories of Greek mythology. map1+[1]So many of the mythological heroes and heroines are up there—Cassiopeia, Gemini, Hercules, Leda the Swan, Pegasus, Andromeda, Orion (my favorite)orion-constellation[1]. I had a National Geographic star map of the Northern Hemisphere on my bedroom wall that showed the constellations in the night sky, traced from star to star as in the beloved dot-to-dot books of my earliest memories. I learned that, because of the tilt of the Earth, some of my favorite Northern Hemisphere constellations (like the Big and Little Dippers) could never be seen in the Southern Hemisphere and that folks “down under” got to see constellations (like the Southern Cross) that I would never see in Vermont. We never had a telescope (My First Telescope), but I spent many nights looking at the stars through my Dad’s hunting binoculars.

Doubt A Parable JP Shanley[1]In the first scene of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn begins his Sunday homily by asking “What do you do when you’re not sure?” He then tells the story of the sole survivor of a shipwreck, a sailor who finds himself floating with a few salvaged provisions in the middle of the ocean on a raft he’s lashed together from floating spars. Using his nautical training, he looks toward the night sky and reads the stars, sets a course for home, and falls asleep. But clouds roll in and block the stars for the next twenty nights. Lost_at_Sea_by_relhom[1]As his provisions dwindle, as thirst and starvation threaten, he begins to have doubts. Is he still on course? Did he set his bearings correctly in the first place? Was his reading of the stars accurate enough to get him home? Or is he doomed to a slow and lonely death in the middle of an unfriendly sea?

As a philosopher, I am comfortable with doubt and uncertainty—I actively seek to foster the habits of challenging “givens” and questioning “absolutes” in my all-too-certain students every day. Philosophy, I tell them, is the art of asking better and better questions, but has little to do with getting definitive answers. Once several years ago my oldest son, who was then in his middle twenties, told his stepmother and me at a restaurant lunch “I don’t think I believe in God. I’m an agnosticthank_god_im_agnostic_bumper_sticker-p128680539739240818en8ys_400[1].” To which I responded “Good. You’re too young to be certain about anything yet, let alone about God.” And I meant it. Certainty is vastly overrated. Because with certainty comes closure, and with closure comes a “Get Out of Thinking Free” card that you can play any time someone challenges what you are certain about. This attitude about certainty and closure predates my academic path toward philosophy; in truth, it is probably the most fundamental and hard-wired reason that I became a philosopher. I’ve been suspicious of claims to certainty my whole life, even while growing up in an atmosphere of religious absolutes and conviction.

But there are times in everyone’s life, including mine, when it would be nice to see a few fixed points, to be able to take a reading on the stars. There is a part of me, although seldom allowed to have the floor, that longs for a certainty shared with others, the reassurance of believing that we’ve got it right, that we’ve got a map or a blueprint that’s reliable. My parents and other respected authority figures gave me such a map when I was young. Here’s the map of the spiritual life, and here are the fixed points that you can always rely on when you think you’re lost and need to find your way home. The Church. The inerrant Word of God. The plan of salvation. Original Sin. Heaven and Hell.Heaven-or-Hell-heaven-hell-1600x1200[1] The Easter story. The Ten Commandments. Conservative values. I could have tacked this map on the wall right next to my constellation map; I suspect a lot of Baptist kids did. But it wasn’t very long before clouds covered my spiritual sky. I had no difficulty using the language of the spiritual map I had been given, and could at least talk a good game with others who, using regular sightings of our common spiritual stars and constellations, reported success in navigating their way through the sometimes stormy seas of the soul. But truth be told, I hadn’t gotten a clear reading using that spiritual map in years. Sometimes I wondered if I had ever set a good course using that map. Maybe the map I had been given is gloriously attractive and infinitely interesting in its detail,Middle-Earth-map_UK_800_600_mapa_terra-media[1] but false. Maybe it’s like the wonderful maps in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, fascinating and detailed guides to a world that doesn’t exist. The time comes when the map and accompanying directions have to be tested and either updated or discarded. Otherwise they become a lie.

That’s where I was eight years ago when I went to Minnesota on sabbatical, intending to write about coping with the absence and silence of God. Perhaps the time had come to be honest and throw the map from my youth away, in order to find another one unencumbered. But I’ve slowly discovered something curious and hopeful since then, looking once again with older, more experienced eyes, at my spiritual map. For the first time my spiritual night sky has become less cloudy, and I’ve been able to see a few stars. And although I’m in a very different part of the ocean than before, maybe even a different hemisphere, some of the familiar constellations are in view. Easter is still there. Scripture is there, but looking a lot different, bigger and more colorful, than I remembered. m13[1]And my favorite constellation—the Incarnation. It’s never looked so bright and beautiful. There are some new ones that I’d never seen before—Community, Daily Prayer, Silence, Listening—and some of the constellations on my old map are entirely missing. There are still plenty of clouds in my night sky, and I’m looking forward to maybe finding out what stars these clouds are hiding. But I’ve seen enough to know that I’m not lost, that my old map was more reliable than I thought, and that a spiritual sky map should never be laminated and hung on a wall. One should never laminate something that’s alive and growing.

As Good As We Make Them

The gospel reading for last Sunday was the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel. It seems appropriate to return there in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election . . .

It is a scene so familiar in our imaginations that it has become iconic. In films, on television, the subject of countless artistic renditions, we are transported back two thousand years. It is a beautiful, cloudless day. 453a34c850f8_sf_3Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have gathered in the countryside from miles around; some have walked for hours. On the top of a hill in the middle of the impromptu gathering is the man everybody has been talking about and has gathered to check out. He doesn’t look any different from any number of other guys in the crowd. In spite of the stories that seem to pop up everywhere this guy goes, you would not have been able to pick him out of a crowd. Then he opens his mouth, and the world is forever changed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

We don’t know the details of the setting, of course—the traditional images are evocations of centuries of imagination. Maybe it was a cloudy and windy day. Maybe these words were spoken inside someone’s home or a synagogue. Maybe they were shared in private only with a few intimate friends and confidants. Maybe the man never spoke these words at all and they are intended as a brief summary, written decades after the fact, of how he lived and called others to live. beatitudesBut the Beatitudes, the opening lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel account, are so beautifully poetic, so rich yet sparse, so gentle yet powerful, so all-encompassing and embracing that over the centuries they have seeped into the Christian ethos as the summary expression, as the “mission statement” if you will, of a religion and all it professes to stand for. In many ways the Beatitudes are as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm—and this is unfortunate. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. Rome-4They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which these words came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. 240px-TissotBeatitudesThroughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and consistently throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is driven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate.  Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitolTen Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. Because of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m intensely grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God?

An intriguing thought experiment, but ultimately the Beatitudes are not about transformed social institutions. They are about a transformational way of being in the world. The Beatitudes are far more than a beautifully poetic literary statement. They are the road map for how to carry our faith into the real world. The world we live in is no more naturally attuned to the challenge of the Beatitudes than was the world in which they were first spoken. Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyIndividuals infected with the energy of the Beatitudes are those whose responsibility it is to help transform reality. As Joan Chittister writes,

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, indexthe 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.

Or as Annie Dillard tersely puts it, God’s works are as good as we make them. The Beatitudes are a call to get to work.

What Do You Want From Your Religion?

About half way through the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.ray-and-terry

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.

Sometimes what we claim to want and what we really want are two entirely different things. Often our expressed desires for lofty sounding goals and achievements are, in reality, a cry for at least some sort of guidance on how to make it through our days and weeks with a modicum of our integrity and character intact. None of us comes into the world knowing how to live a good human life—all of us need as much help as possible. Last week I worked with my General Ethics students on an article with the attention-getting title “Does It Matter Whether God Exists?” that begins with a provocative quote from John Gray, an atheist philosopher:religions

In many religions—polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions—belief is of little or no importance. Rather, practice—ritual, meditation, a way of life—is what counts . . . It’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths . . . what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

Careful there, dude—I grew up with the “religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths” who you are stereotyping. But Gary Gutting, the author of the article who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, observes that a religious person need not respond to someone like Gray defensively or with outrage.gutting

It all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, then a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need.

Gutting’s comment reminds me of something I once heard a Jewish colleague say: “Judaism is the only monotheistic religion that one can be part of and also be an atheist.” What, I asked my predominantly Catholic juniors and seniors, could my colleague have meant by that? Although such a comment was outside the normal frame of reference for many of them, they realized that, despite typical preconceptions and assumptions, there might be reasons for placing oneself in a religious tradition that have nothing to do with God. Judaism, for instance, is a way of life for my colleague, providing the traditions, practices, moral guidance, and community support that every human being seeks, at least occasionally, as we construct frameworks of meaning and purpose around our lives.

There are also many groups of Christians for whom the Christian faith is about how to live a good and flourishing human life now; the texts and traditions of Christianity undoubtedly provide a great deal of guidance concerning how to do just that. And, as the atheist quoted at the beginning of Gary Gutting’s article provocatively points out, what one believes or does not believe concerning God need not be important for such people. sermon-on-the-mountI can (sort of) imagine, for instance, an atheist finding a great deal of direct guidance for how to live a good human life from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel without feeling obligated to sign on the dotted line concerning anything about God’s existence and nature. Such guidance, of course, can be found in all sorts of place, both religious and non-religious; one’s choice of which framework to adopt will depend largely on one’s history, personality, commitments both social and political, and simply where one finds oneself most at home.

But, of course, many persons of faith want a lot more from their religion than just daily guidance for how to live a life. Gutting continues:

But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death. If our hope is for salvation in this sense—and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, if depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

I have noted frequently on this blog my observation over the years that, for the majority of my students, the primary benefits of being a religious believer are “comfort” and “security about what happens after I die.” That’s certainly the religious world I was raised in. are-you-savedThe people I grew up with were obsessed with “being saved,” a salvation that had a lot more to do with what happens after I die than anything that might be applicable to how to live my life today and tomorrow. As I look back five decades and more on that world, I realize that even then I was far more interested in how the religion imposed on me applied to my daily life rather than what sort of mansion I would occupy when in heaven and what sort of harp I would be playing. Truth be told, heaven sounded pretty boring to me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend eternity there. I was much more interested in whether being a Christian could help me avoid bullies, find a girlfriend, and grow up to be at least a marginally well-adjusted adult.

These days I find myself thinking about atheism a lot, not because I’m thinking of becoming one (I tried that once—it didn’t take), but because the more I realize why my faith is important to me, the more I realize that these matters of importance don’t primarily rely on my believing anything particular about God, God’s nature, or what happens after I die. I don’t know what will happen after I die, and I spend a remarkably small amount of my time thinking about it, even though the amount of days I have left on earth are far fewer than the ones I’ve already lived.  Don’t get me wrong—I believe that God exists, that God is intimately interested in relationship with human beings, and that this requires something important of me. different-faithsBut I also believe that the values and moral commitments that are closely related to my belief in God are available to persons who are of a different faith than mine or of no faith at all. If what people of faith want out of their religion is only available to people who sign on to the very specific beliefs concerning God and more that define their religion, there is little hope for dialogue with those who do not share those specific beliefs. But if, first and foremost, what I want out of my religion is guidance for how to live a good human life now, then I am looking for the very same sort of guidance that billions of other human beings seek. That gives us a lot to talk about—regardless of what we believe concerning God.

They Will Never Take Our Freedom

Although I read incessantly, I don’t read a lot of magazines. The only magazine I currently subscribe to is The Atlantic—I appreciate the excellent writing and quirky features, but don’t exactly wait by the mailbox for each monthly edition to show up. Instead, they tend to pile up on the little table next to my side of the bed, waiting to be perused when I am between authors in my novel reading. I’m currently in one of those spaces, having just finished my fourth consecutive Arturo Pérez-Reverte mystery a few days ago and not ready to start a new, large reading project just a week before the semester starts. 394-They'll Never Take Our FreedomAccordingly, I started plowing through the three summer editions of The Atlantic that have accumulated on my nightstand since June. Inside the June edition, whose cover includes two-thirds of Donald Trump’s head peeking in from the right side announcing a lead article entitled “The Mind of Donald Trump” (an oxymoron if I ever saw one), I found this: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will—Here’s why we all may be better off believing in it anyway.”

Stephen Cave: There’s No Such Thing As Free Will

CaveThe article is by Stephen Cave, a philosopher who runs a “Center for the Future of Intelligence” at the University of Cambridge. His article is well-written and engaging—so much so that I suspect he may have had help with it. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. I have spent over twenty-five years learning to write in ways that make core philosophical issues accessible and interesting to non-philosophers—it ain’t easy. First, it’s important to clarify what philosophers usually are referring to when they use terms like “free will” or “freedom.”  Just before the final battle in his 1995 epic “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson’s William Wallace screams to the Scottish army that They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!

That sort of freedom, the kind enshrined in this country’s founding documents as “rights” that each citizen possesses and that must not be violated or taken away, is not what philosophers mean by freedom.

Instead, “free will” refers to the human ability to choose, for a person to deliberate between options and eventually choose, then act on one of the options, all the time knowing that she or he did not have to choose that option—decisionin other words, she or he could have chosen otherwise. This vaunted human ability to freely choose is, for many (including me), the fundamental and defining feature of what it means to be human. Stephen Cave points out that our legal systems, as well as our general beliefs concerning praise, blame, reward, punishment, and all things moral depend on our basic belief in human free will. And it is under attack—scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and just about everyone “in the know” have been trying to take it away for decades.

The “free will issue” is a go-to problem in all philosophy courses, the philosophical version of the divine foreknowledge/free will problem in theology. Just it is impossible to make room for free choice in a world governed by an omniscient deity, so in a world where everything that occurs is governed in a cause-and-effect manner by the physical laws of matter, there is no room for true human free will. Cave points out that at least since Darwin argued in The of Species that everything about human beings—including our vaunted reasoning abilities where the ability to choose is located—is a result of natural evolutionary processes rather than a mystical, magical, or divine “spark” that lies outside the physical laws of matter, illusionscience has reinforced the conclusion that whatever human consciousness and deliberate choice are, they are to be placed squarely in the material world. Making it impossible, of course, to squeeze out the special place we desire for choice. Our choices may “feel” free, “as if” they are up to us, but Cave pulls no punches in describing the truth about us:

The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

Experiments by psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that the brain’s neurons fire in new patterns causing a specific action before a person consciously “chooses” to act—indicating that my conscious “choice” is an illusion that actually doesn’t cause anything. nature nurtureDebates rage concerning how much a human’s actions are caused by “nature”—one’s hardwiring—and how much is caused by “nurture”—one’s environment—but there is general agreement that none of them are caused by conscious choice. We are determined through and through.

The ensuing discussion is often amusingly similar to conversations that couples considering a divorce might have: Should we tell the children, and if so, when? In the service of all truth all the time, some argue that non-philosophers and non-scientists should be made aware that free choice is an illusion and they should stop believing in it. Others insist that such a revelation would be damaging to the basic human’s commitment to morality, law, reward, punishment, and all of the other cool things that rely on our apparently mistaken belief that our choices make a difference and that we are responsible for them. My own classroom experiences indicate that it doesn’t matter. I regularly use a very simple thought experiment with my students at the beginning of the “free will” unit on the syllabus:

Suppose that in the near future a super-duper computer can read your brain and physiology sufficiently to predict the rest of your life, from large events to the minutest second-to-second thoughts and feelings, from now until you die. For a nominal fee you can purchase a printout of every event, thought, and feeling that you will experience for the rest of your life. Some printouts will be yards in length, while others will be very short. Do you want to see yours?

In a typical class of twenty-five students, no more than one or two students will say that she or he wants to see it. Why? Because even with direct proof available that the rest of my history is determined down to the minutest level—including my “free” choices—illusionI prefer to believe that my choices make a difference in my life and in the world around me. I prefer to embrace the illusion. It appears, in other words, that human beings are determined to believe that they are not fully determined.

On this particular issue I find myself swimming against the tide. I not only believe that human beings have the ability, at least on occasion, to make choices that are not entirely determined by their biology, history, and environment—I also believe that this ability is not an illusion. It’s real. The free will/determinism issue as contemporary philosophy defines it has its current shape because virtually everyone accepts a starting assumption—everything that exists is material stuff subject to inflexible physical laws. Given that assumption, the claim that human beings have the capacity to jump outside the limitations of matter and make choices that avoid the determinism of cause and effect makes no sense. But as I often tell my students, if the answers one is getting are unacceptable, change the question. If the ability to freely choose is fundamental to what a human being is, and if our current assumptions about how reality is constructed make no room for that ability, then perhaps instead of accepting that choice is an illusion we should challenge the assumptions that forced us to this acceptance. Be watching for “What Freedom Amounts To” next week, where I’ll describe a very different way to think about human choice!Horatio

Raising the Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Free Man of Faith

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

The day after . . . again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, Moe, and Curly

IT’S APRIL FOOL’S DAY–A PERFECT TIME FOR SOME IRREVERENCE!

One of my unexpected reading delights in the past few years has been discovering the writings of Anne Lamott. In her struggles with faith, she is equally intense in both her relentless pursuit of the transcendent and her irreverence. In Bird by Bird, she writes that “the mind frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colorectal theology, offering hope to no one.” The phrase truly inspires a picture worth more than a thousand words. I don’t mean to just pick on theologians, though; there’s plenty of colorectal philosophy, too. A Jesuit priest who was one of my professors and mentors during graduate school days once described logical positivism, the rigorously reductive philosophy of language that dominated philosophy in the English-speaking world during the middle decades of the twentieth century, as “mental masturbation.” I’ve been trying not to further develop the picture of Rudolf Carnap, A. J. Ayer, and Moritz Schlick in a Vienna Circle jerk, one that Ludwig Wittgenstein refused to join, ever since I heard the phrase.

My sense of humor tends toward non-sequiturs, irony, sarcasm, and (especially) irreverence. My comic heroes include Monty Python, The Three Stooges, just about everyone in The Blues Brothers, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and Gary Larson; I’ve frequently told my students that the day Larson stopped writing The Far Side  was one of the darkest days in the history of Western Civilization; Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show rivals it in darkness. Given that academics tend to take themselves FAR more seriously than any group of human beings ever should, hardly a day goes by at work without my having the opportunity to be irreverent. Nietzsche (a very funny guy) wrote that “the noble soul has reverence for itself.” My response is that the healthy soul has reverence for very little.

Humor is one of the best antidotes to an overly serious and somber attitude toward things religious and spiritual. I learned this, amazingly enough, from my Baptist minister father whose sense of humor I inherited. He was always quick to shine an irreverent light on religious smugness and pomposity, although I most often saw his humor in action in the privacy of our home. There’s very little humor in the Bible; Jesus is not reported as ever even smiling (let alone laughing), so far as I’m aware. I wrote recently about a great novel in which two characters have an ongoing debate about whether Jesus ever laughed:

Making the Truth Laugh

But we only get a cardboard cutout Jesus in scripture—to see him as a man, I think some irreverent thoughts. Given that we human beings are flawed, imperfect, and funny to our toes but have perfectionist delusions, irreverence is a universal humanizer.

I like to imagine Jesus and his entourage sitting around a campfire telling off-color jokes, or the disciples having a farting and belching contest. It’s a given that each of the disciples had some peccadillo or personal habit that everyone else laughed at and made fun of. Jesus nicknamed James and John the “sons of thunder”—they were flying off the handle and getting inappropriately pissed all the time. Some laid back disciple (maybe Thaddeus—we never hear about him) was always playing practical jokes on them just to piss them off. Philip was a klutz, Bartholomew was a slob. Andrew snorted when he laughed like Jeanne does, causing everyone else to crack up (as she does). Matthew wrote “Kick Me” on the back of Peter’s robe. Someone in the group (probably Judas) was always trying to get out of paying his share at a restaurant. Everyone was always attempting to get Thomas to believe something without saying “I doubt it” first. They didn’t get their halos until a lot later. If the Bible censors and editors centuries later hadn’t been so humorless, we would have found out about the thirteenth through fifteenth disciples, Larry, Moe, and Curly.

Can’t you just see Jesus mocking and imitating the Pharisees’ tones of voice and mannerisms when they weren’t looking? Talk about irreverent—this guy made vats of wine for his first miracle, ate meals with the riff-raff of the day, and popped balloons of self-righteousness every time he saw them. I’ll bet he set people up just so he could do it. If there wasn’t a lot of smiling and laughing going on, the Jesus caravan  wouldn’t have hung together for so long. Son of God or not, he still had to put his robe on the same way as everyone else.

If God doesn’t have a sense of humor, we are in big trouble (or I am, at least). I admit that there’s a lot about divine wrath and judgment in scripture and the tradition, but enough already. I take comfort in one of the few references to laughter in the Bible. Heavenly strangers visit Abraham and tell him that he, at 100 years old, and Sarah, a 90-year-old spring chicken, will have a son within a year. Now the two of them have been trying for a long time (70-75 years) with no luck. Sarah, on the other side of the tent flap, laughs at the news—well to be fair, the KJV says she “laughed within herself.” It was probably one of those “yeah, right” or “whatever” sniffs or smirks. But her “within herself” laugh was outside herself sufficiently that the visitors hear it and call her on it. And then she lies and says she didn’t laugh. At this point the perceptive reader says “Oh Geez—you’re in trouble now. Aren’t you aware, Sarah, that in the very next chapter your niece-in-law Lot’s wife is going to get turned into a pillar of salt for just looking in the wrong direction?”

But Sarah isn’t divinely fried, or turned into a warthog, or a pepper shaker. After a brief “no I didn’t,” “yes you did” exchange with the divine visitors, Sarah leaves and Abraham starts bargaining with them over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. But three chapters later, sure enough Sarah’s and Abraham’s son is born. And they call him Isaac—“laughter.” He’s grain of sand number one in the great nation that has been promised to Abraham which will number as the “sands of the seashore.” If Lot’s wife had laughed first, then looked, she would have been fine.

A Practicing Atheist

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted the following:

When I say I’m an atheist, what I’m saying is that my personal journey of education and introspection has brought me to that conclusion. It’s about me and my choices. If you take that as an insult, please realize that, although Christians in this country get preferential treatment, not everything is actually about you. I am not bothered by belief. I do not consider the existence of every church a personal insult. Please enjoy your privilege and stop making atheism about you.

My response: “From a progressive Christian, thank you.” Her post reminded me of something Simone Weil once wrote about atheism. I reflected on it in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

Simone Weil writes that “Atheism is a purification.” Not where I come from. No word or phrase was more mysterious or terror producing for a young Baptist boy than “atheist.” I certainly didn’t know any, nor did my parents, nor did anyone in my extended family, nor did anyone who attended our church. But none of us knew any serial killers, either. Apparently atheists were out there somewhere, running Hollywood, teaching in secular universities, and generally sticking their thumbs in the eye of what they denied the existence of. It wasn’t clear to me how an atheist could even stay alive. If God snuffed out Uzzah just for putting his hand on the Ark in the Old Testament, how did people who had the nerve to say “God doesn’t exist” manage to last? I came to suspect that atheists were mythical creatures like unicorns and Big Foot, until one day I heard my aunt Gloria, who had a very loud voice, whispering to my mother in the next room about the new high school science teacher. “He spends a lot of time teaching evolution; I’ll bet he’s a practicing atheist.”

Now that’s a very interesting concept—a “practicing atheist.” What exactly does that mean? Is that someone who is very serious about atheism, who has gone beyond the lazy “God doesn’t exist” verbal stage and is actually putting this stuff into action? Does one practice atheism as I practiced the piano as a child, in hopes of becoming a concert atheist? Is the “practicing atheist” an atheist in training, sort of a double- or triple-AAA newbie practicing and honing his atheist skills until he gets to the atheist big leagues? Does the “practicing atheist” try it out for a while to see how she likes it? I mean, I could be a “practicing” any number of things, like a practicing vegetarian. I could do it for a while, and even realize that it was good for me, but before long I’d just have to eat some meat. Given my general obsession with the “God question,” maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul, just as vegetarianism would be good for my bodily well-being.

Practicing atheism would put an end to creating God in my own image. I have known many gods in my lifetime, and every one of them is either a projection of myself or of the person(s) who introduced me.

  • A now silent God who stopped communicating directly with human beings several centuries ago, once the dictation of the divine word in print was finished.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language.”
  • A God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An arbitrary God whose ire will be raised by the consumption of meat on Fridays during Lent, but who does not particularly care about pre-marital sex.
  • An exclusively masculine God.
  • A God who is more concerned with the length of male hair and female skirts than with the breadth and depth of one’s spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose paramount concerns are one’s positions on sexual orientation, abortion, or universal health care.
  •  A God who micromanages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects, and oil spills.
  •  A God who is more honored by self-reliance than by compassion for those in need.

 And many more. As a practicing atheist I might still have anthropomorphic issues, but an anthropomorphic God would not be one of them.

Practicing atheism would be an effective antidote to any remaining obsession from my youth with what happens after physical death. We all sang songs about what a day of rejoicing it will be when we all get heaven. I don’t know any atheist hymns, so perhaps I should write one which draws my attention to now. As a child I thought that the only reason to become a Christian was to get an ironclad fire insurance policy from hell. We used to sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Maybe I should love this world that is my home, one that I only get to live in for a short while. This is the world I’ve been given.

Atheism would provide me with new tools to apply to the problem of suffering and evil. Once I stop wondering why God allows the innocent to suffer, the guilty not to suffer, earthquakes to obliterate thousands, and the world generally to operate contrary to my wishes, the landscape looks quite different. Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.

Atheism would make it much more difficult for me to seek false consolations for disappointments, difficulties, and perceived injustices. I am reminded, year after year, that a significant majority of my students, most of whom are parochial school educated, believe that consolation is the only real reason to believe in God. But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie. If my only response to human pain, mine or someone else’s, is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us,” then pretty soon I become incapable of even seeing much of the suffering around me. There are times when Albert Camus’ project in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “to see if I can live without appeal,” has to be my project. What if this is all there is? What if the only responses available to suffering and pain are ours? What if I don’t get to pass the buck on to the divine?

“Atheism is a purification” is not a call to become an atheist. Rather, for me a serious season of practicing atheism would serve as a purgative, a process of spiritual cleansing, eliminating loose vocabulary, sloppy habits, and lazy certainties which dull my spiritual sensibilities. If my Christian faith means anything, it means God in the flesh, incarnated in all features of this difficult, troublesome, exhilarating and precious world that is a divine gift. Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world. Practicing atheism can help. As Simone Weil writes, “Let us love this country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.”