Category Archives: hell

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!

book-books-heaven-library-read-Favim.com-120949[1]

My Best Friends

I sat down in my usual aisle seat on one of my infrequent airplane flights not long ago, and immediately dug out one of the half-dozen books in the backpack containing my current reading obsessions. This is my custom when flying, because I want to let my neighbors know that I am busy, I am deep in thought, Introvert[1]and I am not the least bit interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger, just one of the many effective tricks of the introvert trade. This behavior, along with the fact that the book I am reading is by some obscure author and the fact that I have a gray ponytail, usually provide sufficient clues that one tries to engage me in conversation at their peril.

On this particular day, however, the window seat to my left was occupied by a guy my age who apparently never got past the class clown stage. At the conclusion of the stewardess’s usual spiel about what to do if we have to land in water or lose cabin pressuresafety-demo[1], we were asked to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff. I, of course, read all of the way through the stewardess’s instructions and continued to read as people all around me turned off their phones, I-pods, and other electronic paraphernalia. “Hey!” my neighbor shouted down the aisle at the retreating stewardess while pointing at me. “Make him turn his book off too!” He repeated the exact same routine at the end of the flight when we were instructed to turn our electronic devices off for landing. Very funny—but he had a point. Of the two dozen or so fellow passengers within my field of vision throughout the flight, I was the only one reading a book.

9780312429980[2]Which reminds me of another flight several months earlier. This time in the middle of the flight I was deeply engrossed in reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. As the woman seated in the seat across the aisle one row in front of me returned from a journey to the facilities, she noticed what I was reading. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” I replied. “So do I!” she exclaimed as she pulled her KindleKT-slate-02-lg._V399156101_[1] out of her purse.” “I’m reading it too! Isn’t that weird?” I thought something that an extrovert or a rude person might have said out loud: “It would be a weird coincidence if you were actually reading, but looking at words on a screen is not the same thing as reading.” As I’ve said many times to many people over the past several years, when they invent a Kindle (or whatever) that feels and smells like a real book, I’ll buy one.

On occasion in our early years of being together, Jeanne would observe how few close friends I had (and have). This, coming from a person who is in the 1% most extroverted beings in the universe, was not an entirely fair comment. But one time she added “it doesn’t matter, though, because your books are your friends.” That not only is a fair comment, but it is entirely true. It’s too bad you can’t be friends with a book on Facebook, because that would increase my Facebook friend count from its current 568 well into the thousands. Several years ago I assisted my carpenter/general contractor uncle (actually I was more like his indentured servant)301189_269422219756617_1084268382_n[1] at my house as he tore out a wall in a corner-bedroom-soon-to-hopefully-be-a-library for the purposes of building a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcase in its place. “That’s a hell of a lot of books!” he laughed as he looked at the stacks of dozens and dozens of books on the floor for whom the bookcase would be a new home. “Have you actually read all of them?” (haw, haw, haw). “Actually I have,” I truthfully answered. “And these are less than a quarter of the books we have, plus an equal number or more in my office at school.” End of that conversation.

I suppose there is something to be said for the inevitable move from the printed word to the e-word, but whatever that something is, I’m not going to say it. There are few activities I enjoy more than organizing books on a bookshelf, roughly categorizing them according to an intuitive scheme that I am only partially conscious of. But when Jeanne is looking for a book that she read several months ago, prior to the last two book reorganizations, I can zero in at least on which two shelves of our multiple bookcases at home the book lives. When our basement, after two and a half years of sucking money out of our checking account, was finally finished the first furniture event was deciding which books should go on the bookcase in the new reading corner. I decided on the category “During- and post-sabbatical books roughly in the spirituality range that have been  meaningful to me (and occasionally to Jeanne) over the past six years.”

Moving those books downstairs opened up various possibilities for new groupings upstairs, more or less like planning the seating arrangement at a sit-down party with well over a thousand attendees. Who would like to talk with whom? Will charlesdickens[1]jodi-picoult[1]Charles Dickens mind sitting next to Jodi Picoult? (Charles probably would mind. He can sit next to George Eliot and Jodi can hang out with Pat Conroy). Would Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong get1216[1] along with Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister?df66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] (Yes). Who might the Pope like to sit next to?—I haven’t decided yet, but I’m thinking perhaps either Marcus Borg or Rowan Williams. Would it make more sense to seat Doris Kearns Goodwin next to David McCullough, or would the party benefit more by having the historians on different shelves? (Separate them).There is a distinct visual attractiveness and interest to a well-arranged bookcase. Tall and short, thick and thin—the appearance of books is as varied as their contents.

plato-2[1]aristotle3[1]My planning of the party in my philosophy department office has always been less creative, with chronology the order of the day across the shelves of my four large bookcases. But as I move in four years worth of accumulated books from my former director’s office, I’m rearranging the shelves to make room and am thinking that it’s time to mix things up. Plato must be sick of talking only to Aristotle by now (they’ve been disagreeing for over two thousand years) and would probably enjoy conversing with William James220px-Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006[1] or Richard Rorty.Thomas-Aquinas[1] I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have a great time sitting down with Friedrich Nietzsche. And if Aquinas or Augustine sits down with Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, all bets are off!

Many years ago, shortly after we met, Jeanne bought me a paperweight that occupies a prominent place on the desk in my philosophy department office. It contains the following attributed to Descartes: “Reading books is like having a conversation with the great minds of the past.” Indeed it is. Which brings me back to where I started. I cannot enter the world of electronic books because real friendship—with books and with people—is a multi-sense experience. Visual, olfactory, tactile. I can be friends with a book, but I cannot be friends with a digital screen. I could, presumably, load every book I own into a Kindle and carry my friends with me wherever I go. But my Kindle-books would no more be my friends than the 10,328 “friends” that an acquaintance of mine has on Facebook are really his friends. I don’t know what will happen to my books when I die; amazingly my sons are not competing to get them. But in my version of heaven my friends will be with me. No friend left behind.

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneWith the end of the current semester, we have finished the second academic year in our beautiful and impressive still-new Ruane Center for the Humanities. On the west side of the stone entryway 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—his 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 have been embedded all semester with my students as we explored 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 spent our last week 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. I asked my seminar students to consider, then discuss, letters from prisontwo passages in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge in their intellectual notebooks and an on-line discussion forum.

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.

“The time of Christianity is over.” These words confused my students to say the least—“I am shocked that a minister of God could say such a thing,” one of them wrote. 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 from death camp chimneys. As unsettling as this passage was for my students, the second passage from Bonhoeffer shook them to their core.

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? A number of students observed in their notebooks how sad they were that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I commented, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different than 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!

A couple of weeks 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.

oil change

In a Nutshell

John 3 16

 

Sports fans old enough to remember the 70s and 80s will recall that a regular occurrence at baseball or football games either in person or on television was, when the camera panned the stands, to see a person—often wearing a colorful fright wig—holding up a large homemade poster board sign with a cryptic reference that made sense only for initiates: John 3:16. John 316I often imagined the confusion that many might have felt at this ubiquitous, almost subliminal communication, especially in a pre-Google world. John 3:16? What does that mean? But for those in the know, it was no mystery, for John 3:16 is the address of perhaps the most familiar of all Bible verses, the first one (followed by hundreds more) that I learned as a young Baptist boy.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

In our fundamentalist, evangelical world, the whole gospel was summed up in this verse, often followed by its less quoted companion John 3:17:

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

It really does have it all—a God of salvation rather than condemnation, of love rather than judgment, the incarnation, and—most important in the religious world of my youth—the promise of eternal life, which we interpreted as going to heaven and avoiding hell. It really is the gospel in a nutshell. Really. gospel in a nutshellI remember a crafts event during summer Bible camp when we inserted the text of John 3:16 in tiny print rolled up like a paper towel inside the two halves of a walnut shell which we then glued together with the end of the John 3:16 roll sticking out of a convenient slot. When completed, the text could be rolled out and admired, then snapped back in like a window shade.

Typically, but unfortunately, the textual context of this gospel in a nutshell was usually ignored. John’s gospel is strange and (for me, least) somewhat off-putting. It was written last of the four gospels, at least twenty years later than Matthew and Luke, perhaps thirty years later than Mark. The Jesus of John often sounds more like a theology professor than the no-nonsense man of few words and mighty deeds in Mark’s gospel. In John chapter 3, Jesus is visited secretly at night by Nicodemus, setting up one of the strangest conversations you’ll ever hear.

laurenceNicodemus, described by John as “a ruler of the Jews,” was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—a significant player in the religious and political structure that Jesus was clearly challenging. For me Nicodemus will always be the bearded and aging Sir Laurence Olivier as he played the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s  Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus undoubtedly comes by night because he does not want his colleagues to know of his fascination with Jesus. It’s sort of like John Boehner checking in with President Obama in the middle of the night for budget-making advice—Boehner wouldn’t be able to live it down if word got out. Nicodemus gives Jesus an opening which Jesus takes by saying cryptically “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We Baptists took this to mean that “unless you accept Jesus into your heart as your personal savior, you don’t get to go to heaven” (although Jesus doesn’t say this), but the “eternal life” business isn’t what catches Nicodemus’ attention. Taking the “born again” line literally, he wants to know “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born”? Debates were raging in Jesus’ world between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether resurrection of the dead is possible—Jesus and NicodemusNicodemus, familiar with those debates, thinks Jesus is taking a position. But he’s not. He’s talking about something else entirely.

As the conversation continues, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the strange story from the history of the children of Israel wandering in the desert that was the focus of our first reading this morning from Numbers. In response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and their penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”   bronze serpentApplying the story to himself thousands of years later, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Which sheds a whole new light on the gospel in a nutshell passage just two verses later. Jesus is not talking about crawling back into your mother’s womb, nor is he talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about importance of what we choose to look at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that human beings are creatures who make pictures, then over time come to resemble the pictures they have made. And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. Two years ago when standing in this pulpit I talked about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” a tale about a secluded New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hung some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.” Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_4-26-03In the valley there is a legend that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.”

Ernest, a young man born and raised in the valley, was obsessed with the story of the promised great man his whole life, spending hours per day staring at the Great Stone Face and sharing the villagers’ disappointment as numerous visitors failed to live up to expectations. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime. Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to them all, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and is telling us, that the possibility of transformation and renewal is right in front of us—but our attention is focused elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that John 3:16 does not require us to do anything but believe. No deeds need to be performed, no special words need to be said, no special prayers need to be offered, no sins need to be confessed. Just believe. I spent many years trying to figure out what I needed to do to gain God’s favor—I suspect I’m not the only one in the room who has tried to figure this out. As it turns out, belief is about focusing my attention on the right thing. Not on my shortcomings and failings, nor on my strengths and what I think I have to offer that God might be able to use. lookJesus’ message to Nicodemus is “don’t act—LOOK.” In our consumer society we want solutions that we can make our own, that we can add to our list of useful things we have consumed. But Simone Weil writes that “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” The gospel in a nutshell.

Nicodemus’Michelangelo_Pieta_Firenze conversation with Jesus clearly had an impact; we see him two more times in John’s narrative, once when he reminds his brethren in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, the second time when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial after the crucifixion. He did not drop everything he was doing and start following Jesus, but he did begin to see things differently. As we travel the Lenten path we would do well to wonder the same things that Nicodemus must have wondered about. Where do I usually focus my attention? What would it mean to shift my gaze toward something different? What would it mean to stop looking at the shortcomings, failures and sins in my own life and the lives of those around me? What would it be like to stop staring a few inches in front of me as I sleepwalk through my days and weeks and look up? What difference would it make if I looked at the promise of life rather than the inevitability of death? The bronze serpent lifted in the wilderness. The Son of Man hanging on a cross. Both are iconic images of God’s love and forgiveness, promising that new life can be ours now, that the kingdom of God is available now, and eternal life begins now. All we need to do is look.

Holy Family Values

The first Sunday after Christmas in the liturgical year is always “Holy Family” Sunday. In anticipation, here’s what I was thinking last year about what life in that particular family must have been like.

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

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

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

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

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

images[2]

Wake Up!

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to observe a colleague in class, something I get to do with junior, non-tenured faculty as a program director on a regular basis. images[2]The topic of the lecture was various aspects of post-modern philosophy, a topic that promised to stun all those in attendance, me included, into soporific silence. But my colleague used PowerPoint and YouTube masterfully to provide illustrations of his basic post-modernist point—contemporary human beings have become so disconnected from their surroundings and from each other that many of the signs that uniquely mark human existence have been lost.

11170767_800[1]A clip from the 2004 British zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” that has become a cult classic illustrates the point. Shaun, an electronics store employee with girlfriend problems, no respect at work, deadbeat friends and no direction in his life, leaves his flat one morning to walk a few blocks to the local convenience store for a Coke and an ice cream cone. As he shuffles the round trip in a half-aware stupor, he fails to realize even momentarily that the convenience store is empty except for a corpse in the aisle and the streets are becoming more and more filled with staggering, half-rotted zombies.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUCqPxfpMCQ

There are literally no differences between this unaware person who is completely disengaged from his life and a zombie. And this, the post-modernists tell us, has become the human condition.

Sounds like a good time for Advent, whose call to us is the same as Paul’s call to the church at Ephesus: “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” This rising business has been an issue for me for as long as I can recall. One of my earliest memories is pretending to sleep in the back of the family car while riding the fifteen miles or so home from Sunday night church. It was a strange experience. In one way, I wanted the ride to last forever, since when I got home I’d be going to bed and as soon as I got up the next day I’d be starting a new week of school. Really, though, I remember the underlying emotion during that ride as fear. the-rapture[1]I was afraid I was going to die and go to hell. I was afraid Jesus would come back and I’d be left behind. I would miss the rapture. I’d pray and pray and pray for Jesus to save me, for me to be “born again” in the way that I was sure everyone in my family, everyone I knew, was but I was not. It was supposed to be easy—just ask Jesus to forgive your sins, trust in Him, and you were in. But somehow in my four or five-year old self I knew it wasn’t working.

So every Sunday night, as a natural follow-up to the meeting-concluding “altar call” at the end of the service (even though no “unsaved” outsider had darkened the door of the church in recent memory), I would have my own altar call curled up in the corner of the back seat. My biggest fear actually wasn’t going to hell—imagesCAIDT6GCit was that the rapture would occur and my whole family would disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving me and every other “un-born-again” person behind. This haunted me. If I came home on the bus after school and my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be in the house, my first thought was that she’d been raptured. I felt alone even when with lots of other people, because they all had something I didn’t have—they all belonged and I didn’t.

I got over my rapture-phobia at some point in my adolescence. It’s a good thing, because otherwise yesterday’s readings for theimagesCANGF52X first Sunday of Advent would have scared the shit out of me. “But about that day and hour no one knows . . . two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” I’ve often said that Advent is my favorite liturgical season; I love its call to centeredness, to watchfulness, to expectation, its hymns and its purple. But these texts, apparently intended to scare us into straightening out our crooked ways, are disturbing. Fundamentalist minister and author images[7]Tim LaHaye and others have made millions cashing in on such fear in his Left Behind book series and accompanying paraphernalia.

Assuming for a moment that Advent isn’t about scaring the shit out of us, what are we really being called to consider with such texts? Something Paul says to the church at Rome is helpful. “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep . . . the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” WAKE UP!!! in other words. The default human condition so often is to sleepwalk through our days, months and years. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard memorably captures the challenge of Advent:

pilgrim-tinker-creek-annie-dillard[1]There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

The divine word of Advent is that big change is coming. I’m about to do something totally out of the box. “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead.””Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Will we even notice?

Bagpipes and Cats

Today is Saint Andrew’s Sunday (which happens to fall this year on the actual Saint Andrew’s Day). This essay is in honor of the patron saint of Scotland, as well as my friend Marsue, who today will celebrate her last day of five years as priest at Trinity Episcopal Church before beginning a well-deserved retirement.

Although I am a philosophy professor by trade, I believe William Shakespeare’s body of work is more insightful about my favorite philosophical topic—human nature—than anything the Western tradition in philosophy has to offer. imagesThe Merchant of Venice is a case in point. Greed, money, love, friendship, ambition, honor, racism, forgiveness—all are on display in this masterpiece. In the dramatic Act Four court scene, Shylock insists that he be allowed to take a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio, as the contract that Antonio freely agreed to guarantees if Antonio is unable to repay the loan he has taken from Shylock. Antonio’s friends have gathered sufficient money to pay Shylock three, four, even ten times the amount that Antonio borrowed, but Shylock insists on the pound of flesh. When the defense demands to know why Shylock (who everyone knows is a money-grubbing Jew, after all) insists on the peculiar letter of the contract rather than more money than he could have expected, Sbagpipe-1hylock’s response is both cryptic and illuminating.

Some men there are love not a gaping pig; some that are mad if they behold a cat; and others, when the bagpipe sings…cannot contain their urine.

People have strange preferences and dislikes. In other words, Shylock says, I don’t need to explain why I want the pound of flesh rather than the money. I just want it, and the law says I can have it. People are like that—we like some things, dislike others, and no further explanation is necessary. End of story. Not really—a loophole discovered at the last moment leaves Antonio with his skin and Shylock in disgrace,

But Shylock’s point stands. Our personal likes and dislikes frequently are indefensible—yet they define who we are. I’ve written in a previous post about my obsession with penguins

http://freelancechristianity.com/2013/09/25/well-dressed-birds/

and my inability to explain this obsession other than to say “I like penguins.”Penguins in love Jeanne has a similarly intense obsession with Holstein cows. Shakespeare’s choice of example in Shylock’s observation is inspired—he chooses a couple of things about which no one is neutral. It’s possible that someone might not care one way or the other about penguins or cows, but no one is neutral about bagpipes or cats. You either love them or hate them.

Bagpipes: Over the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to scrape two decades worth of rust off my organ skills and play at services, weddings and funerals on occasion. noackorgan8-2013One afternoon while practicing for an upcoming service that included “Amazing Grace,” I experimented with various settings on the pipe organ until I achieved a sound somewhat similar to bagpipes, without the grinding, scary elements–call it “Bagpipes Lite.” I used it at the service and received so  many positive comments that I’ve found a reason to use that setting just about every time I’ve played since.

Hitchcock,_Alfred_02I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equaled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig. Alfred Hitchcock

 

In the calendar of saints, November 30 is St. Andrew’s Day. Marsue, the rector of my Episcopal church chooses to celebrate St. Andrew’s Dayimages 2 every year on the First Sunday of Advent (the first Sunday after Thanksgiving), even if November 30 doesn’t fall on a Sunday. This is her prerogative, but St. Andrew is not a top drawer saint and Marsue doesn’t similarly celebrate St. Peter or St. John or St. Anybody Else yearly on Sunday. Marsue does this because St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and she is a lover of bagpipes. St. Andrew’s Day gives Marsue the opportunity every year to import bagpipe_pda bagpipe player to start the service by scaring the shit out of everybody as she winds the best up in the back of the church and then processes. I heard once that when a new, very loud trumpet stop on the organ at St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in Manhattan was used at a Sunday service for the first time many years ago, a woman in the congregation was so shocked by the unexpected noise that she had a heart attack and died. I hope this does not happen on some future St. Andrew’s Sunday at Trinity Episcopal in Pawtuxet.

Some are inspired by the otherworldly sound of the bagpipe—others think something else is going on, as 2013735-59654_bugs_bunnyBugs Bunny does when he ends up unexpectedly in Scotland.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xo1q1_my-bunny-lies-over-the-sea-scene_fun

“How many of you like bagpipes?” I asked my after-church Adult Christian Education seminar after the St. Andrew’s Day service? Half enthusiastically raised their hands.” How many hate bagpipes?” The other half expressed their opinion just as vigorously; one of them commented “I always vow that I will never again come to church on St. Andrew’s Sunday, but I always forget!”

Bagpipes—you love them or you hate them. images.3A regiment of Scottish soldiers became known as the “Ladies from Hell” or the “Devils in Skirts” during World War I, not just because of their enormous bravery and fighting spirit, nor just because they wore kilts into battle. They were led into battle by soldiers playing an instrument that both looked and sounded as if it had been dreamed up and constructed in some deep, dark circle of Hell that Dante forgot to tell us about. I’m sure that many soldiers on the enemy side were unable to “contain their urine.”

The Irish gave bagpipes to the Scots as a joke. The Scots still haven’t gotten the joke.

Cats: I learned something very interesting the other day on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”04brenn_CA0 (a Saturday noon tradition and the source of much of my current events information). Recent research indicates that domestic cats believe that their owners (people, fellow inhabitants of the house) are large, mostly hairless cats who are useful primarily because they have somehow figured out how to use a can opener. For those who have or have had cats in their lives, this is not a surprise.

In any group of more than five people, ask “How many of you like cats?” Half will raise their hands. “How many of you hate cats?” The other half will raise their hands. And cats know the difference instinctively. cat rubbing legA cat will pick the most dedicated cat-hater out of any room, go directly to her, and immediately start rubbing against her legs. To the cat hater the cat says “You don’t like me? Fuck you—I don’t give a shit. Let me leave a bunch of cat hairs on your pant leg to remember me by.” To the cat fans the cat says “Whatever. Do you think I’m here for your amusement?” Cat haters want to know why the hell cats think that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason. Cat lovers find it amusing and cute when cats decide that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason

Cats are low maintenance. Whenever Jeanne and I leave for a day or two, extensive coverage for our three dogs has to be arranged. The safe window for leaving the dogs alone and unsupervised is about five hours. AtmpphpfkKNbwfter five hours, all three of them think “I guess nobody’s ever returning” and all hell breaks loose, beginning with tipping over wastebaskets and relieving themselves in inappropriate locations. Cats are different. With sufficient cat litter, food and water, a cat can be left for a month with no problem. Upon return, the cat will look at its people and say “Oh, were you gone?”

There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. Their habits are random and individual. tumblr_m7mfonbU481qz582yo1_500My last cat, Spooky, was an introvert extraordinaire but would at least once per evening make a royal appearance in whatever room people were gathered to make a slow, always counter-clockwise stroll through the room, then leave without comment. Dogs are obsequious—cats are not. Dogs need human affection and approval to assuage their natural canine insecurity—cats have no such insecurities. Whether a person loves or hates cats reveals a great deal about the person. I was pleased to find out on yet another Facebook personality quiz the other day that liberals prefer cats and conservatives prefer dogs.

I am a cat loving hater of bagpipes. So sue me.

Myths and Stories

I spent two hours of seminar last Friday with twelve honors freshmen enjoying the wonders of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source of many of my favorite stories as a child. I was so taken with ancient mythology that I read it in secret at times I was supposed to be reading the Bible. The seminar reminded me of one of my earliest posts on this blog a couple of years ago–how stories shape our lives.

Some of my favorite stories growing up come from Greek and Roman mythology. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was one of my regular reading companions–sort of like a mid-twentieth century Ovid–so much so that my parents must have replaced a torn and worn out copy with a new one at least three times. What’s not to like? Action, violence, sex—they were better than comic books! The Olympian deities are gigantic projections of human beings, with all of our strengths and shortcomings, likes and dislikes, jealousies and kindnesses, massive egos and even more massive insecurities. Human beings in these stories, if they are smart, look (usually unsuccessfully) look for a place to hide when the deities start throwing their divine weight around, as the fallout frequently lands on unwitting and innocent mortals. Yet occasionally mortals are able to manipulate the blundering gods and goddesses by offering the right sacrifice, stroking the right part of a divine ego, making deals that the less-than-omniscient deities fail to recognize as guaranteed to end in results that will thwart their purposes. I think the main reason I took four years of Latin in high school was simply because it gave me to opportunity to be immersed deeply in the ancient myths. I spent fourth period senior year with Ms. Thomson and one other Latin geek translating large portions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—nothing better.

My mother used to occasionally try to get me to put down Edith Hamilton and pick up my Bible. But I knew the Bible stories backwards and forwards from the hours and days spent in my home away from home, church—I’d even memorized a lot of the dialogue and plots of these stories (in King James English, of course). My mother worried that I wasn’t paying sufficient Baptist homage to the Bible stories as opposed to the pagan Greek stories. When she couldn’t pry me away from Edith, she would say “you know, of course, that these are only stories?” Opposed, that is, to the stories in the Bible, which are true, meaning that they are factual reports of things that really happened, not stories at all. As a good son, I paid lip service to the distinction that my mother, out of concern for her heretic-in-the-making son, was insisting upon.

But I never bought it. The stories in the Old Testament (by far the most interesting Bible stories to a young kid) were just too much like the Greek and Roman myths for me to make a sharp distinction. God in the Old Testament is just as arbitrary, whimsical, loving, nasty, powerful, and petty as the various Greek deities. He gets into arguments and debates with various mortals and sometimes loses. He sometimes gets into a snit and goes silent, while at other times you just wish He’d shut the hell up and leave people alone. If a skilled psychologist sought to identify all of the various, conflicting personalities of God in the Old Testament, I’m sure they would be at least as great in number as the residents of Olympus. The “truth” of the Bible stories for me did not depend on whether they “really happened”—they were true because they rang true in a deep place.

At a very young age, for instance, I resonated with Jacob in Genesis; he’s still my favorite character from the Bible. As the younger of two sons, I identified with Jacob’s preference for his mother and for hanging around the house rather than going out hunting and killing things, something my older brother did with my Dad. Jacob’s ability to regularly outsmart and manipulate his doofus older brother Esau rang true, because I was sure I could get my equally challenged doofus older brother to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was sure that if Baptist fathers gave special and exclusive blessings to oldest sons, I could get my older brother to hand over his blessing in exchange for a can of soup. Jacob is persistent and smart, but he’s also a conniver and occasionally has a very difficult time being truthful and transparent to himself and others. He loves his family, but some of them more than others. He’s courageous at times and a total chicken at others. He wants to know God, but wants to write the script according to which that knowledge will unfold. Every time the divine breaks through in a vision or dream, Jacob immediately wants to nail it down and contain it by naming it. In other words, looking back, my original attraction to Jacob makes a lot of sense, because he’s a lot like me.

A couple of years ago, when I read Kathleen Norris’ definition of  “myth” in Amazing Grace as “a story that you know must be true the first time you hear it,” I was jerked up short. I knew this definition to be true the first time I read it. In ethics classes with nineteen to twenty-one-year-olds who are predominantly survivors of twelve years of parochial education, I lean heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight that we human beings are “story telling animals”—we understand ourselves and each other by telling stories. Through the stories we tell, we make sense of our past and do our best to recreate the world by telling better and better stories projected into the future. We are lived stories, in the middle of a “never-ending story” with themes and characters that we catch only brief glimpses of. At the outset of The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a rabbi who confesses to a young listener that he’s old, his memory is failing him, and all he can do is tell stories. But, the rabbi concludes, “It is sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories.”

If my mother were here (and how often I wish she were), I’d try to convince her, with scholarly support from Plato through Nietzsche to Rorty, that my childhood conviction was right, that the stories from ancient mythology and from the Bible are true in the same, human affirming and life defining ways, mirrors of what we as human beings are and suggestions of what we can hope for and perhaps become. I’d end with “Q.E.D., Mom–What do you think of that?” And she’d reply, “That’s wonderful, honey, but the stories from the Bible are really true.”

the other

I Was a Stranger

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea nymph and Acis, the son of a sea nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

Yesterday’s passage from Matthew 25 is the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform the other day, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats