Category Archives: hope

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished a year and a half ago. Our most recent transformation was a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended not long ago. We have finally turned it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

Our library room has one large interior wall containing several dozen family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship almost twenty-nine years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display is the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success.

VM Ruane 8I have a new book under contract, to be a reality early next year–something I’m very excited about. I have been blessed with a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-five of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Not long ago I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

A year or so ago, Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

A More Plausible God

I concluded early in my career as a philosophy professor that there are many problems in philosophy that cannot be solved—at least not as they are traditionally fashioned. Consider, for example, dualism—the popular theory that claims that human beings consist of two entirely different things: matter and something else. body and soulThe body, in other words, and something else. This something else, which is usually called the “soul” or the “mind,” is not physical, although dualists are hard pressed to say what this something else actually is. Dualism also has a very difficult time accounting for the obvious fact that the human body and mind interact constantly—something that they should not be able to do if they are substantially different. Rene Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition, when pressed to explain how two different substances can interact with each other eventually said “I don’t know—they just do.”

I have been thinking about a different philosophical problem over the past couple of weeks as I start considering the two General Ethics classes I will be teaching in the fall. Although the question of how a good and powerful God—a “perfect” God, in other words—can allow the suffering, violence, and pain that human beings and other living things are subject to in our world is not a question that fits seamlessly on the syllabus of an ethics class,just perfect I know that the question will come up. It’s difficult to avoid the problem of evil in a classroom filled with students who have, or at least the majority have, been taught in church and parochial education that God is perfect. I’ve included the problem of evil in dozens of courses over the past twenty-five years and have come to the conclusion that it can’t be solved—as long as we insist that we know the characteristics of the divine. But what if our insistence on God’s perfection is misguided? What if, in other words, we need to consider a different personality description than the one we have traditionally been saddled with? Are there more plausible ways to think about God?

In a November 2012 contribution to “The Stone,” a recurring New York Times column focusing on philosophy, Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony argues that there is a simple adjustment to the traditional, theistic conception of God as perfect that will solve the problem of evil. Stop thinking of God as perfect. HazonyHazony cuts to the chase quickly in his brief column:

Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done . . . I’d start with this: Is it really necessary to say that God is a “perfect being,” or perfect at all, for that matter? As far as I can tell, the biblical authors avoid asserting any such thing. And with good reason.

Hazony goes on to argue that the whole idea of God as a Perfect Being comes much later to theism, when Christian thinkers tried to bring the biblical text in line with the Greek philosophical tradition, in which folks like Parmeniproblem of evildes and Plato conceive of the divine as perfect. But this was a misguided project, since “you can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously.” In other words, and as usual, it’s the philosophers’ fault.

I often frame the problem of evil as a series of claims that are logically incompatible:

  • God is all good (omnibenevolent)
  • God is all-knowing (omniscient)
  • God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
  • Evil exists

The first three claims are fundamental to traditional theistic belief, while the truth of the fourth claim is self-evident to anyone who is the least bit observant of our surrounding world. Logically, all four claims cannot be true simultaneously. Blake's GodPick your favorite three to double down on, and the fourth has to be false. Which sucks, because any committed theist who is also an observant human being wants to affirm all four claims.

Heroic philosophical and theological efforts have been made to solve the problem of evil; the most obvious (but for many, the most disturbing) tactic is to stop thinking of God as a bundle of perfections. What if God is not all-knowing, all-powerful, all good, or any of the above? Hazony suggests that we ask a prior question: Where did theists ever get the idea that God is perfect in the first place? A careful look at seminal biblical texts indicates that such a conception is not to be found there. I will beConsider, for instance, God’s revelation of the divine name to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus. God says I am that I am, at least according to most English translations. That’s a name consistent with an immutable and perfect nature. But, Hazony points out, that translation comes from the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew text into Greek already showing the influence of Greek philosophy on translators and interpreters. The better translation from the Hebrew of the divine answer to “What is your name?” is I will be what I will be, an imperfect verb tense that indicates incompleteness, process, and change. Which would explain why the God of the Jewish scriptures seems so imperfect, human, arbitrary, and so unlike the perfect deity many of us were taught to believe in. The ancient Israelites did not believe in such a God.

So if the God of Exodus and the Hebrew scriptures is not a bundle of perfections, then what is he/she/it? Hazony suggests that this God is exactly what the various ancient texts, particularly the Psalms, point toward:

The God of Hebrew scripture is meant to be an embodiment of what is, of reality as we experience it . . . It is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith: we hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.God hope

God as a promise and a hope, rather than a perfect Being—that, obviously, would be a game changer. Hazony suggests that early Christian philosophers and theologians imposed Greek philosophical categories on theistic belief because they feared that an imperfect God would not attract many followers. Instead, theists have inherited a God spoken of in sweeping idealizations of perfection, a conception whose relationship to the world in which we actually live is impossible to imagine. Traditional theism is losing ground in many parts of our country and the world; as Hazony advises at the end of his column, “surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.”

zebra

Being a Fanatic

As the Friar men’s basketball and hockey teams start their conference playoffs, I’m reminded of why I’m a fanatic in the first place, something I wrote about exactly two years ago . . .

Sunday morning kneeling at the altar rail as the communion assembly line does its thing is not a great place to be having less-than-holy thoughts. Up past midnight the night before, up at six this morning, I could think of dozens of things I’d rather be doing than being in church. The communion procession approached from my right–“The body of Christ, the body of Christ, the body of Christ . . .” I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be, I thought. I am so unprepared for the discussion group I’m leading after church. I hope someone has something interesting to say, because I sure as hell don’t. My buddy Bruce, one of the morning’s chalice bearers along with his wife Cathi, approached from the right with cup in hand. “The blood of Christ, the blood of Christ, the blood of Christ . . .” go friarsI looked up as Bruce lowered the cup to me. “Go Friars!”

Bruce gets it. Eucharist celebrations come and go—I could celebrate every day if I wanted to (I don’t). But the Providence Friars basketball team winning the Big East Tournament title? That happens once every twenty years. Literally. On a March Saturday in 1994, I received the call we had been hoping and praying I would receive—the offer of a tenure-track teaching position in the philosophy department at Providence College. CBUIt was the ticket for my family of misplaced Northerners out of Memphis, the South, and the little college that was my first teaching job out of graduate school. Since it was March, it was also March Madness—the best sports month of the year. The final game of the Big East tournament was on—underdog Providence College playing the evil and strongly favored Georgetown Hoyas. A few minutes later Jeanne returned from grocery shopping—“Come watch your new basketball team on TV!” I yelled out the door toward the driveway. The Friars pulled off the big upset—their only Big East tournament championship in the thirty-five year history of the Big East conference. Until last Saturday, that is. Up well past midnight watching their victory, up early to read as many articles about it on the Internet as I could find—no wonder I was bleary-eyed at the altar rail.

            I am a sports fan in the true sense of the word—a “fanatic.” This is not easily accounted for. I am not an athlete—the only sports I ever have been decent at are skiing and tennis. I grew up in northern New England, hundreds of miles from any sports beyond high school. But I was a fan of all sports from an early age, a fanaticism that has distilled, as an adult, to theBoston strong Boston Red Sox and the Providence Friars. My passion for college basketball in general, and the Friars in particular, surprised my students and colleagues when I first arrived on campus, although it should not have surprised my colleagues. During a lunch with the philosophy faculty that was part of my on-campus interview in February 1994, someone asked “why do you want to teach at Providence College?’ The honest answer was that I wanted a tenure track job somewhere other than Tennessee. I think the continuation of my marriage depended on it. The answer I actually gave included some making some noise about wanting to teach at a place that takes philosophy seriously, focuses on the history of philosophy, and so on. On a more personal level, I continued, my wife and I badly want to return to our native Northeast (she’s from Brooklyn, I’m from Vermont). I concluded my response by mentioning that Division One basketball was also a very attractive feature of working at Providence College. There were a few snickers and smiles—but I wasn’t kidding.

I’m a different person entirely at a basketball game. It’s a great place for my inner beast to come out—even introverts have one of those—in ways that sometimes even I am surprised by. Once during our second year at Providence, when my season tickets were still in an upper deck nosebleed section, we were given two seats on the court by the Admissions Director Jeanne worked for. It was not a pretty game—we were being beaten by Iona. zebraProvidence should never be beaten by Iona, so obviously it was the referees’ fault. After a particularly horrendous call, one of the zebras went trotting by our seats, just a few feet away, causing me to scream in his direction, along with several thousand other fans, just what was on my mind. A few seconds later I asked Jeanne “Did I just call the ref a fucking asshole?” “Yes you did,” she replied. That’s why I love basketball games—they provide the opportunity for unfiltered expression of what I really am feeling and thinking. Later in the game I looked up toward our usual seats where my son Justin was sitting. As he screamed with a beet-red face and veins popping out of his neck, I wondered “Why is he getting so upset? It’s just a game. Where does he get that from?”

I have had two season tickets in Section 104 for the past seventeen years. Section 104 is a family sectionS of A—if your family has a “Sons of Anarchy” disposition. Once several years ago a young man a couple of rows in front of me, the son of one of the season ticket holders, was telling a story to a friend during a timeout with all the energy, volume, and foul language that a half-inebriated twenty-something male can muster. “HE SAID BLAH BLAH BLAH SO I SAID GO F%&K YOURSELF! THEN HE SAID BLAH BLAH BLAH SO I SAID  GO F%&K YOURSELF!!” After a few more GFYs, a guy in the front row of the section turned around and yelled “Hey! Knock it off! I’ve got my wife with me!” The young guy apologized—“sorry, man”—but front row guy wouldn’t let it go and kept complaining. Before long, GFY guy goes “I SAID I WAS SORRY!! GO F%&K YOURSELF!!Me on the JumbotronI love Section 104.

I knew something special was up two weeks ago, at the final home game of the season. Our opponent, as it turns out, was my alma mater Marquette Warriors who had defeated us nine straight times over the past few years. It was Senior Night, with a pre-game ceremony honoring the five seniors on what has
turned out to be my favorite Friars team of the nineteen I have followed since showing up in Providence. During the first timeout, my seat was chosen, out of 11,000 plus fans, as the “lucky seat” of the night. I was interviewed briefly, was on the Jumbotron for half a minute, and got a signed basketball. We then proceeded to win a double-overtime game that I pronounced to be the best basketball game I had ever seen. And it was. Until last Saturday night. We were, against all expectations and predictions, playing in the championship game of the Big East tournament for the first time in twenty years. We were playing Creighton University, the twelfth-ranked team in the country who had beaten the crap out of us by fifteen points just a week earlier. 1981970_950337533977_574254381_nBut it was one of those magical nights that happens every once in a while in college basketball. The Friars flawlessly executed a brilliant game plan concocted by the coaching staff, led the whole way, and won the championship. As they celebrated and cut down the Madison Square Garden nets in front of a national television audience, I had tears in my eyes.

Why am I a fanatic? There are all sorts of reasons a basketball obsessed academic might come up with. College basketball at its best is teamwork, dedication, solidarity, hope, and dreams on display. I have a colleague who teaches a “Philosophy of Sport” course, although I’ve never seen him at a game. I could teach that course. But for me this is personal. I suspect that my youngest son’s top five memories of his childhood involve being at a basketball game with me. I organize my memories of the past two decades by reference to memorable games and teams. fanaticsThere’s something excitingly visceral and primal about being in a crowd of several thousand cheering so loudly that the building vibrates. But bottom line I love being a fan because it reminds me that I’m more than a brain, more than the sum total of the roles I play, even though I love every one of them. Being a fan reminds me that there is still a kid inside who can get inexplicably excited, to the point of hyperventilation and tears, over something that makes no sense other than that I love it. Forty years from now, when I have just turned 100 in a nursing home, I will probably die of a heart attack as the Friars win their first national championship with a buzzer beating three-pointer. I’m good with that.

pickett

Academics in No-Man’s Land

Last week my academic department had an important and contentious meeting, the latest skirmish in a nasty internal struggle that has been going on for months. It reminded me of something I wrote a bit over a year ago about just how heated and overwrought academic politics can get, even when the topic seems innocuous and benign. 

I have had the opportunity over the past four years to spend time occasionally in the no-man’s land between faculty and administration—simply writing about it from a faculty perspective with a few positive things to say about the other side a couple of weeks ago drew several pointed and critical comments from fellow faculty members.

Faculty-Administration War Games

Spending too much time in academic no-man’s land is similar to Pickett’s charge across no-man’s land on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863—a spectacular failure that arguably turned the tide inevitably against the Confederacy in the Civil War. 350px-Pickett's-ChargeAfter two days of bloody stalemate, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered an intense bombardment of Union forces, under the command of General George G. Meade, aligned on Cemetery Ridge from Confederate artillery positions on Seminary Ridge. This bombardment was intended to soften up Union positions sufficiently to ensure a successful infantry charge across the “no man’s land” plain between the ridges by Confederate troops led by General George Pickett and two other generals.

Bad idea. The bombardment was ineffective and the charging Confederate soldiers were sitting ducks, mowed down long before reaching Cemetery Ridge as they charged unprotected across the field. the chargeThe Confederate troops suffered casualties of more than 50%, marking the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, the northernmost thrust of the Confederate Army into Union territory, and arguably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. When asked years later why his charge had failed, General Pickett replied “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Warfare is a favored metaphor when discussing the interactions between faculty and administration on a college campus. Both sides consider everything to be a “zero sum” game—whatever is gained on one side is automatically assumed to have been taken from the other. Each assumes the worst both in motive and will on the other side. Yet the two sides are required, at least on occasion, to interact with each other. When the need arises, the tactics and procedures are reminiscent of the Battle of Gettysburg. One side tries to soften up the other side with distractions, deflections, apparent “peace offerings,” or simply preliminary committee work—all in the hope of setting the stage for a successful frontal attack when the time is right.

Administration Ridge

Administration Ridge

Case in point: a seemingly innocuous foray by the administration into perceived faculty territory that I was in the middle of over the past few weeks.

I direct a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores on my campus, a program so central to what we do that the classroom portion of the beautiful, brand new humanities building we moved into just over a year ago was designed, then built with the classroom specifications and needs of this program as the driving force. meThe program is in its fourth decade of existence, but in only the second year of a re-energized and reconceived version that was the first ever serious revision of the program’s aims and pedagogy. I was approached early in the summer by some important administrators with a proposal for a “Wall of Honor” to be placed in a large, prominent location on the main floor of the building. The purpose of the Wall of Honor would be to celebrate in portrait and plaque the contributions of retired faculty (some deceased) whose contributions to the program over the years were especially noteworthy. The proposal contained a detailed description of nomination and selection processes; I was asked to first gather input from my advisory group, a small hand-picked committee of persons from the academic departments that largely staff the program, wall of honorthen to run the proposal past the faculty in attendance at the first full faculty meeting of the fall semester.

The proposal seemed both benign and well-intentioned—who could possibly be opposed to honoring both excellence in teaching and former colleagues? Doesn’t the faculty often complain that the administration does not sufficiently recognize faculty achievement? The six members of my advisory group agreed that in general it was a good idea and helpfully identified some easily fixable problems in the proposal, adjustments made by the proposers as soon as I identified them in an email following the advisory group meeting. As is my custom, I sent the program faculty at large the amended proposal by email attachment a week before the first scheduled full faculty meeting of the semester,asking them to be prepared to talk quickly about the proposal before we moved on to the more important business of the day. What could go wrong?

Faculty Ridge

Faculty Ridge

You would think that after several years of being first a department chair, then a program director that I would realize how stupid the question What could go wrong? is when anticipating a faculty meeting. In military terms, the preliminary bombardment of the faculty through contact with me, then indirectly through the advisory group, meant nothing to those present and lined up on Faculty Ridge at the department meeting. As if organized by an invisible hand, several faculty members spoke clearly and directly in quick succession about how much they hated the proposal; furthermore, they backed up their opposition with good arguments.

  • The idea of singling out individuals for recognition is contrary to the spirit of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching that we are seeking to establish and strengthen in this program.
  • old white guysThe first dozen or so retired faculty, perhaps more, to be honored on the wall will be old white guys, hardly a helpful image on an already too-white campus seeking to diversify both its student body and faculty. In such a highly visible place, we need to show that we are moving forward, away from an older, more patriarchal version of ourselves and towards a more inclusive, and a more welcoming, college.
  • The excellence that will be honored is primarily teaching excellence, while many good but less-than-excellent faculty whose contributions behind the scenes have been immense will never be nominated or honored.
  • This proposal does not facilitate the new program’s goal of reaching out to faculty across campus and incorporating them into what has, until now, been largely the domain of four large departments in the humanities.

And so on. Some of the arguments were so clearly presented that they convinced me and a couple of members of the advisory group who had entered the meeting as supporters of the proposal.pickett If the analogy of Pickett’s charge is appropriate, the Wall of Honor proposal never made it out of no-man’s land before it was ripped to shreds by the artillery on Faculty Ridge.

With faculty and administrators continually suspicious of and at war with each other, it’s amazing anything ever gets done on campus. The administration proposes that we all agree that the Pope is Catholic (even the current one); the faculty wonders what the real motive behind this proposal is. blue skyThe faculty senate resolves that the sky is blue; the administration wonders what they really want. In a world in which the faculty and administration by definition have radically different agendas but also arguably share many important goals, concerns and dreams in common, can we do better?

In the aftermath of his proposal’s evisceration by the faculty, one of the administrator proposers and I had an interesting conversation in my office a week after the faculty meeting. We have gotten to know each other well over my three years of being program director—from our shared work on an important committee I have learned that he (as well as the other administrators on the committee) are remarkably human, while I believe that he (and they) have learned something similar about me. In the same room we can get many things done, even though they still roll their eyes at the faculty’s resistance to what appears to the administration to be “no brainer” common sense, while I continue to explain that the world viewed through faculty eyes is a very different world than the one perceived in the offices of Harkins Hall.

conf and unionMy administration colleague and I agreed that a different strategy is called for, starting with a beginning faculty discussion and vote on whether any sort of process to honor faculty is desired. If not, then we’ll move on to other more important things. If so, then I’ll try what I did last year—putting some faculty and administrators in the same room to create a joint proposal. A handful of folks from Faculty Ridge will meet halfway across no-man’s land with a handful of folks from Administration Ridge, and we’ll see what happens. Collaboration instead of suspicion? Conversation instead of bombardment? Cooperation instead of cold (or hot) war? Impossible. Ludicrous. Or is it?

violet

The Wisdom of Violet

All this thinking is highly overrated. Violet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

season five

As “Downton Abbey” continues through its sixth and final season here in the States, here are some thoughts from a few months ago from everyone’s favorite character . . .

The American showing of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey’s fifth season just ended, to the dismay of its millions of fans who now must wait until next January to get their next Downton fix. It’s a bit worse for Jeanne and me. Late last year Jeanne signed up to throw a few monthly dollars in the direction of our local PBS station; in return, we were shipped the full fifth season of the series in DVD at the end of January. The fifth season had just started its Sunday evening run a couple of weeks earlier, and now we had in our hands the rest of the season with no need to parcel the episodes out one week at a time. The DVDs showed up a couple of days before we got smacked with Juno, the first and worst of a series of winter storms that came in unrelenting succession over the next month. With Tuesday and then Wednesday classes cancelled, we binge-watched Lord Grantham along his relatives and homies cavort and angst through eight straight episodes—about eleven or twelve hours of viewing. And we wanted more.

All Downton fans have their favorite characters—I’ve noted in a previous post from a few weeks back that mine is Mister Carson, the erstwhile butler of the establishment.

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

violetBut everyone loves Lord Grantham’s mother Violet, the dowager countess and source of endless entertainment from meaningful glances to pithy retorts, a lovably manipulative force behind virtually everything going on in each episode with a wit as dry as a martini. Violet is played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith that I cannot imagine anyone else being Violet (although I suspect Dame Judi Dench could do it, just differently). In this most recent season any number of Violet one-liners made me laugh, then think. Here are a few of them.

All this thinking is highly overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody ever thought.

Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and in five seasons has proceeded through the Great War to the disturbing, iconoclastic years in the war’s wake, concluding the fifth season at Christmas 1923. In my twenty-plus years of teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, the most important thing I have learned about history is that no event ever changed the world so fully and irrevocably as World War One. yeatsWilliam Butler Yeats captured these dark transformations perfectly in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the

Worst are full of passionate intensity.

That these lines are directly applicable to our world a century later is testimony to just how complete the changes were.

Violet finds herself in a world she does not understand in which none of the fixed and reliable rules that have given her life and society stability apply. There was a time when people knew their place, when one knew what to expect, when things made sense. That world is gone, and she blames it on too much thinking. She might have a point. Not long ago some philosophical wag wrote that “Socrates may have been right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.”

A lack of compassion is as vulgar as an excess of tears.

maryThis is Violet’s comment to her granddaughter Mary when Mary shows a remarkable lack of concern for her sister Edith’s sadness and mourning over the death of her lover and father of her child. It is a remarkable comment from a woman whose whole life has been defined by the sort of British aristocratic reserve that looks, at least on the surface, like lack of compassion on steroids. But an excess of any sort on the spectrum of emotion is “vulgar,” perhaps the worst thing that could possibly be said about a British aristocrat in the post-Edwardian era.

In my team-taught colloquium entitled “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom and Truth in the Nazi Era,” my students (and I) regularly struggle to find the appropriate emotional response to the horrors we are studying. At the end of our final class last week before spring break, my historian teammate Ray ended the two hours with a few minutes video from the liberation of Auschwitz. Emaciated, skeletal bodies piled fifteen feet or more high. auschwitzThese bodies being thrown one by one into a mass grave. Ray wisely ended the class with no comment, switching the computer off as students quietly gathered their things and filed out.

As I’ve been reading my students’ intellectual notebook entries this week, several have written “I don’t know how to respond to what I was seeing.” And neither do I. But our response cannot be academic and clinical, nor can it be a paralyzing wave of emotion. The worst that we humans can do to each other must be responded to with all of the resources available to us. Our response must be human, in other words. This reminds me yet again of why I resonate with a religion whose central truth is that God became human.

Hope is a tease to prevent us from accepting reality.

To which the idealist responds that realism or pragmatism is a device to help us avoid dreaming of and hoping for what could be rather than settling for what is. I have written occasionally about the dynamic of hope in this blog,

Hopeful Thinking

and like to think of myself as a “pragmatic idealsimpragmatic idealist” or perhaps an “optimistic realist.” These things really are not contradictory, although many (including Violet) assume that they are. The philosopher in me tends toward realism, with Aristotle, David Hume, William James as three of my most important philosophical influences. Yet that realism is tempered by my faith which in my understanding both applies directly to the real world I struggle with every day yet offers transcendent hope that there is more to reality than what I struggle with every day. I resonate with Hamlet’s conviction that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”—this is how I manage to be both a philosopher and a Christian, something that a good friend worried that I would not be able to pull off many years ago.

Thanks, Violet, for your thought-provoking insights and asides—keep them coming!violet 2

Carson and Hughes

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

 

As those who love Masterpiece Theater and great television know, “Downton Abbey” is in the middle of its sixth and final season on Sunday nights here in the U. S. I’ve written frequently about what I’ve learned from this show–here’s a post about my favorite Downton character from a bit over a year ago . . .

Season FourIn anticipation of Season Five of “Downton Abbey” making it across the pond to PBS next month, Jeanne and I just finished binge-watching Season Four over the last few evenings to remind us, first, of exactly what is going on in the lives of the two dozen or so characters in the middle of the 1920s and, second, just why this is probably our favorite show on television. That’s saying a lot. We love good television and have several series that we keep up with religiously, including “The Newsroom” which just finished its final season (bummer) and “Homeland” which is close to the end of its fourth season. We are anxiously awaiting the return of “The Americans” next month on FX for a new season. But “Downton Abbey” is a phenomenon in our house, just as it has been for millions of other viewers. No violence, no nudity or sex, no f-bombs—just great character development and brilliant acting from top to bottom. Who knew that people would like something like that?

I learned many months ago that if I was a character on “Downton Abbey,” I would be the stodgy and formal Mr. Carson.mister carson

Which Downton Abbey character are you?

And that’s fine with me. Mr. Carson runs the staff similarly to how I run the academic program I direct, with a firm hand and an occasional adjusting of the rules when appropriate. I’m a bit concerned about Mr. Carson’s attachment to tradition and fear of new things, but he’s loosening up a bit as the seasons progress. The main reason I resonate with Mr. Carson is his penchant for pithy and insightful one-liner comments on what is going on around him, a talent rivaled in Downton only by the Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crowley upstairs. Here are a few Carsonian observations from the early episodes of Season Four:

I always thought there is something foreign about high spirits at breakfast.

morning personHere’s a difference between Mr. Carson and me—he’s not a morning person and I am. I’m at the gym every morning at 6:00. I would much rather teach at 8:30 than at 1:30 (which is my nap time). But the kind of morning person I am is not the sort which is inclined to “high spirits.” I love the morning because it is quiet, because if there is any time during the day that I will be able to slip immediately into “centered” mode, it is when I first get up. As I read the appointed Psalm 90 this morning, I read

In the morning, fill us with your love;

We shall exult and rejoice all our days

Mercyand a reading from Lamentations at my friend and colleague’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago reminded me that the mercies of the Lord are renewed every morning. Morning is a good time to reset and, if necessary, commit to a “redo” of previous days that didn’t work out as planned, intended or wished. As Jeanne mentioned the other day, if the Lord renews mercy every morning, then there’s no reason we cannot be merciful to ourselves. High spirits are not required.

The business of life is the acquisition of memories.

One of my last classes with my Honors freshmen this semester was focused on Book Eleven of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine on timea fascinating and complex analysis of time that no philosopher matched or surpassed for a millennium after Augustine. One of his interesting questions has to do with what it is that we are focusing our attention on when we consider past events in the present. The past event is gone, but everything that we experience leaves some sort of internal impression on us, bits and pieces that we file away, consciously or unconsciously, in our “memory banks.” Each person’s history, indeed each person, is a creative stitching together of these impressions. Because we know that these internal impressions are impermanent and fleeting, we take pictures, write memoirs, and tell stories, all in the attempt to make permanent what is fleeting. Earlier in Psalm 90 this morning, the psalmist describes what we are fighting against.

You sweep us away like a dream,

like grass which springs up in the morning.

In the morning it springs up and flowers;

by evening it withers and fades.

Which brings me to one more piece of wisdom from Mr. Carson.

We shout and scream and wail and cry but in the end we must all die

HughesAs Mrs. Hughes, the chief housekeeper who is the closest thing Mr. Carson has to a best friend replies, “Well, that’s cheered me up. Thank you.” Who knew that Mr. Carson is a philosopher? Mr. Carson is the epitome of English reserve, carrying the most British stiff upper lip imaginable; if he was a philosopher, he would be an early twentieth-century incarnation of the Stoicism of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. Stoic reserve is just one of many possible responses to a brutal and inescapable fact—we all are going to die.

Impermanence and loss is a continuing theme throughout the seasons of “Downton Abbey,” through the ravages of World War I in Season Two to the tragic death of the heir to the family fortune in a car crash at the end of Season Three, a loss that is the connecting thread throughout all of the Season Four episodes that Jeanne and I finished watching last evening. By the end of the season some people are moving on, good fortune has smiled on others, but an uncertain future faces them all. This isn’t BBC drama—this is real life. One of the interesting attractions of “Downton Abbey” is that happiness and despair, misfortune and luck, triumph and defeat, are features of everyone’s lives—upstairs and downstairs, privileged and struggling, the family and the help. Violet and EdithAn extended study of life as it happens does not require spies, blowing things up, gratuitous torture and dismemberment, or naked boobs and butts every week. All it requires is noticing how life actually happens to us. As Violet, the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham tells her struggling and star-crossed granddaughter Edith, “Life is a series of problems that we need to solve—first one, then another—until we die.” Ain’t it the truth.Carson and Hughes

Hope in Exile

As is the case with any profession, the life of an academic includes some great and some not-so-great features. After twenty-five years of being a college professor, here’s a brief list:

Great:

• Sabbatical

• Being in the classroomlove teaching

• Team-teaching with colleagues

• Planning courses

• Writing

• Beer with fellow teachers on Friday afternoons

Not So Much:

• Gradingtechnology

• Being in a dysfunctional department

• Trying to get what you have written published

• Technology in the classroom

And academic conferences. Especially academic conferences

I have written in the past about my dislike of academic conferences. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenure and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. Not to mention overheated and ugly seminar rooms along with stale pastries and lukewarm coffee. I do not learn much just by listening to someone—I’m more a visual and tactile learner—but traditionally that’s been the way things go at conferences. colloquy posterOf course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

Fortunately I have not had to work the academic conference circuit vigorously since I earned promotion to full professor almost fifteen years ago. There is, however, one group of academics that I enjoy gathering with annually for a conference—the American Weil Society. If you read this blog regularly or even occasionally, you know that Simone Weil shows up on a semi-regular basis. I’ve had an intellectual affair with this strange woman from the first half of the twentieth century for at over fifteen years now (Jeanne calls Simone my mistress), a connection that has produced a book, several articles, and a paper at the Weil colloquy almost every year.

I have attended the annual Weil Society colloquy just about every year for the past couple of decades; we have hosted the Weil colloquy twice in the past ten years here at Providence College. There are a solid two dozen or so Weil scholars from North America who attend just about every colloquy. The theme of this year’s colloquy is hope in exile“Hope in Exile,” an evocative topic that prompted me to send in a brief proposal. The proposal was accepted, so now I have to write the paper. That’s one of the great things about a blog—it provides me with an opportunity to run my thoughts past intelligent people before I am responsible for them in person.

As I searched my notes and Simone Weil texts the other day for “hope” references, I was surprised to find that she doesn’t explicitly discuss the topic very often. And yet, the theme of how to avoid despair in the middle of a world that seems determined to drive us toward it on a daily basis is a thread that winds through most of her writing. In her final work, NfrThe Need for Roots, Weil considers why despair is not a necessity.

If pure good were never capable of producing on this earth true greatness in art, science, theoretical speculation, public enterprise, if in all these spheres there were only false greatness, if in all these spheres everything were despicable, and consequently condemnable, there would be no hope at all for the affairs of this world; no possible illumination of this world by the other one. But it is not so. (Emphasis mine)

This reminded me of something I just read the other day from Marilynne Robinson:

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.

One encounters this sort of “somber panic” and such proposed “terrible remedies” everywhere one turns these days. When everything is pushing intelligent people toward cynicism and/or despair, what reasons are there, if any, to cultivate hope? The cynic is likely to agree with Violet, dowager countess of downtonDownton Abbey, who says that “hope is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.” The hopeful person might counter with something like what I heard Maria Popova say on NPR’s “On Point” the other day: “Cynicism is the sewage of the soul.” My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

Simone Weil’s insight is a good place to start. If it is actually the case that human beings are incapable of producing anything of value, if it is true that even the best of human endeavors are polluted by falsity and worthy of condemnation, then cynicism or despair are the reasonable order of the day. There is no reason other than naïveté to hope for anything other than a continuation of mediocrity, violence, and death until we finally manage to snuff ourselves out. But after setting the stage for such despair, Weil opens the window a crack with just one sentence: But it is not so. RobinsonMarilynne Robinson concludes her comments on the attractiveness of cultural pessimism with a similar sentiment.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism—exactly the same grounds, in fact—that is, because we are human . . . To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

The stakes could not possibly be higher. As I begin working on this with the upcoming conference in mind, I start with the premise that what really needs to be sorted out is the relationship between critical thinking and hope, since critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Our contemporary challenge is to find a place between the scylla and charybdisScylla of cynicism and the Charybdis of naïveté, seeking to build a life in that space because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom as well as a futile self-protection mechanism. And perhaps it is worth taking note of Simone Weil’s suggestion that the illumination of this world by “the other one” might be a reason to hope. What is that other world? How might a passageway for mutual illumination be opened? Stay tuned—I welcome your ideas and contributions!

imagesCA56HDJ9

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about God. That’s a strange thing to spend time doing, given that the very existence of God, and God’s nature if God does exist, has been seriously and vigorously debated since someone first looked into the sky and wondered if anything is out there. What sorts of evidence count for or against?images Is certainty possible? And if God exists, which God are we talking about? I am a skeptic both by nature and profession, but I also believe that God exists. How does that work?

I was recently reminded by the usual random confluence of events of a way proposed close to five hundred years ago to establish belief in God while at the same time doing an end run on all of the questions above. PascalThe proposer was the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal; the proposition has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager,” one of the most debated and controversial arguments any philosopher has ever offered. Pascal was a world-class thinker who found himself knocked on his ass one night by what he interpreted as a direct message from the divine. It changed his life, moving him strongly in a religious direction and causing him to put his mathematical theories on the shelf.

Pascal lived in a time of skepticism; the medieval worldview had crumbled, Montaignethe Scientific Revolution was in full swing, and religious wars were being fought all over Europe. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most eloquent and brilliant skeptics who ever lived, was the most widely read author of the time. Pascal had no doubts about God’s existence—his “Night of Fire” had burned away any uncertainty—but he was smart enough to know that not everyone has such experiences. Lacking direct experiential evidence, and knowing that every philosophical, logical argument for the existence of God has been disputed by other philosophers using logical arguments, what would a betting person do?

Consider the options, says Pascal. Either you believe that God exists or you don’t, and either God exists or God doesn’t. That means there are four possibilities

1. I believe in God, and God does not exist

2. I do not believe in God, and God does not exist

3. I believe in God, and God exists

4. I do not believe in God, and God exists

Options 1 and 2 are essentially a wash. Believer 1 will probably live her life somewhat differently than Non-believer 2, but at the end of their lives they both are dead. End of story. But if it turns out that God does exist, then everything changes. Believer 3 is set up for an eternity of happiness, while Non-believer 4 is subject to eternal damnation. On the assumption that we cannot know for sure whether God exists but we still have to choose whether to believe or not, it makes betting sense to be a believer than to be a non-believer. As the handy chart below indicates, the believer either lives her life and dies or gets eternal happiness, while the non-believer either lives his life and dies or gets eternal damnation. So be smart and believe. QED.

chart

Many silent assumptions are woven into the argument, assumptions that have driven analysis and critique of Pascal’s Wager ever since. For instance, the argument assumes that there is about a 50-50 chance that God exists. evil and sufferingBut it could be argued that the preponderance of direct evidence from the world we live in (evil, disease, natural disasters, etc.) counts against God’s existence—the likelihood of God’s nonexistence is far greater than 50 percent. Others have pointed out that the difference between 1 and 2 is not negligible at all. Believer 1 might spend her life denying herself all sorts of experiences and pleasures in the mistaken belief that a nonexistent God doesn’t like such experiences and pleasures, while Non-believer 2 will enjoy such experiences and pleasures to the fullest. And what if God exists but is of an entirely different nature and character than we think? What if the things we believe will please God actually piss God off?

I find such critiques to be compelling and do not find Pascal’s Wager to be an attractive argument at all, but I believe in God’s existence so what do I know? I am far more interested in what Pascal says after the options are laid out to the person who buys the argument but is currently a non-believer. If I don’t believe in God’s existence but am convinced that a smart betting person does believe in God’s existence, how do I make that happen? just believeHow does one manufacture belief in something one does not believe in? Pascal’s advice is revealing.

You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. What have you to lose?

Pascal is borrowing a technique from Aristotle, who once said that if you want to become courageous, do the things that courageous people do. In this case, do the things believers do and one day you may find you’ve become one.

Pascal came to mind when I read a reader’s comment on my blog entry “The Imposter” a few days ago.

The Imposter

In response to my discussing imposter syndrome and our general human fears about inadequacy and lack of importance, the reader wrote

“Fake it until you make it” is actually almost a principle in Judaism, although not in those words. The medieval work seferSefer Hahinuch, which goes through the 613 commandments of the Torah according to traditional rabbinic calculation, states that a person is affected by his actions. If you do the right thing, little by little it can make you on the inside more like the act you are playing on the outside. Of course you can’t just do it to fool people. You have to intend to fulfill G-d’s will in the world and do things pleasing to Him according to what He has given us to work with. We do our job and keep refining it, and the work, the very inner struggle is pleasing to G-d because we are getting closer, because we are striving to be true to ourselves and Him, even though we know we aren’t there yet and never will be totally. But that is called doing His work.

Although this principle in Judaism reminded me of Pascal’s wager, it is actually very different. The Jewish principle supposes that one accepts that it would be good to live according to the rules and guidelines in the Torah but is not naturally inclined to do so. By putting these rules into action they become my own, all the time believing that becoming a person who does such things habitually is pleasing to God. But whether they are pleasing to God or not, they are arguably making me a better husband, father, son, Bros Kneighbor and contributing member of society.

Pascal’s suggestion is far less demanding, requiring nothing more than going through the motions of certain rituals on a daily or weekly basis. This is not likely to make me a believer or a better person so much as just a person with a very busy Sunday morning every week. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Father Zossima’s advice to an unbeliever who wants to believe is quite different: he recommends the “active and indefatigable love of your neighbor.” Much like the Sefer Hahinuch, Father Zossima provides no shortcuts to belief in God. Rather he recommends the difficult prescription of transforming one’s heart and mind by one’s actions. This doesn’t establish any metaphysical truths, but it does open the door to the good human beings are capable of. Whether God exists or not.belief

We Are Not Alone

This Christmas season seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe and in our country jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

Our Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

our thoughts and prayersOn the day after the San Bernardino massacre, just the latest in what seems to be a weekly litany of mass violence in this country, I posted the following in frustration on my Facebook page:

I’m tired–really tired–of hearing people say and seeing them write that “my thoughts and prayers are with” the victims of the latest mass shooting. God isn’t going to fix this, and the victims don’t need our prayers. They need us to f__king do something about the gun insanity in this country. just another dayUntil then, as a BBC headline said today, massacres such as today’s will be “Just Another Day in the United States.”

My post was prompted by an avalanche of “my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” sentiments in social media and from every corner of politics, as candidates for President fell over each other in the race to express the sincerity of their thoughts and prayers before those of their opponents. Given the cheapness of thoughts and prayers disconnected from actual action, I was not impressed.

Not surprisingly, my post generated more activity than perhaps any Facebook message I have ever written, comments ranging from mere “likes” and brief sentences of agreement to pushback of various sorts. One person suggested that we should pay more attention to the fact that gun violence is significantly lower in this country than it was twenty years ago; instead of wringing our hands over the violence that remains, we should study carefully what we have done right in the last twenty years and continue to do likewise (this comment set off a different, very volatile discussion that I did not participate in). 2nd amendmentSomeone else wanted to know if I believe in the Second Amendment (I do, but not interpreted as unlimited license to bear arms in whatever amount and of whatever kind one chooses). But given that the main concern energizing my post was the cavalier attitude behind offering impotent and ineffective prayers in response to random bloodshed and not a debate about gun control, what caught my attention most came from a friend whose faith perspective is of the sort in which I was raised.

  • Friend: How about this. Instead of each of us approaching this problem with our own fix, we all as Christian people pray that the light of Christ shine on this country and the world so all can see the truth for what it is. Most people don’t want this. To see the truth is painful. The light of Christ exposes all things hiding in dark places including ourselves.
  • Me: With millions of people praying for this every day and the problem getting worse, what would you suggest? I’m a Christian and I’m also a pragmatist—too many people are hiding behind the defense of “we’re praying for change” while never spending an ounce of effort actually trying to make it happen.
  • Friend: You missed it. I’m not talking about praying for change. I’m talking about praying that the light of Christ will shine! If Jesus is truly the light of the world, then no dark thing can be hidden from it. Everything would be seen for what it really is.
  • Me: True—but my question still stands. The Bible says God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That’s a lot more than just praying for the light of Christ to shine.

This was the sort of conversation that could have gone on indefinitely with each of us talking past each other and making no connection. Fortunately, another Facebook acquaintance jumped in and said clearly what I should have said.

  • Facebook acquaintance: God works through us, not instead of us. We are the physical manifestation of God and, while prayers do help us see and hear what must be done, we are the ones who must do it. The God you are praying to is waiting for you to be the light you are praying to shine. How does your Jesus shine light into the world if not by you?

This brought to mind a favorite passage from Joan Chittister, one that I arrive at frequently when I take the time to wonder what being a person of faith might actually require of us rather than mere facile verbiage.joan chittister

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.

As long as persons of faith believe that “my thoughts and prayers are with you” is an appropriate response to anything, let alone the tragedy of mass violence, we wait in vain for the coming of the kingdom of God for which many of us robotically pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. I have often wondered how it is that faith commitment so frequently over time becomes nothing more than rote phrases and habitual practices; the most obvious answer is that it happens in the same way that intelligent commitment platitudeis reduced to bumper sticker platitudes in any human endeavor. It happens because real commitment is difficult and cuts far deeper than the simplified ways we construct to make it through our days, weeks, months and years intact.

In the liturgical year Advent is the time to pay close attention to the ways in which the divine, according to the Christian narrative, chooses to insert itself into our human reality. It never happens in easily identifiable ways or in events so spectacular that even the densest person would have to admit that “yes, that’s God at work.” Instead God enters the world through the pregnancies of a woman past child-bearing years and of a virgin, in private communications that only one person is privy to,be the change and ultimately through a helpless baby in a manger surrounded by animals.
This is good news, because it says that each of us—no matter how insignificant and powerless—can be the vehicle of divine change. But as it was in the stories, so it is now. We have to decide to be that change. We have to say “be it unto me according to your word.” This requires a lot more than thoughts and prayers.