Category Archives: human nature

Wolf Hall

ICromwell am a great lover of historical fiction; it doesn’t come any better than from Hilary Mantel. Mantel fans are eagerly awaiting the third installment of her honored trilogy that immerses us into the world of Henry VIII as seen through the eyes of his consigliere Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the first two parts of the proposed trilogy each won the Man Booker Prize (the British version of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Mantel is only the third author to win the prize twice, and the first to win with a sequel, Bring up the Bodies in 2012 following Wolf Hall’s victory in 2009.wolf hall I recently reread Wolf Hall  and, as often happens, found both that I had forgotten how good it is and that there are many great passages I missed the first time around. Early in the novel, Cromwell provides us with a flashback to when he was a young star in Cardinal Wolsey’s orbit, a firmament containing another, brighter star—Thomas More—who in Mantel’s treatment becomes one of Cromwell’s opponents and competitors for the attention of the great and powerful. But more importantly, Cromwell reveals a fundamental difference between him and More that raises issues transcending this particular story:

He [Cromwell] never sees More . . . without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? cromwell and moreWhy does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Or, someone might add, show me where it says “liturgy” or “dogma” or any number of other things that are staples of Christian tradition even outside Catholicism. I have no idea whether Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell and More is accurate (neither does she, for that matter), but I am so strongly aligned by nature with fictional Cromwell in this passage that I share his utter astonishment with the fictional Mores among us. Wolf Hall is set during the early decades of the sixteenth century when the revolutionary impact of the Protestant Reformation is already making itself known in England. Thomas More is the epitome of religious certainty, imagined by Mantel as a vigorous, devout, hair-shirt-wearing and frequently inflexible defender of Catholic orthodoxy.

wolseyAlthough Cromwell rises to influence as the right-hand man of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, he is far more comfortable with situational flexibility than with pre-established beliefs and principles. When Wolsey falls from grace because of his failure to facilitate the king’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell’s ability to quickly adjust to changing circumstances and maneuver creatively brings him into the king’s inner circle. But he always keeps the Mores of his world in view, simultaneously envious and wary of anyone’s unflinching commitment to principle.

I hedgehog and foxfrequently find myself inadvertently dividing my fellow human beings into various categories (introvert/extrovert, high-maintenance/low-maintenance, Platonic/Aristotelian, hedgehog/fox, and more); Cromwell/More is another important distinction, especially when religious belief is under discussion. The older I get, the more Cromwellian I become, finding that even my most fixed beliefs not only are regularly under scrutiny, but that constant adjustment and change is a symptom of a healthy faith. Christian Wiman puts this insight better than anyone I’ve read:

WimanIt is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.

I am frequently reminded in a number of ways by various Mores that a Cromwellian embrace of change is dangerous in that it leads to the brink of the worst of all abysses, a relativistic world with no absolutes and no fixed points. I admit that it can be disconcerting to find that one’s most reliable cornerstones have crumbled or shifted, but I have learned to find stability in commitment rather than in content. Within the well-defined banks of commitment to what is greater than us, the river of faith sometimes flows swiftly, sometimes pools stagnantly, and always offers the opportunity to explore uncharted waters. The terrain of commitment looks very different from various vantage points, and in my experience spongseldom provides confirmation of what I have believed in the past without change and without remainder.

I remember several years ago that I came across one of John Shelby Spong’s books in Borders with the provocative title Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I read the book and found that the changes that Spong, the liberal retired Episcopal bishop of New Jersey was calling for were not changes I was willing to make then—or now. But I fully resonate with the energy of his book’s title. The Christian faith that I profess has not only changed greatly over the past few years (and promises to change even more going forward), but the Christianity I was taught in my youth would have died long ago if it had not changed. And this is as it should be. As James Carse writes,

carseThis is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is to stop criticizing or belittling those who build their belief systems in the manner of More, shaping all new experiences and information in the image of their most fixed and unchanging commitments. There are a number of Mores among my friends and family, and I’ve learned not only to appreciate them (usually), but find myself occasionally envying them. But at heart I’m happy being Cromwell as I watch the corners get knocked off my certainties.

There is no one but us

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

There are many aspects of the academic life that I love, but attending academic conferences is not one of them. Yet last weekend I found myself on an Amtrak Acela headed for a conference on Simone Weil, colloquywhere I would be reconnecting with some friends and colleagues as well as presenting a paper (the last one of the conference, usually the third rail of such events). After a four and a half hour train trip to Philadelphia, then another half hour on the regional train to the conference hotel, I was ready for dinner. My normal procedure would have been to take my tablet along and do a bit of paper grading, but both tablet and phone were in need of charging, so I headed to the onsite restaurant on the main hotel floor with Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, the reading assignment for the final meeting of my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium early the next week. At seventy-five pages, Dillard’s book was the perfect companion for dinner. With no electronic distractions and fortified by three fine craft beers and two appetizers, I read Dillard’s striking text from cover to cover, once again blown away by her unique ability to push me to places where I would just as soon not go.

Not much happens in Holy the Firm, a meditation on the beauty of the natural world as well as the many ways, both affirmative and devastating, in which it impresses and imprints itself on human beings. htfThe central event of the book is a private plane crash in which the face of Julie Norwich, a seven-year-old girl, is horribly burned. It is a classic WTF??? event, as Dillard expresses brilliantly.

We’re tossed broadcast into time like so much grass, some ravening god’s sweet hay. You wake up and a plane falls out of the sky . . . What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims?

I have spent almost a full semester not with my “Beauty and Violence” students asking the “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” question of whatever or whoever is greater than us and presumably responsible for some of the random violence and tragedy that surrounds us. A little kid with her face burned off? WTF??? indeed.

Dillard’s struggle with how to even shape a meaningful and appropriate question is eloquent, disturbing, and relentless. How are faithful people supposed to seek relationship with a God who is apparently oblivious to such events? “Where was God?” is frequently asked, a question that Dillard answers with truth rather than faith or hope. “We need reminding, not of what god can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel’s worth of sense into our days.” lawnThe truth of the matter, which the existence of  “flamefaced children” force us to confront, is that God does not appear to care.

We reel out love’s long line alone toward a god less lovable than a grasshead, who treats us less well than we treat our lawns. . . . Of faith I have nothing, only of truth; that this one god is a brute and traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen.

I expect my “Beauty and Violence” students to have a lot to say about this text in class this afternoon. We have worked hard all semester to challenge the traditional notions concerning God that are absolutely impotent when applied to Julie Norwich situations. Several authors have suggested that, for any number of reasons that are worthy of consideration and discussion, God is not omnipotent in relation to our world. Dillard nods toward such ideas throughout her work, including in Holy the Firm:

Faith would be that God is self-limited utterly by his creation—a contraction of the scope of his will; that he bound himself to time and its hazards and haps as a man would lash himself to a tree for love. That God’s works are as good as we make them. mangerThat God is helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen.

A God who creates out of love rather than power is limited in all of the ways that love places limitations on our actions concerning what we love. An intriguing possibility arising from alternative traditions in both Christianity and Judaism. But as my students and I have concluded regularly this semester, “We don’t know” is the most honest thing we can say when seeking to know the mind and intentions of the divine. And the follow-up, for persons of faith, is usually “Now what?”

As Dillard notes in the above passage, it appears that we clumsy, partially ignorant, well-intentioned but frequently failing human beings are how the divine gets into the world. And that, in many ways, is both empowering and worrisome.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us. There has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.

This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his prison cell awaiting execution by the Nazis,  writes to his best friend that “that we must live as people who manage our lives without God.” Because no cosmic source of answers and solutions is going to sweep in and set things straight. We’re it. “There is no one but us.”

The next morning as a couple dozen folks partook of standard conference breakfast fare waiting for the paper-presenting festivities to begin, I chatted briefly with Tomeu, the president of the academic group hosting the conference. Noting the absence of two annual regulars, I asked “Where is Jane? Where is Larry?” Both were on the list of papers to be presented over the next couple of days, and neither had been missing from any of the dozen or more of these conferences I’ve attended over the years. “Oh, you didn’t hear what happened?” Tomeu replied—“Jane fell last week and broke several bones.” “That’s awful!” I said—Jane is in her late seventies/early eighties and is rather frail. “And what happened to Larry is just terrible,” Tomeu continued.  sad angelLarry, one of the nicest people I have ever met, told me a year earlier about his beloved first grandson, showing me several photos of his pride and joy. Just last week, Tomeu said, Larry’s three-year-old grandson had choked on a marshmallow and could not breathe. By the time the marshmallow was dislodged, the child had been without oxygen for several minutes; in the hospital it became clear that he had suffered significant brain damage. The next day, Larry’s grandson died.

There’s nothing to say, other than oh my God. You want to scream A FUCKING MARSHMALLOW????, but in the end, no words are appropriate. I’ll tell this story to my students this afternoon, and Larry’s grandson will be the most recent example, joining Julie Norwich, of a “what the Sam Hill is going on?” complaint. It’s enough sometimes to turn one into an atheist. And yet here I, as I so often do, resonate with Annie Dillard—also from Holy the Firm.

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which Gpitino celticsod burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were.

Many years ago when Rick Pitino was coach of the Boston Celtics, he was often asked how long it would be before the Celtics returned to the glory to which spoiled New England basketball fans had become accustomed over the years. Pitino counselled patience, because “Larry Bird isn’t going to come walking through that door any time soon.” And neither is God. There is no one but us.

One Heart and Soul

In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium no long ago, our text was a co-authored volume in which two economists, who happened to also be persons of Christian faith, alternated essays and responses on a number of important issues. markets and moralsAs their weekly writing assignment in preparation for seminar, I asked students to select a point of disagreement between the authors (the disagreements were legion), describe briefly the position of each author on the selected issue, then take a side supported by argumentation. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, my sophomores should be able to do this—identify issues, fairly and accurately describe various arguments, and take a position that is both fair to other relevant positions and supported by evidence and argument. So I was disappointed when more than one student ended their essay with something like “I prefer X’s position because Y sounds a lot like socialism.”

Sigh. In my comments on such papers, I always include something like “That’s a description, not an argument. It’s related to another sort of description masquerading as an argument: ‘I disagree with Z, therefore Z is wrong.’” Divided linePart of my job as a professor is to convince my students that a liberally educated human being earns the right to have her opinions. Unearned opinions are like body parts—everybody has them. Plato lists “opinion” low on his ladder representing the climb from ignorance to wisdom. Moving up this ladder one or two rungs from “opinion” to something closer to knowledge involves learning that just believing something does not make it true, realizing that disagreement is the beginning of justifying one’s beliefs, not the end. It’s always discouraging to realize that someone can make it to almost half way through their undergraduate college career and not have learned this.

But I digress. What got me to thinking about this most recently was a story from The Acts of the Apostles that will be one of the Sunday texts in a couple of weeks :Acts 4

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

It’s one of my favorite passages from the New Testament—as I heard it, I thought of my student. “Dude!” I thought, “It’s a good thing you didn’t hear this—because this really sounds like socialism!” In the past I have used this text in class to poke at the unquestioned assumptions carried by students who, often coming from a faith-based upbringing in an upper middle class or wealthy household, believe communismthat somehow their capitalist free-market attachments and their background framework of religious values will fit seamlessly together as if by magic. “They sound like a bunch of communists!” more than student has remarked in shock, and indeed they (anachronistically) do. Welcome to the lifelong task of trying to live a life of coherent belief and commitment!

This passage from Acts is sometimes linked to the familiar story of “doubting Thomas” that was yesterday’s gospel reading from John. In spite of the bad rap Thomas has gotten over the centuries for being the one disciple loser who refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he had seen him and touched him first person (of course, none of the other disciples believed until they had first-hand contact either, but let’s not go there), he is one of my all-time heroes. By both personality and profession I am naturally skeptical–Imontaigne think that doubt is closer to godliness than cleanliness. Just as I take the great skeptic Michel de Montaigne as a model for how to do philosophy, I consider Thomas as one of my models for how to approach the spiritual life, something I share with many of my spiritual guides ranging from Kathleen Norris, Christian Wiman and Joan Chittister to Anne Lamott, roawn williamsRowan Williams and Barbara Brown Taylor. Most homilies about this gospel draw the moral of the story from Jesus’ gentle criticism of Thomas’ attitude: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But there is seeing and then there is seeing. Except for a select few, those who have committed themselves to Jesus in any way have never seen him physically. But without a direct encounter—without truly seeing something worth committing to—faith commitment can easily become sterile religion.

Why, I have often wondered (and have often asked my students), did the early Christian communities choose to organize themselves economically in the manner described in Acts? They are close enough in time to Jesus’ physical presence that undoubtedly some of their members actually knew him in the flesh, or at least knew some people who did. But if the vision is not going to fade, such communities cannot rely on first-hand remembrance of the source. Practices and attitudes reflective of the values the community is committed to must be embedded in the very fiber and structure of the common life of the group. the wayAt some point, given that a new community of followers of the Way was seeking both stability and faithfulness to the message, someone must have asked “How would Jesus have organized this community if he were here?” Somebody remembers the parables, another person recalls the Beatitudes, and pretty soon they become a small, primitive laboratory for the Gospel.  How to truly become Jesus in community form? By putting into action what the man supposedly said and lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Love each other as God loves us. This wasn’t church for them—this was life. Most likely their very survival depended on it.

Two thousand years later, persons who profess a Christian faith share a lot in common with these early followers of Jesus. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, just as most—and pretty soon all—of the members of these early communities had not. micahWe are bound together by having seen Jesus in ways far deeper and more profound than physical vision. And our challenge is the same as theirs, to figure out what it means to actually live it rather than just say it. As I often do, I fall back here on the prophetic words of Micah who asked, just as these early communities did, just as we do today, “What does the Lord require of us?” Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. And, I might add, doubt is an appropriate seasoning for each of these.

Dodge City Ethics

Bein’ born is craps. How we live is poker. Doc Holliday

sparrowOf the dozens of novelists whose books I have read over the years, Mary Doria Russell is one of the least likely favorites. I’m not a big science fiction fan (I much prefer mysteries), but her debut novels The Sparrow and Children of God, about a Jesuit missionary expedition in outer space (you can’t beat Catholics in space!) are both beautifully written and thought-provoking. Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt during the post-World War One partitioning of Palestine, is much better than I expected it would be. And I’ve avoided her most recent novels, Doc and Epitaph, which follow Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers through late nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, for quite a while since I’ve never been a fan of Wild West fiction. But a recent reread of Dreamers of the Day reminded me of what a wonderful writer Russell is; I was looking for a new novel, so Doc and Epitaph it is. I highly recommend  them.doc

Doc is set in 1878 Dodge City where the genteel and consumptive dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday finds himself scratching out a living as a card shark by night and a sometimes-dentist for cowboys who have never seen a toothbrush by day. A Northern-educated Southern gentleman who headed west hoping that the dry Plains air might be good for his lungs, Doc finds himself in a violent world where life means little and in which most of his acquaintances can barely read, let alone appreciate his conversational references to Vergil and Dostoevsky. One exception is Morgan Earp, the youngest of three Earp brothers in town, who is a policeman along with his older brother Wyatt. Wyatt can barely read, but Doc happily loans Morgan favorite volumes from the library he brought with him from Georgia, including Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist.

One morning Morgan is in Doc’s dentist office as Doc extracts several teeth from a chloroformed Wyatt, Doc and Morgan discuss the novels Morgan is reading.holliday

  • Doc: Morgan, how are you and Mr. Dickens getting along?
  • Morgan: I lie him better than Dostoevsky. Oliver Twist reminds me of Wyatt when he was a kid.
  • Doc: You met Mr. Fagin yet?
  • Morgan: Yeah. Ain’t made up my mind about him. He’s good to feed all those boys, but he’s teaching them to be pickpockets too. That don’t seem right.
  • Doc: But that is just what makes Fagin interestin’. Raskolnikoff, too. Fagin does his good deed with a bad purpose in mind, but the boys are still fed. Raskolnikoff kills the old woman, but he wants to use her money to improve society. As Monsieur Balzac asked, May we not do a small evil for the sake of accomplishin’ a great good?
  • Morgan: I don’t know. It’s still an evil.
  • Doc: And yet, that seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.

posterAnd there, in a dentist office in dusty, dirty Dodge City, is the heart of one of the greatest quandaries in ethics. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it ever morally permissible to act immorally in the attempted achievement of a great moral good?

Philosophers love this stuff. The other day when I tried to get a colleague and friend from the English department to choose whether she would choose to support our Providence Friars basketball team or the University of Virginia Cavaliers (UVA is her beloved alma mater) if they played in the Final Four, she asked “Is this one of those philosophy games where you give someone completely unrealistic hypotheticals and then force them to make a choice?” She undoubtedly had heard philosophy puzzles such as

Suppose an out-of-control train is running down the tracks directly at a bus full of 30 people stalled on the track. You have the opportunity to redirect the train to another track where one person is stalled in a car on the track. trolleyIf you don’t pull the switch to redirect the train, thirty people will die. If you do, one person will die and thirty people’s lives will be saved. Do you pull the switch?

To complicate matters, suppose that the one person on the second track is a brilliant scientist who is on the edge of discovering a cure for cancer. Does that make a difference? What if he or she is a homeless person? You get the point.

Surprisingly, non-philosophers don’t always enjoy playing such hypothetical games (by the way, my colleague said she would cheer for UVA, which almost ended our friendship instantly). But the issues raised by Morgan and Doc’s conversation still hold. c and pWas it morally permissible for Raskolnikov to murder the useless old miserly woman in the interest of distributing the millions of rubles she was hoarding to hungry and needy people? Does Fagin’s feeding of dozens of hungry children lose its positive moral strength when we find out that he is training them to be pickpockets and becoming rich in the process?

Many philosophers and theologians have noted that in an unpredictable world filled with evil, no one’s hands are ever morally pure—regardless of their intentions. Doc and Morgan’s conversation moves in this direction.

  • Doc: We’re none of us born into Eden. World’s plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what’s the best way to play a bad hand?
  • Morgan: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • Doc: Infinitely sad, but damnably true. Bein’ born is craps, but how we live is poker. The question is how to play a bad hand well.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus could not have said it better: “For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

But in first week of Easter, I would be remiss if I did not return for a moment to Doc’s characterization of the events of Good Friday and Easter: “That seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.” hyacinthMaybe, but something tells me that a utilitarian number-crunching calculus is not the motivating factor behind Easter. At the heart of the story is radical love—God responds to our flawed human condition by becoming one of us, taking on everything that defines us including pain, injustice, suffering, and death. The new life of Easter emerges from the worst that our world can offer, just as the hyacinths are poking their heads out of the seemingly dead grass in my front yard. No matter the hand we’re dealt, that’s the way to play it.

We Had Hoped

imagesCAGSCZK4“Now abide faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” These concluding words from chapter thirteen of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians are heard at many, perhaps most, weddings. Everyone wants to believe that love is the greatest, especially on their wedding day. Faith seems to be part of my DNA—challenging it, trying to get rid of it, redefining it, being confused by it, and generally struggling with the “f-word” (as I call it in the classroom) has shaped me for as long as I can remember. I’m not so sure about hope. A few years ago I asked Jeanne what she thought the opposite of faith is. She first answered “despair,” then immediately took it back saying “I guess despair’s the opposite of hope.” After a quick check on Google, I found that she was right (again). imagesCAY3WHMWThe immediate etymological root of  “despair” is the Old French despoir: hopelessness. So what is hope?

Although Easter is certainly about love and faith, I think it is mostly about hope. There is no shortage of material to consider on Easter—the empty tomb, Peter and John racing to take a look, the authorities scrambling to explain what happened, the poignant exchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Perhaps my favorite Easter-related story is Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.On-the-road-to-Emmaus[1] It’s such a human story—the bitter sadness and devastation of Cleopas and his unnamed companion (call him George) is palpable. The usual spin on the story is, of course, that Jesus is risen and walking with them, and Cleopas and George are either too dense or blinded by tears to know it’s him. Jesus gives them a free theology lesson, and as soon as they recognize him after he breaks the bread at lunch he vanishes. What a guy—the amazing, vanishing Jesus! It says something (I’m not sure what) about me that I always thought the ending of the story was funny when I was young. Young Baptist boys have to get their laughs where they can find them. But three words are particularly resonant: despair[1]We had hoped that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. And our hope was in vain.

Hope is a tough nut to crack—of the big three at the end of the passage in I Corinthians,  love and faith strike me as easier to get a handle on. Every human life is marked by “we had hoped” moments that we never quite get over. I hoped that I would be concert pianist. Jeanne hoped she would marry someone who knows how to dance. But the dashed hopes of Cleopas and George are far more crushing. It’s easy to criticize Cleopas and George for failing to recognize that what they had hoped for was walking with them for seven miles, but that’s actually not true. True, Jesus does turn out to “redeem Israel,” and everybody else for that matter, but that’s not the redemption Cleopas, George and others were hoping for, a political redemptionThe_Road_To_Emmaus[1] and establishment of an earthly kingdom by the Messiah. And it’s very telling that the Jesus-guided tour through the Old Testament touching on prophetic texts indicating that the Messiah would suffer and die doesn’t do anything for Cleopas and George. It’s not until the three of them have a meal, a human experience rather than a classroom experience, that they see it’s been Jesus all the time.

That is where the story usually ends, but it gets even more interesting. Cleopas and George run back to Jerusalem and report to the disciples what happened; in the middle of their story, the amazing, vanishing Jesus reappears! risen[1]And another human, all too human moment—Cleopas, George, the eleven disciples, and everyone else are scared shitless. They think he’s a ghost. It’s not until Jesus lets them check out his body with its scars and eats a piece of fish in front of them that they realize it’s really him. The whole story is fraught with humor, fallibility, and humanity. Entertaining, yes; but what is God up to?

Amazing-Grace-Norris-Kathleen-9781573227216[1]In her wonderful book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris asks “Does it ever surprise you that God chooses to be revealed in so fallible a fashion?” Well as a matter of fact, Kathleen, yes it does. All the time. Even when our greatest hopes are satisfied, it’s always in some sideways, back door, behind the scenes, fuzzy and oblique sort of way. And that can be frustrating. As I participated in the various Holy Week services this past week, it continually struck me that Jesus’ resurrection, the most spectacular and crucial event in human history, is surrounded by so many instances of mistaken identity, fumbling around, uncertainty, and missteps that it is truly comical.

But it makes perfect sense, and brings the central pillars of the Christian faith—the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection—together. The whole idea of incarnation, of God becoming human through and through, is outrageous and ludicrous at its core. What self-respecting creator of the universe would do it this way? Only one that loves what was created so much that becoming part of it, miraculously, is not only not a step down but is actually the only way to accomplish what has to be accomplished. We know that we are flawed, incomplete, jumbled and messed up creatures, so why should we be surprised that our hopes get addressed in that way? 100_0373The divinely infused cycle of death and resurrection is around us everywhere, in nature coming alive after a long winter, in church services populated by octogenarians and toddlers, in the annual arrival of new late teens ready to be taught on campus, just to name a few examples from my own daily life. It is not at all surprising that the resurrected Jesus, the hope of the world,  was revealed in the midst of the daily and mundane rather than in power and glory. Kathleen once again: “In a religion based on a human incarnation of the divine, when ideology battles experience, it is fallible, ordinary experience that must win.”

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars a few semesters ago. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadOne week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing women who are pretending to be guys. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping as he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

Your Heart’s Desire

I received the welcome news this past week that my forthcoming book, which has been at the publisher for a few months patiently waiting in the editorial queue, has passed editorial muster and has been passed on to the typesetters. As my editor told me in the email, “things are rolling now,” rolling quickly enough that I might be holding a hard copy of the book by the end of May, early June at the latest. This will be my fourth book; when compared with other great events in a life–the birth of one’s children, great sex, eighteen-year-old Balvenie neat, the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, the Patriots winning yet another Super Bowl, getting your first tattoo–nothing beats seeing your book in print for the first time.

The forthcoming book is what I have to show for my 2015-16 sabbatical, along with a still occasionally sore ankle that I broke while on a sabbatical bike ride. The email from my editor reminded me of a dinner that I had with Jeanne at P. F. Chang’s in March 2015, just a few months before the beginning of my sabbatical. “This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. Ffortune cookie. Chang’s fortune cookie at the end of dinner. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding the previous fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” Tsabbatical proposalhis sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I had sent out, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. Two weeks later, the other funding place rejected me as well.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview, I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent the past twenty-two years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire was to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires”? Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. That day two years ago at P. F. Chang’s,  I did not even know what my heart’s desire was–I just knew that what I thought it was had just been shot down. As it turned out, I stayed home for my sabbatical year, spent more time with Jeanne (who happened to be unemployed and therefore home as well) than I have in years, cultivated my new bicycling obsession, got a tattoo, planned several new courses, recovered from a decade of intense administrative work, and wrote a book. You can’t make this stuff up, nor can you predict it–so “rest in the Lord” might be pretty good advice after all.

The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. For instance, I have been known to tell my students that It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I have written about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas on this blog before—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world.

The Big Guy and Me

St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I frequently teach in an interdisciplinary course that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! The last time I taught this course we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had all semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.

Quiet Ignorance

thinkingOver the past several years, I have frequently returned to a question that a friend asked me many years ago, the question that in many ways is the central question I have been considering in this blog over the past four-and-a-half years: How can you be a Christian and a philosopher at the same time? There are all sorts of answers available to this question, the simplest of which is “I can’t.” This would open the door to choosing one or the other. I know myself well enough to realize that if “choose you this day whom you will serve” was truly the only option, I would choose philosophy and try to find ways to walk away from my faith tradition. The spirit of critical thinking and skepticism is too strong in me to accept a framework of belief without constant challenge and questioning. I spent many years—most of my life, in fact—attempting to compartmentalize philosophy and faith. For me, at least, it did not work. critical thinkingThe time came to either walk away from faith, as many philosophers have done over the centuries, or to find a new way.

That “new way,” for me at least, involves allowing the energies of critical thinking and faith to interact with each other regularly and vigorously without pre-conception. It requires re-imagining basic concepts such as “evidence” and “fact,” as well as learning to create a large foundational space for subjective experience in my edifice of belief. This new way demands that I both allow that there are limitations to our natural human powers of reason and logical thinking, while at the same time never assuming that I know where those boundaries lie nor when I have reached them. Perhaps most importantly, this new way embraces both the reality of what is greater than us and the expectation that the lines of communication between that transcendent place and our human reality are open and available for exploration. My most recent engagement with these issues is focusing on the relationship between critical thinking and hope, the tension between cynicism (too much critical thinking) and naïveté (too much hope). As is often the case, I have found the work of Marilynne Robinson useful here.givenness

In “Metaphysics,” one of the later chapters in her recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, Robinson engages with the dynamic interplay of faith and critical thinking. Her baseline commitments are similar to my own—she is committed to excellence in reasoning and critical thinking, but is equally committed to her faith. Her faith commitments are to Calvinism; her essays frequently include advocacy for a faith framework which in the minds of many is rigidly conservative and suffocatingly restrictive. The faith I was raised in has many Calvinist features, most of which I no longer accept. Robinson’s effective use of reason in defending her faith is always impressive and occasionally convincing; in “Metaphysics,” however, she bumps directly into a boundary from the reason and critical thinking side.

Some issues are just beyond the reach of our natural abilities, Robinson thinks—predestination and the problem of evil are her two examples—in such cases she suggests that we take the advice of the great philosopher and occasional theologian John Locke. Locke-JohnNoting that Locke seeks to “free thinking of artificial constraints by acknowledging real and insuperable limits to the kinds of things we can think about fruitfully,” Robinson writes that

When there is no way to understand without compromising the nature of what is to be understood, I heed Locke’s advice. I am content to “sit down in a quiet ignorance” of those things I take to be beyond the reach of my capacities.

This is a loaded suggestion, to say the least. As much as I admire Robinson’s work, I find at least two troubling matters here.

First is “the nature of what is to be understood.” It is one thing to believe that beyond the reach of our natural capacities there is something we should seek to understand—with that I fully agree. It is quite another thing to assume that the nature of what is to be understood is known clearly enough that we can sort between which proposed ideas compromise that nature and those that do not. Their is an inherent contradiction in saying that “there is something important beyond the reach of our natural capacities, and the nature of that something is as follows . . .” Such parameters are far too close to dogma and doctrine for my taste. Robinson’s own example of the problem of evil is a case in point. For centuries thinkers have approached this problem armed with various assumptions concerning the nature of God—calvin and hobbesGod is omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and so on. And with these assumptions, the problem cannot be solved or even addressed fruitfully.

Robinson chooses at this point to adopt “a quiet ignorance”—we cannot figure this out. I choose, instead, to test the assumptions—what if one or more of our “givens” concerning God are wrong? How might taking that possibility seriously open new avenues of thought and exploration? Perhaps my favorite of all the courses I have taught in the past twenty-five years, a course that I am currently teaching, is built on just that possibility. Maybe rather than giving up in reverential ignorance, we should step into the tension between what we think we know and what lies beyond. Citing Locke, Robinson writes that “thinking that we know more than we do . . . blinds us to our ignorance, which is the deep darkness where truth abides.” I suggest that to assume that we know much about the nature of the divine is a prime example of “thinking that we know more than we do.”

My second concern has to do with “the reach of my capacities.” A number of months ago I read an interview with a philosopher who is also an atheist. She said that the issue of God’s existence “is settled to my satisfaction”—God doesn’t exist. atheist-theistThe larger issue is “when do I stop asking? When is enough enough?” This is a highly subjective matter, one that will be settled by many things in addition to logic and reason. In this Marilynne Robinson is not different from the atheist philosopher. Each of them has established the extent of “the reach of my capacities” to her satisfaction, something that all of us do but that no one should pretend to be an objective boundary that applies to all human beings. Each of us has a self-imposed limit beyond which we choose a “quiet ignorance.” I find more and more that wherever my boundary is, I have yet to reach it. Accordingly, “quiet ignorance” is not an attractive alternative.

Channeling John Locke one more time, Marilynne Robinson writes that “assumptions and certitudes imposed on matters that should in fact be conceded to ignorance warp and obstruct legitimate thought.” Point taken. Let’s also be aware that these very assumptions and certitudes frequently are clothed in the garb of unquestioned preconceptions. One person’s ignorance is another person’s legitimate thought.