Category Archives: human nature

Fear Itself

Long security lines at O’Hare airport. A plane falls out of the sky flying from Paris to Cairo, possibly the result of a terrorist attack. What do we want–freedom or security? I wrote about this last December . . .

Last Monday a segment of one of the NPR shows I listen to frequently was dedicated to the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, particularly focused on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech to Congress and the nation that followed the attack on December 7th, 1941. FDR first inauguralDuring the segment, the person being interviewed mentioned a well-known passage from another of FDR’s speeches, his First Inaugural Address in 1933.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In this speech, Roosevelt was drawing his listeners’ attention particularly to the economic fear that paralyzed the nation during the Great Depression. But his words have direct application to our country at the end of 2015—the greatest thing we have to fear is not ISIS, Muslims, immigrants, liberals, conservatives, global warming, Donald Trump, or any of the other people or things that we obsess endlessly about. It is fear itself.

fear notThere is a reason why the first thing angels say when showing up in various places in scripture invariably is “Fear Not.” Because when forced to choose between freedom and safety, human beings invariably prefer the latter. What do people want more, freedom or security? There is an exercise I do with my students frequently when this question comes up in class that never fails to be illuminating, an exercise that begins with my telling them a story. Just four short weeks after 9/11, I was scheduled to give a conference paper in Fort Lauderdale; as it turned out, almost half of the thirty or more scheduled speakers cancelled because they did not feel safe getting on a plane. Security was very tight at the airport in Providence, but I particularly remember the airport in Fort Lauderdale for our return flight. We arrived three hours earlier than we would have normally and needed every bit of those three hours to get through beefed-up security. There were soldiers in uniform with automatic weapons everywhere in the terminal, the security line was moving at a snail’s pace—and no one was complaining. security linesIndeed, many people went out of their way to thank the soldiers and security personnel for their service and for “keeping us safe.”

“Suppose,” I ask my students, “you wanted to fly home today and it took you more than three hours to get through security at the Providence Airport. What would your reaction be?” “I’d be pissed!” most of them say. What’s the difference between my experience in October 2001 and now? “People didn’t feel safe then, and they do now.” The takeaway from the exercise, without fail, is that freedom and all of that is great, wonderful, and at the center of our core values—until we don’t feel safe. When we think we are threatened or “under attack,” all bets are off—we are willing to set our core values aside in exchange for guarantees of security. And we will flock to the support of any person or persons who claim to have a strategy for keeping us safe. I am not in the classroom this semester because I am on sabbatical, but if I ran this exercise now, my guess is that students might be more tolerant of beefed-up security before a plane ride home. In the wake of an uninterrupted series of mass killings both abroad and in this country over the past several weeks, we are approaching that tipping point from freedom to security.fear and ignorance Iris Murdoch once said that one of the best questions a person can ask is “What are you afraid of?” These days the answer apparently is “everything.” You can smell the fear.

Albert Camus wrote in The Plague that the greatest source of evil in the world is ignorance; that case can be made, but I’m convinced that an even greater source of the worst that human beings can be is fear. Despite the best efforts of many, our current political cycle is being driven by a candidate for President who is extraordinarily skillful at building support out of any number of fears both hidden and public. This week Donald Trump proposed that until our leadership “knows what’s going on,” all Muslims should be prohibited from entering the United States. This was just another example of the sort of xenophobic and racist statements that he utters every other day. My concern is not so much Trump himself—I still am hopeful that his candidacy will fall by the wayside—but rather with why he has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination unbroken for the past several months with no change in sight. trumpThis says a great deal more about the American electorate than about Donald Trump, who makes no secret about who he is. Why is such a person who regularly says things that eat at the heart of our most cherished values attracting noticeable voter support and endless media play?

Fear. Even FDR was not immune from its tentacles; his internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII for no reason other than their race is almost universally considered to be one of the darkest blemishes on American history in the 20th century. The day after Donald Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the United States, the Anti-Defamation League released the following statement:

In the Jewish community, we know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating. We also know that this country must not give in to fear by turning its back on its fundamental values, even at a time of great crisis. adlAs we have said so many times, to do otherwise signals to the terrorists that they are winning the battle against democracy and freedom.

Amen to that. When faced with evidence of having failed to live up to our hopes and claims, people often say “We’re better than that.” In our current climate, we have to be better than that.

I am not a big fan of the National Anthem. The tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is too difficult for anyone but a trained singer to perform well and many of its lyrics are violent and war-mongering. Give me “America the Beautiful” or “My Country ‘tis of Thee” any day. But the final line of the National Anthem is one that all Americans would do well to pay close attention to these days.land of the free If we are truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave” as the song claims, then we need to act like it. If freedom for all is our primary value, then we need to embrace courage and reject guarantees of security built on a foundation of fear and denial of freedom for some. We must resist the siren call of those who would play on our fears and the worst angels of our nature. The future of the American experiment is at stake.

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.”

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost yesterday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a church or religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

ubi_caritas_et_amor_wedding_sticker_template-re6fcd4ed855b45a3b33a27c44272a696_v9wf3_8byvr_210[1]

The Asshole Saint

One of my favorite courses is one that I am scheduled to team-teach for the third time with a colleague from the history department next spring. “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” taught as a capstone colloquium for second-semester sophomores in Providence College’s signature Development of Western Civilization (“Civ”) program, has been wildly popular—the students refer to it as “Nazi Civ.” I would like to think that it’s popularity is due to my colleague’s and my spectacular teaching abilities, but I suspect it is more because everyone is fascinated by the Nazis. Put “Nazi” in front of any academic course—“Nazi Accounting 101, “Nazi Intro to Biology,” “Nazi Marketing”—and the course would sell out. magdaMy colleague and I simply have the good sense to catch this lightening in a bottle every year or so.

Topics covered range far and wide; one of the most interesting, strangely enough, is the notion of sainthood. We study heroes and villains, persons who both exceed and fail to meet moral norms and standards (often the same person). And every once in a while, someone is described as a saint—usually a description immediately rejected by the possible saint. Magda Trocme, for instance, regularly dismissed claims that her actions, along those of her tiny French town of Le Chambon, which saved thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis were “saintly.” She insisted rather that helping people in need and danger is simply what normal people do—nothing remarkable about it. Others had different attitudes about sainthood. Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who sacrificed his life for another man about to die at Auschwitz, let it be known from his youth that his goal in life was to be a saint. Yet when the main character in camusAlbert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint” by another character, he responds that “sanctity doesn’t really appeal to me . . . What interests me is being a man.” Our mostly parochial school educated students have heard about saints their whole lives, but now have the opportunity to think about what makes a person a saint, or even if there is any such thing. Is there a difference between sainthood and moral excellence? Is sainthood a proper goal for a human life, or is it something one stumbles into?

A recurring character in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series of mysteries that Jeanne and I are currently binge-reading raises the saint issue in an interesting way. Dr. Vincent Gilbert abandoned a lucrative medical career to live in and care for a community of people with Down syndrome. Based on that experience he wrote a book called Being, by all accounts a memoir of staggering honesty and humility. Staggering particularly because Dr. Gilbert abandoned his family to enter this community, walking back into their lives years later to find that his alienated son and wife want nothing to do with him. He’s temperamental, a contrarian by nature, very full of and in love with himself, and is generally disliked by everyone in town. bury your deadThese contradictions have earned him the title “The Asshole Saint” among his family and acquaintances who know and don’t love him.

In Bury Your Dead, the sixth installment in Penny’s series, Vincent is living in a cabin deep in the Québec woods because his family refuses to let him live with them at their hotel and spa in town. Inspector Beauvoir, another recurring character in the series who is recovering from serious gunshot wounds received a few weeks earlier, finds himself in the cabin when Vincent rescues him from a snowmobile mishap. As Vincent tenderly cares for the feverish Beauvoir, the Inspector compares his current situation to his previous medical care over the past weeks.

He’d been touched by any number of medical men and women. All skilled personnel, all well intentioned, some kind, some rough. All made it clear they wanted him to live, but none had made him feel that his life was precious, was worth saving, was worth something . . . [Vincent’s] healing went beyond the flesh, beyond the blood. Beyond the bones.

I wrote a year ago on this blog about the difference between “fixers” and “healers,” a difference that Inspector Beauvoir is taking notice of.

Fixing and Healing

The ability to recognize the value and dignity in another person, regardless of their status or situation, is one of the hallmarks of a healer—and perhaps a saint.

Less than a page after Inspector Beauvoir’s observations about Vincent’s healing abilities, the men enjoy a meal together while listening to a hockey game on the radio. asshole book clubBefore long Vincent says something judgmental and nasty about Beauvoir’s culinary preferences, as much in character as Vincent’s tender care a page earlier. “The asshole was back,” Beauvoir notes. “Or, more likely, had been there all along in deceptively easy company with the saint.” I have not yet finished Bury Your Dead, but a bit over half way through I have a sneaking suspicion that Vincent might have committed the unsolved murder that the Inspector and everyone else in town is seeking to solve. I won’t reveal down the line if my suspicions are correct—if I did, Louise Penny would have to kill me. But a killer saint might be a stretch—it’s challenging enough to come to grips with a saint being an asshole.

Or is it? When Camus’ character in The Plague says that he is more interested in being a man than being a saint, I suspect he is drawing a false distinction. Saintliness need not require rising above one’s humanity or leaving it behind. Instead, I prefer to think of saintliness as entirely compatible with being human—warts and all. The Protestant in me has always bristled a bit at Catholic veneration of the saints, primarily because raising them to veneration status removes them from the daily human grind and places them beyond the reach of reasonable human aspiration. AquinasI enjoy finding out that Thomas Aquinas had an eating disorder and that Sister Teresa could be a bitch and was hard to get along with. Why? Because it tells me the excellence that sainthood represents is a matter of being fully human. Each of us can learn to see another person as more than a problem to be avoided or solved, to be attentive to the other in the manner that their humanity deserves. Each of us can learn to be healers, in other words—even if we still occasionally are assholes. That’s what incarnation is all about.

To the Graduating Seniors

For those who read this blog regularly, it will come as no surprise that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. So great, in fact, that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. It is a vocation, a calling, what I was made to do—pick your favorite description. But every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began ten years or so ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Me: Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. One hundred and eighteen years ago,  at an obscure university about fifty miles north of here, books[2]Professor William James gave a talk to the Young Men’s Christian Association at Harvard University. The topic the group asked him to speak on that evening was “Is Life Worth Living?” For the next few minutes I would like to explore that topic—“Is life worth living?”—with you.

I know, I know—you’re thinking “Come on Professor Morgan, that’s really a downer. This is graduation weekend. We are expecting to hear how hard we have worked, that the world is waiting for us with open arms, that we can be anything we want to be if we simply set our minds to it.” I am well aware that this is what you want to hear this weekend, and I guarantee that plenty of people on this dais and the dais at the 013[1]Dunkin’ Donuts Center tomorrow morning will tell you exactly that. But for the moment—let’s get serious. No one in this room, especially those in the center front who are graduating tomorrow, wants to consider tough questions this weekend. But I guarantee that many of you already know, and everyone in the Peterson Center today who is over thirty knows, that someday, sooner or later, you will wake up and find that “Is life worth living?” is a very meaningful and pressing question. So note to self—when that day happens, remember these few minutes we have together today. It may save your life.

To remind you that there is a long tradition in which such questions are taken seriously, let me drop a few names on you from the distant past—your DWC days. Hey, what did you expect, I run the program! For instance, in his History of the Persian Wars, HerodotusWorldMap[1]Herodotus tells the following story about how a certain Thracian tribe welcomed the birth of a new baby. “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

Ready for another story? In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche (never thought you’d hear from him at graduation, did you?) tells a story from Greek mythology. “According to an ancient legend, 67a37eee-699c-40f5-8fae-01aabd563d38[1]King Midas had long hunted the forest for the wise satyr Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into his hands, the king asked him what is the very best and most preferable of all things for man. The stiff and motionless satyr refused to speak; until, forced by the king, he finally burst into shrill laughter and uttered the following words: ‘Miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is—to meet an early death.’”

Had enough yet?  How about one more from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the last seminar with my Honors freshmen this semester? Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,”king_lear2_edgar_gloucester[1] 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.

Over and over again throughout literature, philosophy, theology and more, an important question arises that is as pertinent now, for everyone in this room, as it was several thousand years ago. How am I to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that frequently lacks either one? The world does not come to us wearing meaning and values on its sleeve. The universe does not care that you are graduating with honors and is oblivious to whether your hopes and dreams are realized.220px-Dorothy_Allison_at_the_Brooklyn_Book_Festival[1] In a reality such as this, where are meaning, values and purpose to come from?

Novelist Dorothy Allison provides a clue when she writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” In other words, you are responsible for being bearers of meaning into the world. Is life worth living? It is if you make it so. Truth, goodness, value, hope, all of those things that are central to a life worth living are not the objects of a treasure hunt. They are the products of a continuing creative task that each of you has been assigned as an educated and nurtured human being—to create the world that you want to believe in and live in.

For me, this task is best understood in a framework that includes what is greater than us, that is infused with the divine. Perhaps this framework will work for you as well. Benedictine sister sisterjoan[1]Joan Chittister expresses it this way: “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.”

In ctintern-abbey[1]losing, let me drop one more DWC name. In his signature poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth describes our world as one that is “half-created, and half-perceived.” There’s not a lot that we human beings can do about the “perceived” part. As my wife would say, the world “is what it is.It-is-what-it-is2[1]” But great moral traditions from the ancient world to the present tell us that it is the “half-created” part that makes all the difference. The question is not “what is going to happen?” but rather “what am I going to do with what happens?”  The power and the privilege of shaping and creating a better world is yours. There will be days when life may not seem worth living—on such days, what will your response be? William James’ closing words to those young men at Harvard over a century ago are my final words to you. James said “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Believe it.

imagesCABHGLT0

It’s That Time Of Year

On Monday, one of my Providence College faculty colleagues posted this on Facebook:

Today was my one and only day of exams, so all that stands between me and Summer research is:too many papers

  • 74 short papers
  • 28 medium papers
  • 32 long papers
  • 3 longer papers
  • 28 final exams

See you all on the other side…

I know this colleague well—when he says “long” and “longer” papers, he means it. I conservatively estimate that he has 600-800 pages of student writing to read, grade, and internally digest over the next few days. “The other side” is no more than a week away, since final grades have to be submitted quickly at the end of the spring semester—certain seniors getting their degrees at Commencement in two weeks may depend on their final grades from the just-finished term. I noticed, by the way, that over the next twenty-four hours my colleague did a whole lot of posting on Facebook about a lot of stuff having nothing to do with grading papers. I’m not surprised. grading memeAnything—including sticking a fork in one’s eye—is preferable to grading under pressure.

It’s that time of year—the time when teachers wonder why the hell they ever went into this profession in the first place. I’ve learned over the years not to whine and complain about grading papers and exams—at least not around my wife. After hearing me do so on a regular basis, Jeanne once simply asked “Isn’t that part of your job?” Followed by “If you didn’t assign so many papers, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time grading.” Both true—and both completely unwelcome observations when one is facing hours and hours of the worst part of one’s job. So professors usually save their most intense griping for conversations with other professors who are more than willing to play the “can you top this?” game when it comes to how much grading they have to do. I’m careful not to contribute much to such conversations these days—I’m on sabbatical, so I have no grading to do. Hardly the sort of person you want around when you are facing hours of virtual root canal. I have, however, twenty-five years of college teaching experience that qualifies me to say something about student assignments; unfortunately, I find that those qualifications don’t help very much. The question of what and how much to assign over a semester presents itself anew every time one starts thinking about a new class. It’s that time of year.

I realized the other day that once my colleagues finish their current round of grading papers and exams in a week to ten days, my sabbatical will effectively be over.ending sabbatical Technically speaking, it ends on June 30th; I’ve been telling friends and family that it actually ends on August 29th, the first day of classes in the Fall 2016 semester. But practically speaking, my colleagues’ current round of grading, followed by commencement a week from Sunday, are the last professor-related items that my sabbatical frees me from. I will be spending the summer months doing the exact same things I usually spend my summer doing—writing (which this summer means getting my book into the format my publisher wants) and planning for my fall classes. I’m pumped for both of these activities. There are few things professionally for an academic that beat getting a book published, but one of the things that (for me, at least) might rank higher is planning classes for a new semester.

One of the many wonderful things about the life of a teacher is that the world is created anew twice per year. I realize that many non-academics are under the impression that college professors, once they have taught a course two or three times with a modicum of success, continue to teach that course exactly the same way every time it shows up on the calendar for the rest of their careers. resetI’d love to say that this never happens, but my own experience on the inside of the academy has been that there unfortunately are such professors out there, hitting the reset button the first day of each semester as they prepare to bore their new students to death over the upcoming weeks. But I’m happy to report that such professors are rare and are becoming rarer. Like the dodo bird, the “I haven’t had a new thought or teaching technique in decades” species of professor will hopefully go extinct soon. I find that most college professors share my energies as they begin to think about the next round of classes a few months down the line—eternally optimistic, positively energized, and full of hope.

For instance, in the fall I will be teaching two sections of General Ethics, the philosophy department’s gateway course into moral philosophy, the place where the strange, unfamiliar world of philosophy and real life intersect most obviously and immediately. My two sections are full of twenty-five juniors and seniors each, most of whom are taking the class because they have to—an ethics class is part of my college’s required core curriculum. So how do I convince fifty students, who would probably rather be doing anything else than sitting in an ethics class, that they are about to embark on an unforgettable voyage?

How NOT to plan a syllabus.

How NOT to plan a syllabus.

That’s the never-ending and always exciting challenge to a teacher—the world created anew every semester.

General Ethics is my favorite course to teach; although I have taught three or four dozen sections of the course in my career, due to four years of heavy administrative duties followed by a year’s sabbatical, my fall ethics classes will be the first time I have taught General Ethics in five years. The last time I taught it I used an entirely new syllabus, essentially teaching ethics through literature. I was satisfied with both sections I taught that semester, received great student reviews at the end of the term, so common sense would indicate that I should pull that syllabus up on my tablet, change the assignment dates to match our fall semester meeting times, order the books, and move on to my next task.

But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? So today I begin planning for next fall’s General Ethics sections with a blank tablet screen in front of me. I’m convinced that these will be the greatest classes I’ve ever taught, that my students’ lives will be changed because of spending a semester under my teaching care, that a new book will percolate up from our brilliant and stimulating discussions, and that the last thing I’ll say before I breathe my last breath a few decades down the line is “Man those Fall 2016 General Ethics classes were terrific!” No pressure, of course—it’s all part of the wonderful life of being a professor. Even if we do have to do a lot of grading. I’ll keep you updated over the summer as I build the syllabus. Some things are more fun than sabbatical!

Revolution

Remembering the Revolution

There is a saying, particularly popular among conservatives, that “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.” I am a liberal, but cannot challenge the alleged truth of this saying since I have never (thankfully) been mugged. Over six decades of experience, however, I have had plenty of opportunity to wonder about an important question that this saying raises for everyone, regardless of political or social commitments—moral hazardWhat happens when ideology runs headlong into real life?

I got to thinking about this question anew while reading Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard over the past few days. It was actually a reread, since I used her novella in an ethics class a few years ago and am in the process of deciding what texts to use in the ethics classes I’ll be teaching in the fall. Published a year or so after 9/11, Moral Hazard is set in the turbulent Wall Street of the middle and late nineties. The main character, Cath, is a freelance writer with well-defined and consistent liberal positions on moral and political issues. She is in her mid-forties and has been happily married to Bailey, a man fifteen years her senior, for a decade. But Bailey becomes more and more forgetful and absent-minded; a series of medical tests reveals that he has Alzheimer’s. With large medical bills looming on the horizon, Cath uses a connection to get a speech-writing job at a top Wall Street firm. In order to take care of her husband, Cath finds herself in a job that requires her to violate many of her dearest principles on a daily basis.cigarette She hates every minute of it; one of her few daily respites is a stolen cigarette or two with Mike, a fellow sixties refugee who finds himself working for people who represent and do everything that he despises.

As the story progresses, both Cath and Mike find various justifications for their daily betrayal of their values. Cath, for instance, knows that she cannot hope to earn the money it will take to care for Bailey long term without a regular, well-paying job. This does not, however, make her feel any better about her abandoned dreams. After one conversation with Mike late in the book, Cath reveals something.

Okay, a secret. In my wallet, I keep a scrap of disintegrating paper on which is written, “The revolution is magnificent, and everything else is bilge.” Who said this and which revolution I’ve forgotten, but I’ve transferred it from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years to remind myself of a time when I was young and silly, but cared. The idealism was magnificent, not the revolution.

If Cath was a real person, she and I would be roughly the same age. I also am a child of the sixties, but for many reasons was not a real revolutionary—at least in practice. I was a bit too young to take part in many of the protests (my brother, three-and-a-half years older, did); my conservative religious upbringing in rural Vermont also limited opportunities for my internal rebel. But I had my moments. mcgovernFor instance, I was too young to vote in the ’72 presidential election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to Ted, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far.

My best opportunity to be a revolutionary came shortly after President Nixon’s escalation of the War in Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. I was in my freshman year in high school; my school was a public/private hybrid, serving as the local public high school for our town but also taking in several dozen boarding students—mostly from the NYC area—each year. Each day started with assembly for the five hundred or so students, a gathering that began with the Pledge of Allegiance. LIThere was one morning during my sophomore year when it dawned on me that I was pledging allegiance to a country whose present activities—at least some of them—did not deserve my respect or allegiance. So I didn’t stand up. And I did not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America or the Republic for which it stands at any subsequent assembly for the rest of my high school career—about two and a half years. Other than causing a few other students over time to join me in my non-pledge of allegiance, my daily statement and protest accomplished nothing tangible, other than a threat from the assistant headmaster to report my activities to my parents (a threat that I dearly wish he had followed through on). But it did something for me, and perhaps that’s enough.

Fast forward more than four decades. My positions on political and social issues are, if anything, more liberal now than they have ever been. RevolutionDuring our current political cycle and presidential campaign there are voices—from both extremes of the political spectrum—calling for a political revolution. I observe with delight and admiration young fellow citizens who, involved for the first time in their lives in the political process, are strongly supportive of a candidate whose policies and positions on just about every issue reflect my own as closely as any national political candidate in my lifetime. Somehow this candidate has managed to sustain his liberal idealism through a lifetime of political engagement, first on the local and then on the national level. I recognize my teen and twenty-something self in the young folks who are this candidate’s most ardent supporters. They are calling for a political revolution.Idealis-Realism

But I resonate more fully with the piece of paper that Cath has transferred from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years. The purest revolutions, historically speaking, have tended to be the ones that created the most havoc and caused the most damage. The revolution—any revolution—is not what is magnificent. What is magnificent is the ongoing struggle to engage the idealism that energizes revolutionary visions with the pragmatism required by real life. How will this beautiful, revolutionary vision be accomplished? Am I willing to cultivate the patience required to shepherd the most praiseworthy ideals through the swamp and muck of reality? To the idealists out there, don’t forget that for ideals to be worth anything, they have to work in the real world. For those suspicious of ideals, I challenge you to name one meaningful change that has ever been accomplished without them.

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

The Freedom of a Tree

I read once that there are two kinds of living things—they are distinguished by the strategies they have developed in response to perceived threat and danger. survival strategiesOne kind responds to danger by running away from it, developing strategies and evolving tools to sidestep threats in more and more complex and sophisticated ways. We call this kind of living thing Animals. The other kind’s strategy is to hunker down, grow roots along with protective armor, and face danger by refusing to be moved. We call this kind of living thing Plants. We human beings tend to consider our animal capacities to choose between various strategies as one of our most important and wonderful abilities, going so far as defining “freedom” in terms of how many options we have to choose from. three pinesBut the older I get, the more I think that the nature of true freedom is a lot more like the strategy of plants.

In The Cruelest Month, the third of Louise Penney’s Inspector Gamache series that I just finished reading, the good Inspector has a conversation with Gilles Sandon, one of more than a half-dozen suspects in the most recent murder in Three Pines, Quebec. Sandon is a former lumberjack, a hulking brute of a guy with an unexpected sensitive side. Gilles tells Gamache of a day a number of years ago when he walked with his tree-cutting colleagues into the woods for a day of work and heard a whimpering that sounded like a baby animal. LumberjackAs the whimpering became louder and turned into a cry, then a scream, Gilles realized that this wasn’t an animal sound at all. Furthermore, none of his companions could hear it.

Something had changed overnight. I’d changed. I could hear the trees. I think I could always hear their happiness. I think that’s why I felt so happy myself in the forest. But now I could hear their terror too . . . Mostly trees are quiet. Just want to be left alone. Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.

Gilles’ life was changed, beginning with his understandably being fired from his lumberjacking job (if a lumberjack won’t cut trees, what’s the point?). Over time he became a woodworking artist, specializing in making chairs out of dead trees that he carefully selects after they have fallen; as Gamache says, Gilles makes his living giving dead trees new life.

“Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.”treebeard In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the middle book in his classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits Merry and Pippin learn a similar lesson from Treebeard and the Ents, the oldest creatures in Middle Earth who are, for all intents and purposes, talking trees who have the ability to walk, think, and talk—very, VERY slowly and deliberately. Merry and Pippin, running for their lives from a band of murderous orcs from whom they have just escaped, find themselves in middle of Fangorn Forest where the Ents live. After hearing about the forces gathering for a classic battle between good and evil on the borders of their forest, entmootTreebeard calls for an “Entmoot,” a council of Ents to decide what, if anything, they should do about these disturbing events. It takes days for the Ents to gather, and many more days for the debate to take place at a one-sentence-per-hour pace. Merry and Pippin are driven close to madness with impatience over the snail-like deliberateness of the Ents—but when they finally choose to take a side in the battle, their participation sways the conflict, at least for a while, in the direction of the good guys.

In our American culture, freedom is often thought of as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it, free from the interference of anyone other than me. Any perceived limitation on what I want to do, even if clearly in my own interest and that of others, is a violation of my “freedom.” But philosophers have argued for centuries that this uninhibited throwing around of my deliberative weight is anything but true freedom. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, sovereignty of goodgood habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. More than two millennia later, Iris Murdoch provides a contemporary spin on Aristotle’s insight in The Sovereignty of Good by suggesting that it is in the small choices concerning what we pay attention to and adopt as centrally important that true freedom is to be found.

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.

True freedom, under this description, is acting in attunement with one’s character and conscience—items that are constructed slowly, deliberately, and in accord with one’s best nature. A lot like a tree, in other words.here i stand

A human being can never entirely trade its animal survival strategy for the rootedness of a plant. But we can, as Gilles, Merry, and Pippin did, learn a lot about freedom and how to be in the world from a tree. I used to wonder what Martin Luther meant when, at the Diet of Worms, he concluded his refusal to recant his heretical writings by saying “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Of course he could have done otherwise! I would complain. No one is forcing him not to recant. But Luther’s point was that at this moment in his life, recanting his writings would be the same as ceasing to be Martin Luther. He can do no other because his character has rooted him in place. As Murdoch suggests, if one has paid attention to the incremental tiny choices that shape one’s character and life over time, what to do at “crucial moments of choice” will not only be clear—it will be unavoidable. Be like a tree.

JC and family values

Family Values?

I was angry with my father for a lot of reasons over the years, some justified and some not. But I don’t recall any time when I was more pissed at him than when I heard him say on one of his cassette-taped “fireside chats”imagesWCLS816W aimed at his followers and groupies that “a person’s real family is almost never his blood family.” Thanks a lot, Dad—signed, “One of your blood family.” I heard this a few short months after my mother died many years too early of cancer and my father had remarried in record-breaking time. “Of course you feel nothing but positive familial vibes from your groupies,” I thought. “They’ve never experienced your self-centeredness, your moods, your superiority complex or had to put up with your annoying quirks as your blood family has.” To call a bunch of people who are nothing but cheerleaders for everything you say and do a “family” distorts the meaning of the word beyond recognition.

I have learned a number of things over the years, including that many of my problems with my father were mirrors of my own unaddressed problems. Strangely enough, I have also discovered that Dad may not have been as wrong about family dynamics as I thought. imagesGKY3V9C7Taking a close look at what the source (Jesus) said in the Gospels about the possibility of following God and being a good family person is enough to give one pause about a lot of things, including the very familiar “family values” that are trumpeted by political and religious folks from all sorts of angles at the drop of a hat.

Stereotypically, “family values” are conservative values, focusing on respect for authority, hard work, independence, patriotism, faith and so on; often they are largely synonymous with traditional values, which tend to include social positions such as anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage and lurking suspicions about homosexuality in general. But during every political cycle liberal and progressive voices are heard crying out that true family values are about concern for others, lifting the downtrodden and speaking truth to power. And the never-ending war over who truly defines and owns family values rages on. JC and family valuesMy own moral compass strongly aligns with the progressive perspective, but in this case it is a mistake for either side (or any in the middle) to stake a Jesus claim on family values. Because it is pretty clear from the Gospel stories that Jesus himself didn’t give a damn about family values or families at all.

WJMIn the Forward to his wonderful short book What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills provides an illuminating reflection on the What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?) meme that has for many years served a host of Christians as their “go to” touchstone for how to live a Christian life. One can find WWJD? coffee cups, posters, key chains, bumper stickers, tee shirts—the idea has been viral for a while. Wills asks, do we really want to do what Jesus did?WWJD For example:

  • Should a person say to his or her mother “Woman, what have I to do with you?” when she asks for a favor?
  • Should we encourage twelve-year-olds to speak to their parents rudely and dismissively as Jesus did to Mary and Joseph during the Temple episode?
  • Should we tell a person mourning the recent death of his or her father to “Let the dead bury their dead” in order to pursue more lofty goals (such as following us)?
  • Should we tell people that hating their parents, siblings, and children is a prerequisite for seeking after God?

deadJesus’ brothers neither understood nor understood his mission (it’s not always clear that Jesus fully understood it himself); when residents of Nazareth started saying that Jesus had lost his mind, his family pursued the first century equivalent of having him committed. Those who did follow Jesus during his itinerant ministry left their homes, their spouses, their children and their jobs behind as they were sucked into this strange man’s disruptive wake.

In other words, if one is concerned about family values, WWJD? is useful only as a guide for what one should not do. All attempts to root one’s own moral code, regardless its content, in the example of Jesus from the Gospel stories are little more than thinly veiled attempts to create Jesus in one’s own image. For every Gospel text congruent with our understanding of family values (and there are many such texts), there is a text in which Jesus promises that following him and seeking God is guaranteed to turn one’s world upside down and to violate almost every traditional moral expectation and norm.

Everyone is aware of families torn apart and destroyed when one of the family members sets out on a mission to “accomplish God’s work.” LombardiThis is not hard to explain, given the above—the stories of Jesus give ample justification for ignoring one’s family obligations and connections if they conflict with the perceived will of God for one’s life. So what’s the takeaway here? The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi used to tell his Green Bay Packers players that their priorities were to be “God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers”—although his players report that frequently he clearly changed the order. Is God a cosmic Vince Lombardi insisting upon being at the pinnacle of a rigid hierarchy, to the detriment of anything else, no matter how important, that might conflict?

That does indeed appear to be the case, assuming that the game of hierarchical “Who’s on top?’ is what the divine has in mind. But what if that isn’t the point at all? What if Jesus’ consistently violating our values and expectations is a call to consider something more radical than our limited imaginations can accommodate? top of heapIf, rather than residing at “the top of the heap,” God is everything and everything is in God, then the lay of the land is no longer a landscape of “either/or.” The answer to the question “which is more important, God or family?” is “yes.” Jesus’ provocative statements concerning the family are intended to demonstrate that when we include God as just another object of important things that need to be placed in proper order we are misconstruing God entirely.

If everything is in God, then God is not ultimately in conflict with anything. If God and family appear to be in conflict, then faith tells me that somewhere, at some level, God and family are in unity regardless of appearances. If I have to regularly choose between paying attention to God and to my job, then my faith-energized assignment is to learn how to find God in my job (since my job is in God, as is everything else). Attempts to fit the life of faith into familiar categories, even if we are willing to significantly adjust those categories, miss the boat. The energy of the Christian life is captured well by the Apostle Paul: I will show you a more excellent way.MEW