Category Archives: hell

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.

A Halloween Frame of Mind

As a 60-year-old guy with no small children in my life, I don’t do Halloween. Often Jeanne and I celebrate the day by going to a late afternoon movie, followed by dinner, so we can be conveniently away during whatever time the parental units deem it safe for the children to be trick-or-treating. Halloween grinchI know that I sound like a Halloween Grinch, and there’s a certain amount of truth to that. I think Halloween is a generally useless and stupid holiday, although I participated in it fully in my youth and faithfully put in my time as a co-organizer of trick-or-treating in my house when my sons were young. I’ve been seeing Halloween stuff in stores since August and will be glad when today is over so miles of shelves can be cleared for the display of Christmas stuff two months before the day. Not—I’ve written about that before as well.

Get Thee Behind Me, Santa!

But thinking about Halloween puts me in a reminiscent mood about both persons and times long gone.

In rural Vermont, there was no walking from house to house for trick-or-treating. Our closest neighbors were at least a half mile away; accordingly, my mother logged 20-30 miles of driving every October 31 as my brother and I filled a grocery bag each with an amazing haul. This was long before the scares of razor blades and poison in Halloween treats—we collected unwrapped caramel apples and popcorn balls, maple sugar candy before it went on the market, freshly baked pastries, and more. candy cornPeople who gave only a candy bar or a little bag of candy corn were losers. Our haul filled several large bowls at home; despite my mother’s generally futile attempts at rationing, the Halloween proceeds usually lasted until close to Christmas.

Two unrelated issues caused the Halloweens of my youth to be fraught with cognitive dissonance. First, Halloween was my mother’s birthday. My mother was an “everyone else first” person by nature, and my brother and I took full advantage of her deference to all as the day was all about us rather than her. I’m having a difficult time scrounging up any memories of celebrating her natal day, a cake, a present, anything—my brother and I were selfish little bastards, apparently. Jesus pumpkinSecond, I had a sneaking suspicion that observing Halloween each year was putting me on the fast track to hell. We regularly heard at Calvary Baptist Church, where we spent most of every Sunday and Wednesday evening, that Halloween was the devil’s holiday, that participating in an evil holiday that celebrated pagans and demons and witches was a slap in Jesus’ face, and so on. Jesus-WeenBut I was never worried, because my mother—a very devout conservative Baptist—was even more dedicated to common sense and her sons having as much of a normal childhood preacher’s kids could have. So we did Halloween, but we did not trick-or-treat at the houses of anyone who went to our church.

It may be due to his usually being on the road during the fall, but I have only one Halloween memory related to my father—it was the year that the communists tried to take the holiday over. In the middle of October during one of my early years in school—probably second or third grade—the teacher announced a new plan for trick-or-treating. Instead of gathering the usual tonnage of candy, this year we were asked to “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF,” hitting people up for money instead of sweets, money that would be sent to help children in need around the world. In art class we made boxes out of pint milk containers to hold the money; there would be a blow-out party (with candy, presumably) at school in the evening where we would turn in the proceeds. UNICEFI dutifully made the container and innocently reported the new twist on Halloween to my parents at home. Dad went ballistic. I was too young to know much about politics, but I discovered during my father’s rant that among other things, “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” was a sign of creeping socialism as well as the UN’s ungodly push toward one world government, and a sure prophetic glimmer of the beast from the Book of Revelation. For all we knew, they might be imprinting a “666” on us when we brought in our money on Halloween evening. halloween and christmasTrick-or-treating for UNICEF was apparently more ungodly than taking “Christ” out of “Christmas.” Needless to say, that year we trick-or-treated for ourselves as was our custom and did not go to the party.

If I needed such evidence, I became fully aware of just how much the world had changed the first time I encountered Halloween in a city. Halloween 1988 found Jeanne and me with my nine and six-year-old sons in Milwaukee where I had just started my PhD studies at Marquette University, living on the upper floor of a duplex in a reasonably safe urban neighborhood. As the Monday holiday approached (my memory is not that good—I just looked it up on Google), newspapers and television newscasters announced that for purposes of safety and community solidarity, trick-or-treating would occur on the previous Sunday afternoon, October 30, from 3:00-5:00 PM. city t or tI completely understood the reasoning, given yearly reports of after-dark Halloween mishaps and tragedies across the country, but as Jeanne and I walked a few blocks of our neighborhood with Caleb and Justin in broad daylight along with a hundred or so other families, on a Sunday afternoon that wasn’t even Halloween, I thought “this is really fucked up.” What would my childhood Calvary Baptist Church pastor have said about my language and about participating in pagan activities on the Lord’s Day afternoon? Probably not too much, since he regularly spent his Sunday afternoons worshiping at the altar of NFL football on television. To each their own pagan activity!

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.

BonhoefferNext semester I will be team-teaching a colloquium entitled “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” with a friend and colleague from the history department–it will be our third time teaching the course. In previous semesters, my students’ expectations and pre-conceptions concerning the connections between moral commitment and religious faith have been 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 last summer 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?

Fast and Slow

It is not often that Pentecost and Commencement Sunday fall on the same day. I wrote a couple of years ago about how they might tie together . . .

When my sons were young, one of the most important distinctions in their estimation, when food was the issue, was “is it fast or slow food?” In other words, how much of my important schedule is this eating event going to take up? Fast food—McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Burger King if going out; fish sticks, hot dogs, sandwiches if staying in—was obviously preferred. Slow food—any place where you have to sit down and wait if going out; anything involving more than five minutes of preparation time and that you would not be consuming in front of the television if eating in—was acceptable only if given sufficient warning. Going out to a slow food restaurant required preparation, including which coloring books to bring, psychological calming techniques, a consideration of the expected guest list, and so on.

The first slow food event that Jeanne and the boys ever attended together—Thanksgiving dinner 1987 with my parents and me at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming—was such a slow food event that Jeanne finally walked into the kitchen to find out why the hell the food was taking so long. My sons were impressed that any human being would have the nerve to do such a thing. They were not the only persons impressed that night, though. Jeanne still speaks on occasion about how remarkable it was that these two kids, eight and six, managed to keep themselves occupied without fidgeting or complaint for a much longer period of time than any human being should be required to wait for food. That’s only because they knew how to prepare.

A couple of years ago, in his greeting to the thousands of people gathered for Providence College commencement at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, the President of the college gave one last reading assignment to the graduating seniors. “You must read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,” Father Shanley said. In this book,  Kahneman distinguishes between two types of thinking that all of us come equipped with as human beings. Fast thinking, on the one hand, is the intuitive, almost unconscious way that we tend to make quick, snap judgments about events, people, choices, and even our life paths. Relying on emotion, memory, and hard-wired rules of thumb, much of our daily existence runs on fast thinking autopilot. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is much more deliberate, conscious, attentive, self-aware, and, well, slower. One of the book reviewers on Amazon.com’s site for this book writes that “The human mind is a hilariously muddled compromise between these incompatible modes of thought.”

Most of us rely on fast thinking most of the time, even though we know that such thinking is often inaccurate and shot through with bias and prejudice. The question is, Why do we do it? At least on the surface, the answer clearly is “It’s easier.” Slow thinking laboriously checks the facts against the appearances, critically evaluates information, but is extraordinarily lazy and easily distracted. Our slow thinking self is more than happy to turn things over to fast thinking simply because it conserves time and effort. Why take the time to consider the relevant details and nuances of a political candidate’s positions when it is so much quicker and easier to label her as a “conservative,” a “liberal,” a “socialist,” or a “tea-partier” and move on? Why expend the effort to actually get to know this new colleague or neighbor when it is much simpler to label him as “one of them” and go to lunch?

When the stakes are higher, when one’s spiritual health and growth are the issue, the fast and slow distinction becomes far more than an interesting topic of conversation. Is the Christian life more like fast or slow food? Is it more like McDonald’s or the Capital Grille? The Christian narrative is full of fast food events–Pentecost, Christmas, Easter–instant gratification events at the heart of belief that are so filling and satisfying that one could imagine that this is the exclusive food that fuels the life of faith. Each of us has had our own fast food, Big Bird moments, times when the veil between the mundane human and glorious divine is pierced, even for a moment, in some unforgettable way. What more does one need?

Plenty. Will Pentecost be enough to sustain those who experienced it when, weeks or months later, they are alone in chains waiting for torture or execution? Will your most spectacular Big Bird moment from the past be enough to get you through the stress of parenting, the tragedy of loss, a divorce, a lost job, an illness, or simply the daily grind? If slow food is analogous to delayed gratification, then much—probably most—of the life of faith is slow food. Waiting, attending, struggling, just being, all the time wondering if you are ever going to get food again. That conversion experience, that healing, that moment that you vibrated with the presence of God are all distant memories. And one cannot eat memories.

Our fast thinking selves, applied to the spiritual life, decide that an occasional trip to the McDonald’s of faith is good enough. A few milestones, both doctrinal and personal, become the sole sustenance of faith, bolstered by some quick and easy rules of thumb and prescribed ways of behaving. Go to church, say your prayers, maybe read your Bible on occasion. Our slow thinking selves are willing to concede that this has to be enough, because what else is there?

The answer lies in some of the food analogies that Jesus uses in the Gospels. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “He who believes in me shall never hunger.”  “Whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again,” he tells the Samaritan woman at the well. The message of Pentecost completes the Incarnation story—God, in the form of the Holy Spirit is in us. The source of life, the food we need, is not in the fast food of events, of churches, nor is it in the slow food of waiting interminably for something to happen. It is in the regular, daily supply of nourishment that is in us “a well of water, springing up into everlasting life.”

Many of the hymns related to the Holy Spirit—“Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers,” “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”–all appear to be petitions for God to show up, to pay attention. But Big Bird hasn’t gone anywhere—she is in us all the time. These texts call us to attentiveness, to remembrance, to awareness that we have been provided with all the food we need. It’s just a matter of consuming it, because it is never used up.

Four years ago, during my one visit to Paris for a conference, I walked the city as much as time would allow. And for once I saw first-hand that a common stereotype is true. Parisians really do walk down the street holding a cell phone to one ear while carrying a baguette under their arm. Tearing off and eating a piece while walking down the sidewalk is as habitual to them as breathing. Maybe that’s how the life of faith should be. We don’t have to go shopping for the bread of life at either a fast or slow food establishment. It’s with us all the time. Take a bite. It’s really good.

Adepto Ex Meus Visio

Jeanne and I are headed to Florida this evening to spend a week with family and friends. We’ll be staying with Caleb and Alisha, our tattooing legend son and daughter-in-law. I’ve learned a lot over the past several years about tattooing as an art form, a process that reveals a lot about Caleb’s and my relationship. At a writers conference several summers ago, I was seated on the sofa in the common area and licking my wounds after getting worked over by the writer in residence. My pocket vibrated. “Why is anyone calling me at a writer’s conference?” It was Caleb.

“Dude.”

“Hey, Dad—it’s me. Got a question for you.”

“You know I’m in Minnesota, right?”

“Yeah. This’ll just take a minute.”

“What’s up?”

“I’m giving Dante a tattoo, and he wants one on each shoulder. The first one says ‘Servant to None.’ We’re trying to figure out what to put on the other shoulder.”

“Well it’s got to be something that ends with ‘all’ or ‘everyone.’ How about ‘Loved by All’?”

“That’s not going to work.”

“Hated by all?”

“Nah. We were thinking ‘Feared by All,’ but thought you’d maybe have something better.”

“‘Feared by All’ sounds good.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

My son, the tattoo artist, relies on me, his college professor Dad, as his “go to person” whenever words and phrases are involved as well as his answer man for any question whatsoever, all at a moment’s notice. Sort of like a 24-7 lifeline on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

I have never doubted Caleb’s artistic ability, from crayons through tattoo needles, but just about everything else about our relationship has come into question, such as our inability to connect emotionally. Were we too different, too similar, both of the above, none of the above? Was he too much like his mother? I interpreted his lack of respect for school work and books as a direct affront to his egghead, bibliophilic father. Why didn’t he cry when his grandmother, his favorite person in the world, died of cancer years ago when he was eight? Where did his barely submerged anger come from, and why couldn’t I do anything about it? Why did he resist becoming a real part of his new stepfamily so tenaciously? Years later, why did he piss away two years at a top ranked art institute, majoring in beer drinking then flunking out?

“Dude.”

“Hey Dad, it’s me. Got a minute?”

“A couple—what’s up?”

“I’m designing a tattoo for this guy, and he wants it to say ‘Get out of my face.’ How do you say that in Latin?”

“In Latin? Why?

“Because he wants it in Latin.”

“You know Latin’s a dead language, right? Why does he want it in Latin?”

“I guess he thinks it looks classier or something.”

“Let me think about it. I’ll call you back in ten minutes.”

I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t translated any Latin since my dissertation almost twenty years ago. I didn’t remember “Get out of my face” in Ovid, Virgil, or Julius Caesar. So I did what any college professor not wanting to let his son down would have done. I Googled “English to Latin translation” and had it in a couple of minutes.

“Hey guy, it’s me. Got a pen and paper?”

“Just a second. Okay, shoot.”

“Adepto ex meus visio.”

“Can you spell that?”

“A-d-e-p-t-o e-x m-e-u-s v-i-s-i-o.”

“A-d-e-p-t-o e-x m-e-u-s v-i-s-i-o?”

“Right.”

“Thanks, Dad. Talk to you later.”

Caleb spent his high school years with his mother and I didn’t see him much. He loaded up on body piercings and tattoos. When he and Alisha, his wife of two months, moved from Colorado to Rhode Island eight or nine years ago, looking for a fresh start, and settled into our half-finished basement with two cats and two dogs, I didn’t know what to expect. His work ethic was impressive. Alisha brought out a tender and emotional side of Caleb I’d never seen. Who was this guy? One day he opened up about how tough his years with his mother had been. In response to my wondering why he never asked to come back and live with Jeanne and me, he said “I didn’t think you’d want me.”

Recently he told me about a conversation he had with someone who has been at my house frequently but doesn’t know me very well.

“The last two times I was there your Dad was playing Christian music. Is he becoming a religious fanatic? A Jesus freak or something?”

“Dad plays music he likes wherever it comes from. He likes classical music and Led Zeppelin too. He’s definitely not becoming a religious fanatic. Trust me, I know my Dad.”

And I’ve come to know Caleb too. I embrace the man he’s become (virtually—we don’t do hugs). It seems like just yesterday that he bought out his partner at the tattoo shop and launched his solo career in skin design, but it has actually been several years. From the outset, Caleb’s shop has reflected the man. His hero Leonidas from the movie 300“TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL!”—looms on a poster over the tattoo chair, where Caleb turns a canvas of flesh into art of astounding beauty and creativity, with a delicate touch and grace bordering on the other-worldly. That’s my son.

“Hey Dad”

“Caleb, that butterfly tattoo you did is unbelievable.”

“Oh, you like that one? I just put that one on the website a few days ago.”

“It’s incredible—the detail, the flowers, the color. With the way you did the shadows under the stems and the left wing, it looks like the butterfly’s flying off of her skin. It’s gorgeous. What’s that darker area over to the right?

“That’s her butt crack.”

I’m so proud.

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.”

ghost of jesus

The Ghosts of Jesus Past

My birthday is in four days (the big 6-0), so I’m doing a bit of thinking about where I’ve been and where I might be going . . .

living stonesToward the end of a particularly lively and deep seminar with my “Living Stones” adult Christian education group after church a few Sundays ago, I asked the group “so what makes us think that we are anything special, that Episcopalians have a better angle on God than anyone else? What makes us think that our way is any better than anyone else’s, Christian or otherwise, other than that it is our way?” Very quickly one person replied “it isn’t any better.” And everyone else in the group of fifteen or so proceeded to affirm this answer, either with positive head nods or similar verbal replies. We are all seekers after God, but other than the matter of “comfort zone,” there is nothing that makes our chosen framework for that search any better than the way of other Christian group, or the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or any other way for that matter. Oh my. So it has come to this.

Earlier in the discussion I had told the group the story of a conversation that Jeanne and I had with our good friends Michael and Suzy a few years ago as we traveled with them and their boys to some central Florida attraction. I don’t remember any of the details of the conversation other than something Michael said. ecclesiamHe’s a Catholic theologian, and offered that “I fully expect to see my Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters in heaven.” No extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”) for him. Those would have been burning-at-the-stake words for any Catholic theologian not many centuries ago; truth be told, the Baptists I grew up with would not only have wanted to virtually burn Michael (Protestants have done such things in the past), but would also have considered Michael as on the fast track to perdition simply because he is Catholic. I agreed with Michael, and had for some time, but to hear my Episcopal friends take his broad ecumenism without blinking as a “no brainer” was revealing. I had mentioned toward the beginning of seminar that my own spiritual journey and process of growth over the past few years has, among other things, been a slow process of putting some very loud and intrusive ghosts to rest. ghost of jesusBut by the end of seminar I could still faintly hear them rolling over in their graves. I could also hear, more distinctly, different ghosts altogether. The ghosts of Jesus past.

The fundamentalist, evangelical Baptists I grew up with had their own version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, although no one in the group knew Latin. We didn’t need to, because we knew the King James Bible backwards and forwards. The Bible is littered with verses that we took to mean that it is difficult to get into heaven, and those who don’t find the way are going to hell.tattoo

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.

There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

And we sang hymns and contemporary tunes every Sunday that doubled down on this exclusivity.the blood

What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Jesus died so I might live.

fire insuranceThese all lead to Fire-insurance policy Jesus, a Jesus whose whole purpose was to provide a way of escaping the wrath of a pissed-off God the Father and the eternal flames of hell. And, not surprisingly, we were convinced that our small group, and the few other groups who believed exactly as we did, had nailed it. We possessed the one effective policy—and all of the others were pretenders and fakes that would have no cash value on judgment day.

I was taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine—a doctrine that has confounded and confused the greatest philosophical and theological minds for the past two millennia—but in reality, it was divine Jesus who got all the play. human and divineI wanted to know what Jesus was like as a kid my age, but all I got was one story from years 2-30 about Jesus from the gospels, a story in which the twelve-year old Jesus is polishing his halo rather than acting as twelve-year old humans do. Grown-up Jesus never laughed, never had fun, was always serious, was always doing things that real human beings don’t do (like performing miracles and rising from the dead), wasn’t married, didn’t have kids—very difficult to relate to on a human level. So I came to think that despite the doctrine, Jesus in truth was a divine being pretending to be human for a certain amount of time, just so the human beings around him would be a little bit more comfortable. Jesus wearing a human Halloween mask was unapproachable, impossible to resonate with, and yet was the person in whom I was supposed to trust and believe, the guy who was my only ticket to eternal happiness.

I stopped believing in Halloween Jesus a long time ago, and I blame him for my immediate attraction as an adult to stories in which Jesus is acting like a normal, limited human being rather than God in the Flesh or the Savior of the World. I wrote on this blog a week or so ago about just such a story.imagesJMFY4ONJ

Mister Perfect has a Bad Day

If the Incarnation means anything, it means that God became meat (carne = flesh, meat). That crass equivalence reminds me that this is not a story of an ethereal and unapproachable bridge to an unknown God, but rather a story of divine love so extreme that all of the trappings of divinity are dropped in exchange for becoming human. It makes it a lot more possible to believe in a continuing Incarnation—God in us—if the model and paradigm was just like us and still was a worthy bearer of the divine.

Putting a stake through the heart of Fire-Insurance Policy Jesus was a lot more difficult and has taken a lot more time. He’s like a vampire—every time I think he’s done for, he pops up somewhere else in a slightly different form. hellfireBut putting Halloween Jesus in the grave has helped. What is the Christian faith really about? Escape from eternal damnation or a transformed life and working to establish God’s kingdom on earth now? With the help of mentors, conversations and books over the past several years I have strongly landed on the latter option. So much so that I can truthfully say that I don’t know exactly what will happen when I die, and it doesn’t matter.

I am not a God-believer because it guarantees me an attractive afterlife. I believe in God because it is the only framework within which I find the empowerment and direction to avoid cynicism and despair. And, sure enough, it is not only Christianity that provides such a framework. I am a Christian because it is my history, my heritage, my home. cloudsBut I can imagine a Muslim, a Jew, or any other God-believer finding similar strength and empowerment in their own histories and traditions (not so sure about the atheists, though—food for thought!). The Living Stoner who said that there is nothing special or better about our (my) way of doing things was absolutely right—as Marcus Borg writes, “there is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience.” This has nothing to do with doctrine, dogma, or intellectual affirmation. But the ghosts of Jesus past are not happy.

Stranger in a Strange Land

I am not Catholic. I have been firmly ensconced in Catholic higher education for close to thirty years. This occasionally leads to some cognitive dissonance, as I observed a bit over a year ago . . .

DDAs I stood in line at the campus Dunkin’ Donuts, I was truly thanking God that it was 9:15 on Friday morning. Not because of the usual TGIF thing, although Fridays are generally fine. In my life, 9:15 on Friday morning is a great time because it means that I am finished with my weekly 8:00 appointment at the Concannon Fitness Center, where my personal trainer, Kevin the Red-Haired Nazi, puts my now-fifty-eight-year-old body through experiences I could not have survived fifteen years ago. “The usual coffee (medium decaf black with a shot of caramel—a shot, mind you, not a swirl) and a turkey sausage sandwich on an English muffin,” I say to the young lady behind the counter. “No meat today! It’s Friday!” some disembodied voice shouts from the little office on the side. “Shit!” I thought. turkeys and chickensThat shouldn’t include turkeys—as a friend of mine once said, chickens and turkeys are just plants with weak root systems. “Then I’ll have a veggie egg white flat” (although I really don’t want one). “It really sucks to be a non-Catholic on a Catholic campus,” I commented to the young lady as she swiped my card. “Tell me about it,” she replied as she returned it.

I guess it must not suck that badly, since I’ve been doing it, first as a PhD student then as a professor, for more than twenty-five years. No one could have guessed, given my background–especially me–that I would spend my professional life with Catholics. I grew up in northeastern Vermont—we called it “the Northeast Kingdom.” Although my town was only forty miles or so south of Quebec, and there was undoubtedly a French Canadian (hence Catholic) presence all around me, I did not meet a Catholic, or at least anyone presenting themselves publicly as such, until my early adult years. My world was hard-core Baptist, fundamentalist-the-Bible-is-the-inerrant-Word-of-God-evangelical-everyone-who-isn’t-like-us-is-going-to-hell Protestant to the core.

86c4a4e10bc26942a049fe6aba0f2458

Lyndonville, VT

I was a preacher’s kid—my Dad was the founder and President of a Bible school, for God’s sake—literally. I knew there were Catholics around—they had a stone church across town that was much more impressive than the community center my church met in. I had no more idea of what went on in that stone church on a weekly basis than the ancient Romans knew about the secret meetings of the early Christians. But I knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t anything like what was going on in my church, so they were all going to hell. Actually, it seemed that just about everyone other than my nuclear family, my extended family in upstate New York and in western Pennsylvania, and the fifty or so people who came to my church was going to hell. The God I believed in was pretty picky.

Once I met and married Jeanne, a Catholic from the cradle who grown away from the Catholic Church in her early adult years, I learned a great deal more about Catholicism than I really wanted to know. stsebssmallerDown the street from our apartment in Milwaukee, the first place our “blended family” lived together, was Saint Sebastian’s Catholic Church, where we made friends first with the organist, then the priests. Before long Jeanne was cantor once in a while on Sunday morning, sang the occasional funeral, I subbed a few times on the organ, and I began thinking that this Catholic stuff was kind of cool. I had fallen in love with liturgical worship through being exposed to, then joining, the Episcopal church several years earlier and didn’t really see that much that was different here. The Dean of the cathedral where I was confirmed Episcopalian had said several years earlier that he became a priest because he liked to play “dress up” and called the Episcopal Church “Catholic Lite.” Saint Sebastian’s, along with the intelligence and earthiness of my Jesuit professors at Marquette University where I was earning my PhD, led me to believe that Catholics were pretty normal after all. cathedral_headerI knew that technically speaking it was against the rules for a non-Catholic barbarian to receive communion in a Catholic service, but I am used to the Episcopalian attitude that everyone with a pulse is invited to communion, and the priests at Saint Sebastian’s made a point of letting me know that I was welcome at communion, even though they knew I am not Catholic.

Christian-Brothers-University-Logo(1)I had no idea how “out of the box” this actually was. My first teaching position after graduation was at a small Catholic university in Memphis, where I innocently and ignorantly went with my no longer Catholic wife to communion on occasion. In truth, my internal resonance with liturgy probably made me more in tune with things Catholic than Jeanne’s years of working past her Catholic upbringing made her, but as the scriptures say, God looks on the heart and we look on outward appearance. The outward appearance of a known non-Catholic barbarian receiving Catholic communion was too much for one of my colleagues to take. Soon I received an anonymous note in my campus mailbox consisting of a Xeroxed page from a local Catholic parish Sunday bulletin which, in pious and sympathetic words, essentially said that “if you are non-Catholic, we don’t want to share our communion with you.” “Fuck you, Bob,” I thought in my best non-Catholic language (I knew exactly who had dropped the “anonymous” note in my mailbox). “I don’t want to go to communion if you are there anyways.”PC

But I learned my lesson. When a couple of years later I was hired at my current Catholic college in New England and we managed to escape from Memphis, I asked the chair of the department that had just hired me, a Dominican sister, about what would happen if I as a non-Catholic went for communion at the chapel on campus. She replied with what I have come to recognize as a typical response on this matter: “I would have no trouble with it, but there are some on campus who probably would.” Given that those “some” probably included a few of the geezer Dominican priests in my new philosophy department, I decided that discretion was the greater part of valor and chose not to try it out. I never have received communion on campus in nineteen years.

And that’s been fine. I’ve even made a point of attending mass once in a while and being one of the handful of people among hundreds not to go to communion. Given that many students show up unaware that “non-Catholic Christian” is not an oxymoron, it’s a good “show-and-tell” moment. But the issue arose unexpectedly seven years ago when, while on sabbatical for four months, I found myself at daily prayers several times a day with a bunch of Benedictine monks. During those months I was experiencing a great deal of internal spring cleaning and scouring; my spirit was reviving and I was discovering inner resources I had been unaware of my whole life. As I gradually awakened to a new perspective, AbbeyI realized that not sharing communion—something that had been hit or miss with me for years—with these new Benedictine friends was becoming a problem.

One Saturday at dinner I asked one of the older monks, a physicist who had taught at the university attached to the Abbey for decades before his retirement a few years earlier in his middle seventies, what I should do. “Wilfred, I would like to receive communion at the Abbey,” I said, “but I’m not Catholic and I know that it’s against the rules for me to receive. What do you think?” “I’ll tell you what Kilian (an even older monk at the next table) always says,” Wilfred replied. “Our policy is ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” “But I just told you.” “And I forgot what you said.” Abbot JohnThe next day I queued up to receive communion after several weeks of sitting in the pew while others went to the front. “The body of Christ,” the Abbot said to me with a huge smile as he held the host in front of me. “Welcome.” Over the past seven years I have returned to the Abbey on many occasions, usually unannounced. Each time after the first morning, noon, or evening prayer I attend, Kilian seeks me out and gives me a big hug. “Welcome home.” That’s exactly how it feels.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, as his French countrymen and women were swept up into the violent storm of the Wars of Religion that followed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, Michel de Montaigne had a simple observation to make about our ludicrous human pretensions to know the mind of God. MontaigneAs Protestants and Catholics regularly killed each other in the name of orthodoxy and right worship, Montaigne wrote that

Nothing is so firmly believed as whatever we know least about . . . For a Christian it suffices to believe that all things come from God, to accept them with an acknowledgement of His holy unsearchable wisdom and so to take them in good part, under whatever guise they are sent. . . . It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scale without their being trivialized.

Good to remember, every time we get worked up about who may or may not be part of our group, or get worked up about those who get worked up about such things. I’m reminded of a song I heard many years ago in church, a song with an annoying tune but an important text: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy.” And oh, no meat on Fridays in Lent on campus isn’t that bad after all—it means that the soup of the day in the cafeteria will be New England Clam Chowder. Awesome.clam chowder

the other

I Was a Stranger

A few days ago in a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. If the raccoons are undocumented immigrants, it is not difficult to imagine what lessons we are to draw from the exterminator.

This made me think about an essay about strangers I wrote a bit over a year ago . . .

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the 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.

In Matthew 25 can be found 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 not long ago, 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

Give Us Barabbas

easter cantataAn annual musical fixture of my Baptist upbringing was the Easter Cantata. Each year on Easter evening our small choir would perform a contemporary setting of the Passion and Easter story from Last Supper through the Resurrection. My aunt Gloria was the choir director, several of my relatives sang in the choir from my pre-teen years on, and from about age twelve through high school I was the piano accompanist for this annual event. We weren’t that good and the quality of the music we performed was even worse, cranked out in some evangelical music factory on a regular basis in a sad mockery of the superhuman weekly bachcantata-composing efforts of my musical hero, Johann Sebastian Bach, in 18th century Leipzig.

The cantata score each year as well as our performance was completely forgettable, but I was reminded the other day of a striking feature of each cantata. During the portion portraying Jesus’ trial before Pilate, one male would sing the part of Pilate (my cousin Greg one year), another would be Jesus (my cousin Greg a different year), and the rest of the choir was the crowd singing “Release unto us Barabbas!” “Away with this man!” “We have no king but Caesar!” and “Crucify him!” I remember clearly the strange dissonance of these lyrics sung vigorously in a building dedicated to the worship of the man being condemned to death; even though the temptation was to consider the crowd as evil sinners, give us barabbasI also remember wondering if there might have been more than a few well-meaning folks in the group calling for Jesus’ crucifixion who actually thought they were doing the right thing. Sometimes “Give us Barabbas!” seems to make sense.

I think we find ourselves in one of those times. Regular readers of this blog know that I have been wondering about how Christians who are also Republicans fit all of that together and, most recently, why so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump. Then this past Sunday, Donald Trump gave the convocation address at Liberty University, the self-proclaimed largest evangelical Christian university in the world.

Donald Trump at Liberty Universitytrump at liberty

Interviews with students afterwards revealed strong support for Trump because of his perceived honesty, directness, outside-Washington status, business experience, and the perception that he had the best chance among the Republican candidates to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump’s inability to identify the location of his favorite Bible verse or to even quote it accurately, his apparent lack of any commitment to traditional Christian values beyond lip service, and the fact that a conservative Christian leader described Trump recently as “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States” seemed to matter little, if at all. One student said “I know a lot of people speak of his ego and how that’s not a Christian value — but I honestly think his ego is what gets things done. I’m okay with an egotistical president. He wants to be the best, and I think for that reason, he gets things done.” When faced with the opportunity to judge a candidate according to the values he and his chosen university profess, this student chose to punt. “Give us Barabbas.”givenness

At the gym later in the day I read an essay from Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection The Givenness of Things that shone some new light on these matters. In “Awakening,” Robinson reflects on a contemporary phenomenon that runs rampant through our current public and political discourse—a professed “Christianity” that looks and sounds like anything but Christianity.

No doubt as a consequence of a recent vogue for feeling culturally embattled, the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic. On one hand I do not wish to overstate the degree to which these two uses of the word “Christian” are mutually exclusive, and on the other hand I think it would be a very difficult thing to overstate how deeply incompatible they can be.

For many people, in other words, “Christianity” has become a tribal label, a marker of “us” vs. “them,” the very sort of tribalism that currently infects and threatens to permanently damage our political and social structures. Robinson notes that when the hallmarks of being a Christian are reduced to “are you in or out?” very un-Christian consequences are inevitable.saved and unsaved

The simple, central, urgent pressure to step over the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and after this the right, even the obligation, to turn and judge that great sinful world the redeemed have left behind—this is what I see as the essential nature of the emerging Christianity. Those who have crossed this line can be outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciations of anyone else.

How is it, I have been wondering recently, that professed Christians can support candidates and policies that are, by any stretch of the imagination, anything but embodiments of traditional Christian values? If Marilynne Robinson is right, it is because contemporary Christianity often is not a way of life or a commitment to the principles of a historic and beautiful religion—it is rather a way to facilitate what are often the worst tendencies in human nature and behavior.

People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he or she might not also shout, “Give us Barabbas!”

muslims are terroristsAll of this sounds rather harsh and judgmental—also not congruent with Christian values. So be it. I grow weary of hearing the name of my faith used in the service of un-Christian and inhumane policies and actions, in much the same way that sincere and serious Muslims must tire of hearing their ancient religion’s name used as a placeholder and justification for terrorism and murder. The truth of the matter is that Christianity as a lived faith runs contrary to much of our deepest, natural human wiring. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Tribal Christianity, on the other hand, appeals to the worst in our nature. As Robinson points out,

It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear . . . If the claims to Christian identity we hear now are rooted in an instinctive tribalism, they are entirely inappropriate, certainly uninformed, because in its nature the religion they claim has no boundaries, no shibboleths, no genealogies or hereditary claimants.

As Robinson writes, fear and the desire for identity and a place to belong can cause people of good will and intentions to choose and accept things that are in truth the very opposite of what they claim to believe in, even with the real thing right in front of them. But fear need not rule the day.voting

We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and predilections. The haunting fact is that we are morally free. If everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, it is only probable—but never necessary—that some of us join in.