Category Archives: human nature

Patriotism and Achieving Disagreement

I think it’s time for us to get a little bit more uncompromising in our defense of compromise. Jonathan Rauch

One of the many benefits of getting up early on Sunday morning in order to make the 8:00 service at church is that I can catch the last fifteen minutes of onbeingKrista Tippett’s radio program “On Being” as I drive. I first became aware of Krista several years ago when I was on sabbatical at the ecumenical institute in Minnesota where she first got the idea for her program a few years before my semester there. Her show—called “Speaking of Faith” at the time—aired on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota—I listened every week and was pleased when our local NPR station picked it up a couple of years ago. Not every week is a classic, but every once in a while there is an “On Being” broadcast that I just can’t stop thinking about.

A couple of months ago I tuned in just in time to hear one of her guests say the following:

I don’t know why it is, but I think we’re just at this moment in time where the public conversation is at a particularly low level of quality—the coarseness, the ugliness, the assumption of bad faith, the triviality, the sensationalism. I really think that so many people are aware of this . . . I can’t diagnose it, really, I don’t have a diagnosis. All I really know is it’s terrible, it’s bad for the country, it’s bad for our souls.

“Tell me about it,” I thought—the guest’s description nailed my perception of what public discourse has devolved into for the past several years. As it turned out, his comments and the larger topic of the conversation that day were not only timely, but are even more timely as we approach Independence Day this year, given the events of last weeBlankenhorn and Rauchk.

The title of that “On Being” conversation a couple of months ago was “The Future of Marriage”; the speaker I just quoted is David Blankenhorn, who argued against same sex marriage as a social good both in California’s tumultuous Proposition 8 debate as well as in his 2007 book The Future of Marriage. He is also founder and director of the Institute of American Values. Blankenhorn’s conversation companion that day, along with Tippett, was Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a lifelong journalist and the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. Rauch is a gay man and has publically debated the gay marriage issue with Blankenhorn so often over the years in various forums that they ultimately became good friends. In the midst of the intellectual arguments for and against, both men realized that they shared something important in common. As Blankenhorn put it in a New York Times op-ed in 2012,

My intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.

It was a costly decision for Blankenhorn financially. Half of his institute’s board members resigned and half of his funding dried up. marriage opportunity councilTogether in 2015 Rauch and Blankenhorn launched a joint initiative called The Marriage Opportunity Council, crossing liberal and conservative, gay and straight boundaries.

The hour-long conversation is fascinating and informative—I encourage you to take a listen.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/future-marriage-david-blankenhorn-and-jonathan-rauch/4883

But on the cusp of Independence Day, I am particularly interested and intrigued by the final ten or so minutes of the show. Neither Blankenhorn’s nor Rauch’s intellectual arguments convinced his friend to change his mind on the issue. But the evolution of their friendship and dialogue is an illustration of what they call “Achieving Disagreement.” Blankenhorn’s description sketches a possible approach to raising the low achieving disagreementlevel of public discourse in this country:

It’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say, “Oh, you’re a bad person and you’re stupid.” I can just have a belief. But to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that. And part of achieving disagreement means identifying areas of common ground. It means finding out where we agree. . . . In today’s world of hyperpolarization and the sheer idiocy that is our public debate on most days, ninety-eight percent of the time, the heart just cries out for this kind of serious effort to achieve disagreement.

This very difficult but necessary strategy transcends any particular issue. Human beings are capable of falling into polarized and ossified positions on every issue imaginable—what would it be like to start difficult discussions with an extended search for what those disagreeing share in common? In the case of Blankenship and Rauch, discovering that they both were equally committed to strengthening marriage as a social institution changed everything—it got them past the divisive issue of who should be allowed to be married.

Jonathan Rauch argues that “achieving disagreement” is not only a good strategy for engaging with controversial issues, but also is our patriotic duty.

I believe there’s an element of patriotism about this. I believe that there are higher values, ultimately, than what each of us wants as individuals. I discovered in you [Blankenhorn], I thought, someone who understood that you’re a multivalue person and that as strongly as you felt about marriage, that you felt even more strongly that we have to share the country. And it is our duty as citizens to find ways to live together. And that’s a higher value still. federal conventionI equate that with a form of patriotism. When I see someone who won’t compromise, I see someone betraying the core purposes of our Constitution, which is to force compromise.

In a culture in which compromise has come to mean weakness and lack of principle, it is refreshing to be reminded that our country was constructed by its Founders to run on the fuel of compromise. To read James Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention that produced our Constitution is to be immersed in a several month long exercise in compromise. It’s time to return to that positive energy. As Rauch continues,

I think of it as a duty. I think there are higher things than being right. By compromisers, by the way, I don’t mean people who give up on their core values and roll over and get rolled by the bitter partisans on the other side. I just mean people who at the end of the day say, “You know what? I’m not going to walk out of here with everything I wanted.” I think it’s time for us to get a little bit more uncompromising in our defense of compromise. constitutionI think we should understand and say this is a matter of patriotic duty to our country. . . . If your idea of compromise is the other guy’s going to agree with me . . . You are not being a patriotic American and you are betraying the founding premise of this country.

On this day before Independence Day, I commit myself to being a better compromiser. I am as willing and as capable of demeaning and belittling those who disagree with me on issues that are important to me as the next person—but I can do better. In Monday’s post I will tell the story of how someone who believes very differently than I do and I unexpectedly achieved disagreement the other day—on Facebook, no less! For now, enjoy Independence Day—and don’t forget to compromise!yin yang

imagesCASSRX85

Face to Face with the Universe

lightman[1]A recent edition of Harper’s Magazine includes a fascinating essay by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman entitled “Our Place in the Universe.” The point of the essay is to put us in our place, so to speak. Lightman tells us, for instance, of an astronomer whose specialty is exploring the greatest distances in space. The most distant galaxy this scientist has yet seen is about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth—“give or take. Contemporary scientists, Lightman writes, “have revealed a world as far removed from us as colors are from the blind.”

earth[1]It might make sense, then, to focus our attention on “this island home” where we seem to have a certain amount of central importance. Not so fast, says Lightman, who informs us that “the totality of living matter on Earth—humans and animals, plants, bacteria, and pond scum—makes up 0.00000001 percent of the mass of the planet.” Combine that figure with the current estimate that only three percent of all the stars in the universe are accompanied by a potentially life-sustaining planet, then in the unlikely event that all of those planets actually do have life, then “we can estimate that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that exists in living form is something like 0.000000000000001 percent, or one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent.” Lightman concludes the article by observing that

If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.

Such sobering numbers and observations, of course, are nothing new. The great seventeenth-century French mathematician, scientist, and religious philosopher pascal[1]Blaise Pascal has a memorable meditation on apparent human insignificance in his Pensees.

Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in its lofty and full majesty . . . This whole visible world is only an imperceptible trace in the amplitude of nature. . . . Let man consider what he is . . . as lost in this remote corner of nature, and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to estimate the just value of the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself.

After several paragraphs of his own version of putting us in our place, Pascal concludes with this haunting one-liner: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.imagesCASSRX85

Reminders that we are not special, more importantly that I am not special, are always needed regardless of whether they are welcomed. Yet what most struck me in the “Our Place in the Universe” piece occurs right at the beginning when Lightman introduces us to the astronomer who is investigating the galaxy that is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth.

The prize for exploring the greatest distance in space goes to a man named Garth Illingworth,garth-illingworth-3501[1] who works in a ten-by-fifteen-foot office at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Illingworth studies galaxies so distant that their light has traveled through space for more than 13 billion years to get here. His office is packed with tables and chairs, bookshelves, computers, scattered papers, issues of Nature, and a small refrigerator and a microwave to fuel research that can extend into the wee hours of the morning.

Within the confines of an office not much larger than a medieval monk’s cell, a human being is analyzing an image created by light that has been travelling for three times as long as the best estimated age of the Earth. Pascal reminds us to “consider our condition: we are something, and we are not everything.”

39798_1519136010640_548040_n[1]Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe does not need to take up arms to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him, because he knows he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought . . . Let us labor to think well.

The subtitle of Lightman’s essay is “Face to face with the infinite.” While this specifically refers to the infinite physical spaces that Pascal is frightened of, for those of us who are God-obsessed this leads directly to the divine. For we do not seek to establish a toe-hold on infinity just when we turn our attention away from ourselves toward the vast physical universe. We are also participating in the same sort of activity as Garth Illingworth when we seek to “think clearly” about what is greater than us—the divine, God, the infinite, the One, whatever you choose to call it.

220px-Kierkegaard[1]Often this is best done by analogy and by telling stories. In Philosophical Fragments, Soren Kierkegaard tells a lovely story about a powerful king who falls in love with a lowly maiden. The maiden is unaware of the king’s love, and the king is worried. Knowing that love is built on equality, how is the gap between his royal greatness and her humble maidenhood to be crossed? 11043_182106464599_4873655_a[1]He does not want to coerce her into loving him by revealing his love in all his splendor, nor would elevating her to royal status work, since then she would simply be the same lowly maiden with a better wardrobe and job description.

The only possible solution to the king’s problem is remarkably simple. “Since union could not be brought about by an elevation it must be attempted by a descent.” The king must step down from his royal throne and enter the maiden’s hut as an equal. Not as a king in a peasant’s costume, but as a peasant. Only then can he be sure that she might return his love because of the person he is rather than the because of the role he inhabits. The king’s advisors and courtiers are astounded—how to explain the choice to leave royalty behind for a simple girl? And this, Kierkegaard reminds us, is precisely the mystery and madness of love, not only of the king for the maiden, but also of God for human beings. “This is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth.”

Across the infinite gap separating the human and the divine, God comes to us by becoming one of us. What a remarkable response to our fear of “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces.” God is not silent—God’s love turns infinity into intimacy. If I embrace this story, if it forms the foundation of my belief, what must my response be? As Kierkegaard reminds us, this requires nothing less than my willingness for everything to change.

When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when God implants himself in human weakness unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature!wineskins-old-new[1]

The Difference Between Canadians and Americans–in one baseball game

CN towerA beautiful day in Toronto in front of me—what to do? Jeanne was tied up last Saturday from 8-5 with work, the reason we were in Toronto in the first place, so the day was mine to kill. Several items of interest were within a five-minute walk of our hotel. The CN Tower? Maybe. The aquarium? We decided we would do that together on Sunday morning, so not a Saturday option. My choices boiled down to two possibilities—walk the beautiful downtown on a picture perfect day, or catch a Blue Jays-Orioles game at the Rogers Centre just a five-minute walk from our hotel. It was a no-brainer. The Red Sox’s performance has been so abysmally bad so far this season that this might be my only opportunity to see decent professional baseball live all year. WIN_20150620_122151Both teams are in the Red Sox’s division and both are well ahead of them in the standings. Maybe both of them would lose.

The view from my $15 seat high in the upper deck above the Blue Jays dugout (half the cost of the cheapest standing-room ticket in Fenway Park) was spectacular. I arrived an hour early, as is my custom for just about any sporting event. For a while, it appeared that I would be the only occupant in my twenty-seat row, which would have been fine with me, but by the bottom of the first inning every seat was full, pinning me in the middle of the row hoping that my almost sixty-year-old bladder would manage over the next three hours to hold the $11.50 beer I had already consumed (it did). WIN_20150620_142133Usually a glass-half-full sort of person, I realized that it is a good thing to be seated smack in the middle of a twenty-seat row. No one will be crawling over you during the game.

It was a well-played, interesting game with good pitching, no errors, and no home runs, coming in at exactly three hours (about how long it takes the Red Sox and Yankees to get to the fifth inning in a typical game). I cheered mildly for the Blue Jays since I was in their stadium and city, noticing that just about everyone else in the stadium—90% of whom were dressed in Blue Jay blue—were also cheering mildly, at least by the home crowd standards I am accustomed to. It must be a Canadian thing. There were several other Canadian things that I also noticed.

  • Canadian baseball fans have a different sense of rhythm than American fans. Every American sports fan knows the clapping cheer Dah-Dah Dah-Dah-Dah Dah-Dah-Dah-Dah: Let’s Go!, participating like lemmings as soon as the first two Dahs are played over the PA. Canadians have something like that, but the rhythm is entirely different, and there’s no Let’s Go! at the end. Fast clapping, then slow, then fast again (about eleven or twelve claps)—I never did get the pattern.
  • I did not hear a single F-bomb all day. f-bombActually, the only colorful language I heard during the entire game was on two occasions when a guy a couple of rows behind me yelled (or rather said a bit loudly) “Shit!” when something contrary to the Blue Jays, interests happened on the field. After the second “Shit!” the father figure in the family group to my right turned around and gave the offending person the look for several seconds. Apparently we were sitting in a no-“Shit!” section.
  • Speaking of F-bombs, the stage was set for a cascade of them in the bottom of the eighth. The score was tied 2-2 and the Blue Jays loaded the bases with nobody out. Poised to not only take the lead but also to put a several run distance between them and the Orioles, the next three Blue Jays proceeded to strike out, stranding all three runners on base and failing to break the tie—just the latest blown opportunity of many for the home team throughout the afternoon. deflating baloonThis was followed by the Orioles scoring three runs in the top of the ninth to take a substantial 5-2 lead headed into the bottom of the inning and the Blue Jays’ last chance. Crowd reaction? Other than a sad collective “OHHHhhhh . . .” that sounded like the deflating of a balloon from the crowd as the third Blue Jay in a row struck out and stranded three men on base, there wasn’t any reaction. Or at least not of the sort that I am accustomed to. I couldn’t help but imagine what the reaction at Fenway Park to a similar Red Sox failure would have been.
  • WHATTHEFUCKISWRONGWITHYOUASSHOLES???? angry red sox fanBoos cascading from the stand, reverberating throughout the stadium like rolling thunder. CAN’T ANY OF YOU EVEN GET A BAT ON THE F**KING BALL?? A chant of “Fire Farrell” (the Red Sox manager, for those not in the know) starts in one section and spreads like wildfire. I CAN’T F**KING BELIEVE THESE GUYS GET PAID MILLIONS OF F**KING DOLLARS TO DO THIS F**KING SHIT!! And that’s what it sounds like in the Family Section. Don’t even ask about what’s going on in the outfield bleachers.
  • In the bottom of the ninth, the Blue Jays mounted a rally and, with just one out, had scored one run and had runners on first and third with just one out. The mighty Jose Bautista, their best home run and RBI man, comes to the plate. One swing of the bat can send the home team to a walk-off win. Theangry red sox fan 2 place gets louder than it has all day—and on the first pitch Jose taps a harmless grounder to second, starting a game-ending double play. In a similar situation at Fenway: YOUPEOPLEAREFUCKINGPATHETIC!! I CAN’T BELIEVE I SPENT $300 TO BRING MY F**KING FAMILY TO SEE THIS F**KING CRAP!! During the long trek out to Yawkey Way and Landsdowne Street, there would be endless second-guessing and armchair coaching. “Why didn’t Farrell bring in Koji in the ninth?” “Can you f**king believe that Panda struck out with the bases loaded again?” “I told you Papi’s all washed up—what a waste!” “Why didn’t he pinch hit for Napoli in the ninth? That’s guy’s f**king useless!” And so on.
  • At the Rogers Centre, it’s a bit different. After another deflated balloon “OHHHhhhh . . .” after the game-ending double play, the fans started filing out in the usual pleasant and orderly Canadian manner. “Well they almost won.” “It was a beautiful day for a game, eh?” “We’ll get them tomorrow in the rubber match.” “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” “The Orioles are still one game behind us in the standings.” “I wonder if the Maple Leafs are going to be better next season.” And so on. I thought I was exiting a croquet or curling match.curling

At dinner with Jeanne’s Canadian friends and colleagues that evening I provided an account of my afternoon at the game. Everyone nodded in recognition as I described the civilized and humane attitudes of the Blue Jay fans toward their team’s failures—“That’s the Canadian way,” someone said. But then someone else suggested that I would undoubtedly have a different experience if I went to a Toronto Maple Leafs game. “You might hear a few F-bombs there, eh?”mad maple leafs

philosophy gene

When Logic Fails

mind-body problemMy novel of the week is Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem. I first encountered Goldstein over the past few weeks when I plowed through her most recent work, Plato at the Googleplex, a creative and insightful insertion of Plato into various twenty-first century venues in an attempt—successful—to establish that the timeless questions of philosophy remain as relevant today as they were in the days of Socrates. The book came highly recommended from the President of my college who also is a fine philosopher—I’m grateful for the heads up. The Mind-Body Problem is Goldstein’s earliest work of fiction (from thirty years ago); something tells me that there’s a lot of autobiography in it. Renee Feuer is a brilliant graduate student in philosophy at Princeton (where Goldstein earned her PhD in philosophy) who at a party meets, then subsequently marries, Noam Himmel, a world-renowned mathematician who made his name in the field at the age of twelve. Academic high jinx ensue of the sort that can only be fully described by an academic and probably only fully understood and appreciated by other academics. mind-bodyI’m enjoying the story immensely, but wonder to what extent my enjoyment might be that of an insider.

Chapter Five (“Reality”) might be a test case. Packed into thirty-five pages are a spirited debate between Renee’s best friend Ava (a physicist) and Noam about the nature of logic and what is real, a fine overview of the mind-body problem and what’s at stake in its various proposed solutions provided by Renee, a depressingly accurate description of what it is like to try to find a job at the annual apaAmerican Philosophical Association Eastern Division convention, a neat schematic fitting Descartes in relation to his philosophical heirs Spinoza and Leibniz, a brief foray into the mind-numbing world of linguistic analysis and logical positivism, and a quick overview of Noam’s favorite philosophical argument: “Himmel’s Proof for the Nonidentity of a Person with His Body.” “Reality” touched base with areas in philosophy that I used to be smack in the middle of but have strayed away from over the years. But I loved it—it felt like I was back in some of my graduate seminars at Marquette and enjoyed remembering some of the philosophical issues—particularly Descartes and the mind-body problem—that sucked me into the philosophical vortex so many years ago. A great way to spend an hour waiting for my delayed plane to Toronto at Logan Airport.

I suspect, however, that my enjoyment of this novel would not be shared by some, perhaps most, of the literate novel-reading public. Many would find “Reality” mind-numbingly obscure and insufferably boring. I know this because my lovely wife is one of these “many.” As shocking as it may seem, not everyone gets pumped up by philosophical puzzles and arguments about whether idealism, materialism, or dualism provides the most reasonable approach to the mind-body problem. Iphilosophy gene have been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and take great pride in my ability to seduce even the most recalcitrant philosophy-phobes into my world. But not everyone has what I call the “philosophy gene.” Some people just don’t get the point—or they do get the point and find it to be about as interesting and stimulating as watching paint dry. My suspicion is that most people are inclined genetically either toward or against academic philosophy. Chapter Five of The Mind-Body Problem would be a good test for the philosophy gene. If the neophyte makes it through the chapter intrigued and fascinated (even if she doesn’t “get” all of it), she’s a philosophy major in the making. If she doesn’t make it past the first couple of pages before glazing over, she isn’t.

I ran into this sort of thing the other day in the midst of a seemingly benign Facebook discussion. An acquaintance of an acquaintance contributed the following: I have always said that the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation. That makes philosophy majors a bunch of wankers. mental masturbtionWell that was not very nice. What follows is a verbatim transcription of my back-and-forth with this guy (note, please, that I care more about spelling and sentence structure in my Facebook communication than he does).

    • Me: Really, XXXXX? Here’s what philosophy academics do: http://freelancechristianity.com/are-philosophers…/ [Notice how deftly I snuck in a plug for my blog]
    • Him: none of that really has anything to do with the price of potatoes. I have in my experience found philosphy majors and grad students to be insufferable bullshit artists incapable of making a concise point or acknowledging practical realities. philosophers_on_strikeThe products of the discipline stand as proof that otherwise intelligent people can think themselves into stupidity.
  • Me: XXXXX, what do you know about the academic discipline of philosophy?
  • Him: Well lets see I was forced to suffer through a number of courses in the discipline as part of my curriculum at Tulane, along with a number of related courses such as political theory (gag!) and international relations theory (gag! vomit!) literary theory (gagvomit was that a little blood I just puked up?)
  • Me: None of the last three courses you listed are “philosophy” in the academic sense. Sorry that you had a bad experience as a student–it hardly qualifies you, however, to make a blanket statement such as “the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation.” You’ll need to be part of the discipline for twenty-five years teaching and writing as I have before you earn the right to that opinion.
  • Him: no I took some philosophy courses as well. not teaching it for 25 years doesnt make it any less clear that it is mental masturbation. in fact I would wager that I see it far more clearly
  • Me: An impossible wager for you to back up. But I stand corrected under the weight of your vast experience and insight. Except that your point was made on the basis of anecdotal evidence–something that a return to Logic 101 would perhaps cure. [According to the handy “Ten Commandments of Logic,” so far the guy has violated commandments 1, 3, 6 and 9].1483220_718769974810683_97803309_n (2)
  • Him: no, the anecdotal evidence just supports the logical conclusion. But as the great philosopher Spock once said: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” although while we’re talking about logic 101 you might want to look up “Appeal to Authority” fallacies

Please note that even though “Appeal to Authority” is considered to be a logical fallacy, it is not included in the “Ten Commandments of Logic.” Furthermore, when the authority cited is me, it is not a fallacy at all. :-)

But to be honest, my initial and continuing attraction to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy has little to do with logical rigor. Rebecca Goldstein expresses it well. The process of philosophy always reminds me of fireworks. One question is shot up and bursts into a splendorous many. Answers? Forget answers. The spectacle is all in the questions.fireworks

Border Crossing

As a youth growing up in northeastern Vermont, a trip to Canada was pretty much the same as a trip to Hartford or Boston—except it took less time. We lived about forty miles south of the border, and most of my family’s favorite hangout spots were north of the border. Montreal, about three hours away, was our big city; Quebec CityQuebec City, about four hours away, was our destination when we wanted to pretend we were in Europe (where none of us had ever gone); Sherbrooke, only a bit over an hour away, was the location of our favorite Chinese restaurant (actually the only Chinese restaurant I ever ate at before I turned twenty). Our trips over the border were so frequent that the border guards at the Newport, VT crossing eventually started waving us through—we just needed to slow down sufficiently for them to realize who it was. Sort of like EZ Pass decades before its time.Canadian Rockies

My family loved Canada so much that we made significant forays north of the border on our frequent summer driving trips from one coast to another. I became particularly familiar with the natural beauty of British Columbia and Alberta, considering to this day the Canadian Rockies of Banff and Jasper National Parks to be superior in beauty and majesty to the American Rockies (with the possible exception of the Grand Tetons). lobsterWhen I was a freshman in high school we explored the Maritime Provinces for the first time—a highlight was eating my first full lobster at a community lobster bake on Prince Edward Island. I spent a couple of Canada-less decades after my teens, but once Jeanne and I returned to New England in the mid-nineties, I enjoyed exploring with her the Montreal and Quebec City of my youth, even staying in the very same B and B in Quebec City at which I had stayed several times with my family twenty years earlier. Canada is a bit more of a trek from Providence than from northern Vermont, but that’s why they invented airplanes. I have loved Canada for as long as I can remember; several summers ago during the brouhaha over the Affordable Care Act, comparisons to Canada’s universal health care system were frequent. moose“We don’t want to be like Canada, DO WE??” one outraged letter to the editor author wanted to know—somone replied “What’s wrong with Canada? Canada is freaking awesome!!” I agree.

In the spring of 2002 I was pleased when an academic group I am involved with chose to hold their annual colloquy at the University of Toronto, offering Jeanne and I our first Canada opportunity in a few years. As we checked in at the Providence airport, the counter lady said “Don’t forget to have your passport out!” “My passport??” I thought—“We’re going to freaking Canada! Why do we need our passports?” We had forgotten that a minor event called 9/11 had happened since our last visit north of the border. We actually did have passports—it just had not crossed our minds that we would need them for Canada. We did not have sufficient time to run home to get them and return to the airport to catch our scheduled flight. When it turned out that rescheduling for a later flight would cost more than what we had paid for our original tickets, Halifaxwe chose not to go to the colloquy, using our tickets several months later instead to visit a different Canadian city—Halifax—that neither of us had ever seen for my March birthday. Don’t ever visit Halifax in March. It’s cold. We spent most of our time in our warm hotel room watching the international curling championship that was in town that weekend. Really.

Fast forward twelve years to spring 2014—this time my academic group’s annual colloquy was being held in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city that I had visited only once when I was a teenager. Jeanne’s work takes her to Canada frequently and she vouched for how awesome Ottawa is. I was pumped—I liked the paper I was going to be presenting and I even made a note to self not to forget my passport. A passport that I realized just a couple of weeks before the colloquy was expired. Discovering that an expedited renewal application would be prohibitively expensive, I chose not to go. passport applicationI placed the renewal application papers on my bedroom nightstand, intending to get a new passport forthwith so this wouldn’t happen again. And there they sat for several months.

Until just a few weeks ago, when Jeanne let me know that she had a chance to do a weekend’s work in Toronto from June 19-21 and wanted me to go with her. I never can travel with her when classes are in session, so with the semester over this sounded like a nice way to kick off my sabbatical. I filled out my renewal application form, attached a passport photo of moi taken at CVS, and mailed it off on May 1, sad to be including in the submission my expired passport with its Cuba stamp from 2002 (a future collector’s item). Paying $170 for expedited (two to three weeks) service, I was in business. Or so I thought. Two weeks later I received an email, followed the next day by a priority mail letter, reporting that my application was on hold for two reasons.

  1. I had forgotten to sign my application. (“Bullshit!!” I exclaimed until I checked my copy of the application and saw that they were correct—I hadn’t signed it).
  2. My picture was unacceptable because it was “overexposed” and my defining features were not clear enough. (That’s what I look like, morons! I have white hair! wtfMy skin is Scandinavian white! Even my eyebrows are white! I’m the whitest person I know!).

After a “What the fuck!” moment or two and a few deep breaths, I calmed down, got a new picture taken, this time at the main Post Office, filled out a new application, and sent it off on May 15th. With still more than a month before travelling to Toronto, no worries. Or so I thought.

On May 28th I received another email, followed by priority mail the next day, informing me that my application was on hold—again! This time apparently my picture was okay but the letter claimed “You did not sign and/or complete your original application. Please submit a completed, signed, and dated application.” Checking my copy of this second application I confirmed that I fucking well did sign and date it and fucking well couldn’t find anything wrong with any of it. And now it’s only a bit over three weeks before the scheduled Toronto visit. I decided to deliberately descend into the lower levels of hell and call the passport 1-877 number on May 29. helpAfter twenty minutes on hold during which I was advised at least twelve times that “due to an unusually high volume of calls the wait time is much longer than usual,” therefore I might want to try the passport website (I already had done that several times—it isn’t helpful), I heard “Thank you for calling, this is James, how may I help you?”

Practicing my Benedictine Zen, I calmly explained my situation to James, who helpfully walked me through the passport application so simple that a fifth-grader could fill out but that I had failed to successfully complete two times in a row. He was (most unhelpfully) not able to tell me what I had done wrong on my second attempt (“It could have been anything,” he offered) but seemed confident that it would work this time. But would my passport make it to me by June 19th (now a mere three weeks away)? overnightNo guarantees, but my chances were better if I would be willing to pay $14.85 for overnight delivery in addition to the $170 I had already paid for expedited service. This is turning out to be an expensive trip to Canada I thought as I wrote out the check and sent my third application into the priority mail slot at the Post Office.

While Jeanne and I were visiting friends and family in Florida June 5-15, I managed to convince myself that my passport would be waiting for me when we returned. But it wasn’t—and now I was moving into serious WTF and panic mode. A Monday afternoon call to the 1-877 number produced Mia, who was less helpful than James had been. Couldn’t say anything other than that my application was “in process,” couldn’t guarantee it would get to me by Friday, couldn’t think of anything more that I could do from my end, and generally couldn’t wait to get me off the phone. Shit. I prepared for the likelihood that I would not be going to Toronto, and even started planning what I would do at home with the dogs this coming weekend while Jeanne went north of the border. But yesterday around noon Jeanne called to let me know that my wayward passport had arrived—with about forty hours to spare. Here is proof:WIN_20150618_141315

In four hours Jeanne and I will be on a plane to Toronto with our passports in tow. I hope mine works—but if it doesn’t, I’d hope I get stuck on the Canadian side of the border. I’d be happy to spend my sabbatical in Canada. Canada is freaking awesome.Canada is awesome

Giotto lamentation

The Weight of this Sad Time

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

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. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. 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.”imagesCAOCS0RP 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.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

Hats Off!

Portrait of German Music Composer Robert SchumannIn 1831, Robert Schumann published his very first review, in the form of an imaginary conversation about a recent composition by Frédéric Chopin. Both Schumann and Chopin were scarcely out of their teens, and neither was yet widely known. hats_off__gentlemen__a_genius_by_gcs211-d3krx3aRecognizing the exceptional qualities of Chopin’s music, Schumann had one of his fictitious characters introduce it by walking in the door and uttering the unforgettable words, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!”pdqface2

According to musicologist Peter Schickele, the only possible response he could make upon hearing the music of P.D.Q Bach, the “only forgotten son” of Johann Sebastian Bach, was “Hats back on, gentlemen—an idiot!” Reading the lyrics to one of P.D.Q.’s compositions,

MONK’S ARIA FROM HANSEL AND GRETEL AND TED AND ALICE

Et expecto resurrecreation; Et in unum Dominos and checkers; Qui tollis peccate mundi morning. 

Mea culpa kyrie elei-Sonny Tufts et Allah in Pompeii; Donna nobis pacem cum what mei

Agnus and her sister Doris Dei; Lord, have mercy on my solo. 

Et in terra chicken pox romana; Sic transit gloria manana;

Sanctus estes Kefauviridiana; In flagrante delicto Svetlana; Lord, have mercy on my solo. 

Credo in, at most, unum deum; Caveat nabisco mausoleum; Coitus interruptus bonus meum;

Kimo sabe watchum what you sayum; Lord, have mercy on my soul so low.

then listening to a couple of minutes of the “Prelude and Fugue in C Major” from P.D.Q’s immortal The Short-Tempered Clavier

should be sufficient for you to draw your own critical conclusions.

We all have heard that there is a fine line between genius and insanity; for most of us, it is more relevant that we spend our lives wandering the vast terrain between genius and idiocy. I have had moments of such pure inspiration that I wondered why the MacArthur Foundation and the Nobel Prize committee don’t just give me their respective “genius grant” and prize without bothering with the application and paperwork. I105 have had many more moments when my inner voice, observing what I am up to, yells “You Fucking Moron! What the hell do you think you are doing?” Socrates’ inner voice instructed him to do what he knew was right rather than obey the demands of the Athenian authorities. My inner voice usually tells me to stop acting like a fool and embarrassing myself.

I spent part of this past semester studying Albert Camus’ The Plague with a bunch of second semester sophomores. The Plague is one of my top five favorite novels ever, both to teach and just because it is a great novel. Otumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20f the many powerful characters in the story, my favorite is Grand (Camus’ characters generally don’t get a first name). Grand is a low-level bureaucrat, a paper pushing clerk acquaintance of Dr. Rieux, the narrator and central character of the novel. Grand is a simple but fundamentally decent man who eventually becomes fully committed to assisting Rieux in the impossible task of trying to act humanely and professionally in the face of increasingly inhuman circumstances. As his friendship with Rieux develops, weaving its way through the early outbreak and spread of plague throughout the city, Grand occasionally drops cryptic hints that he is secretly working on a “grand” project. One evening as they share a drink in Grand’s humble apartment, Grand reveals his secret: he is writing a novel. He has been working on it in his spare time for years and it seems to be no closer to completion than when he began it. But it consumes his life, and it is clear that Grand’s identity and self-image is tied up with the future success of his work of fiction. In response to Rieux’s wondering how much more Grand has to go before the novel is finished, Grand says

I don’t know. But that’s not the point . . . What I really want, Doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up—after he’s read it through, of course—and say to his staff, “Gentlemen, hats off!”45134267

It doesn’t take long to realize that no one will ever be taking their hat off in honor of Grand’s novel. He’s been stuck on the first sentence—“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne”—for months. We revisit the sentence, with various modifications, throughout The Plague, and it never rises above its original bland mediocrity. But Grand’s dream is shared by most of us, the dream that sometime someone somewhere will recognize our latent genius and honor it appropriately.

Grand is one of the solid anchors of the “sanitary teams” organized by Dr. Rieux and others, groups of volunteers who do whatever is necessary—removing dead bodies, comforting those left behind, struggling with bureaucracy—as the plague runs unchecked for weeks, then months. Then it unaccountably begins to subside, fewer persons die each day. But Rieux notices that he has not seen Grand for a day or two. He finds Grand in bed at home with a raging fever and swollen glands, the clear early signs of plague. In yet another absurd twist of fate, a man who has exposed himself freely and willingly to contamination for months with apparent immunity is infected with the plague just when it seemed that it the disease was finished. Rieux is crushed but administers to Grand in the same way that he has hundreds of others. In a weak and raspy voice, Grand says “If I pull through Doctor—hats off!”

Sometimes mere survival is more worthy of praise and admiration than any other accomplishment. As it turns out, Grand does survive to the end of the novel—a small and rare piece of mercy in Camus’ relentless tale. But in a story both infused with agnosticism and largely lacking in hope—much like the world we live in—Youth_Tree_webGrand strikes me as an embodiment of the prophet Micah’s simple explanation of what the divine expects of us: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. As I explored last week,

Unvisited Tombs

George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke also embodies such a life, as described in the final lines of Middlemarch:

1331772810The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and  me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Hats off to the Grands, to the Dorotheas, and to all who live lives of justice, mercy, and humility under the radar. As my good friend and colleague Christopher would say, “That’s genius.”

Two Plus Two Makes Four

In J. M. Coetzee’s strange and fascinating novel The Childhood of Jesus, the precocious child David has a difficult time understanding numbers. Oh, he knows their names but is not inclined to put them in the order that the rules of mathematics specify. Nor is he inclined to accept the rules guiding any accepted human behavior—he wants to live in a world in which things are valuable and right to the extent that he likes them, and he is not willing to arrange numbers in the proper sequence that everyone agrees upon. After one too many patient attempts to steer David toward conformity, his guardian Símon sputters coetzee“The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future is: Because that is the way the world is. The world was not made for our convenience, my young friend. It is up to us to fit in.”

This business of knowing when to fit in and when to creatively resist expectations is a lifelong challenge that all of us grapple with on a daily basis. At the heart of that challenge lie questions so fundamental that they literally shape our reality. Is the search for truth more like a treasure hunt or a creative, artistic process? Is meaning something to be found or to be made? Tentative answers to these questions frame one’s encounter with both oneself and the outside world. As Plato famously suggested, it is difficult to imagine meaning as the target of an open search, since I won’t know if I’ve discovered the goal of the search unless I already have a sense of what I’m looking for. But if meaning is something that each of us creates throughout the process of our lives, what hope is there for shared meaning, for truths that are not just mine but everyone’s in common?

Although both by nature and philosophical preference I am more of a “creative process” than “treasure hunt” sort of person when it comes to engagement with meaning and truth, I spent this past semester exploring a seminal text in philosophy written by one of the most eloquent advocates of the “treasure hunt” model in the Western tradition. Plato’s Republic is, among many other things, an extended development of the idea that Truth is objective, that meaning is something to be found, not created, and that enlightenment is a life-long process of being freed from the clutches of our ego-driven subjective “truths” in order to slowly discover what “Truth” really is. plato geometryPlato’s paradigm for Truth is mathematics, a discipline that with its objective principles and rules exposes the truth-seeker to a world in which what is true is not up to me but is available to those who are willing to commit themselves to “the sight of the Truth.” Plato makes an extended argument that moral values and virtues properly understood exhibit the precision, certainty and objectivity of mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is Plato’s exemplar of the nature of truth; he insisted that only those who love geometry could enter his Academy, because it is through study of mathematics that one becomes accustomed to the nature of all truth.

If my students this past semester—actually, over the past twenty-five years—are an accurate sampling, Plato’s commitment to the objectivity of truth is strongly opposed to our contemporary intuitions. As I often do, I introduced the problem early in the semester with a simple question about a couple of basic truth claims. I wrote two sentences on the board,Mona_Lisa

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

then asked for observations about what makes these truth claims different. Within short order the students point out that A is objectively true (as are all mathematical truths), while B is subjectively true (as are all aesthetic claims). If someone denies the truth of A, we assume that either that person doesn’t know the basic rules of arithmetic, is deliberately being a contrarian, or simply is nuts. If someone denies the truth of B, however, no problem—there’s a reason why we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.

Then I move to the point of the exercise by writing a third truth claim on the board.values

C. X is right (good) and Y is wrong (bad).

X and Y can be anything that people are inclined to make value judgments about. I simply ask “Is C more like A or like B?’ When we venture into the realm of moral truth claims, in other words, have we entered a realm more like mathematics or art? Objective or subjective? Finding or creating? In twenty-five years of teaching, students have overwhelmingly given the same answer—moral truth claims and judgments are more like B than A. Morality is subjective rather than objective, in other words. In my Plato’s Republic class last semester, only two students out of twenty-five present claimed that moral claims are objectively true—and they were both Catholic seminarians.

When I asked the other twenty-three students—many of whom were the products of Catholic primary and secondary education—why they bundled moral and value truth claims together with aesthetic claims as subjective, most zeroed in on the problem of moral disagreement.moral disagreement Essentially their argument was that since people disagree significantly across the board about every moral issue imaginable, and given the apparent absence of any authoritative perspective from which it could be judged who is right and who is wrong, moral disagreement looks a lot more like the Mona Lisa squabble than whether two plus two equals four or five. The real problem is that, unlike mathematics, there is no working and accepted objective standard to which one can appeal when trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a moral disagreement. Rather than do the difficult and challenging work of seeking objective standards, it is much easier to assume there are no such standards in morality (except perhaps extreme tolerance) and place moral truth claims in the subjective category. We get to create them ourselves without being answerable to an objective standard—because there isn’t any such standard. Let the discussion begin.

the plagueIn The Plague, a central and early text in another one of my classes this past semester, Albert Camus raises the possibility that despite the apparent subjectivity of moral claims, there comes a time when one must hang on to moral commitments with the tenacity of two plus two equals four.

Again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.

Here the narrator of The Plague is commenting on the “sanitation squads” in the novel who, rather than hiding from an apparently random and incurable plague that is sweeping across their city, taking the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens per day, choose to embrace the basic moral task of facing the danger head on, putting their own lives at risk in the service of making the suffering of others slightly less intense and their environment slightly less dangerous. When asked why they have taken on such a thankless task, the members of the sanitation squad always answer with mathematical simplicity. Some things just need to be done. And sometimes what needs to be done is as obvious as the truth of two plus two equals four. the white rose“But what you are doing may very well lead to your death,” someone might object. “So be it.”

Camus’ point is strengthened significantly when considering that The Plague is not just a powerful work of fiction but is also a multi-layered allegory. Published in 1947, the bulk of the novel was written during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with the various characters in the novel representing the different reactions of French citizens to totalitarianism, the loss of their freedoms, and the extermination of undesirables. kolbeThose who, as did the sanitation squads, chose to address the Nazi plague in the face of overwhelming odds of failure are those who recognized that even in a moral world turned upside down, sometimes the truth and what is right are as obvious as a simple sum in arithmetic. We studied a number of such people during our “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium; many of them—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, Maximillian Kolbe, and others—lost their lives for daring to insist that two plus two makes four, just as Camus described. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the world of morals and values, some things are as clear as mathematical truths. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Axl and Beatrice

Fog Chaser

If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. Christopher Wiman

The other day while at the grocery store I was surveying the vast array of Keurig coffee possibilities on display. Fog chaserAmong the offerings was something from a San Francisco based company called “Fog Chaser.” I immediately moved to the next possibility, assuming that “Fog Chaser” would something like Starbucks on steroids—West Coast people like coffee that will make your hair stand on end. Several years ago while at a conference in Berkeley, CA, Jeanne and I wandered the town’s main street looking for coffee that our New England Dunkin’ Donuts tastes could handle. Knowing from experience that both of us hate headache-producing Starbucks products, we stepped into a little coffee shop and asked “Is your coffee as strong as Starbucks?” “Hell, no!” we were told, “Our coffee is much stronger than Starbucks!” No coffee for us that morning until the institutional fare at the conference. The buried giantAnd no “Fog Chaser” for me.

The name reminded me of a novel I had just finished a couple of days earlier, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest: The Buried Giant. Ishiguro’s work is brilliant, creative, and mesmerizing, but this one was not one of my favorites, certainly not as good as The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go (which I had just used as the basis for the final paper assignment in one of my classes). But it was good enough to stay with, and—a sure sign of a novel worth reading—I’m still thinking about it even though I am now in the middle of my second novel since finishing. The Buried Giant is set in post-Roman, pre-Norman conquest England, a generation after the already mythical King Arthur and Merlin. We find through Axl and Beatrice, an old married couple at the center of the narrative, that a strange amnesia lays over the land. Axl and Beatrice clearly still love each other several decades into their relationship, but they remember only bits and pieces of their past history. They have a son, but they don’t remember why he left home years ago nor do they know where he went. They know there have been some problematic events in their years together, but can’t clearly remember what these things are. Axl and BeatriceAnd this memory malaise is not just what one might expect from a couple of people in their seventies—it afflicts everyone.

Without revealing too much of the story, it turns out that the collective amnesia is the work of the dragon Querig, lurking behind the scenes and driving the action throughout. The old couple’s wanderings as they try to find their son intersect with two knights, both claiming to be on a mission concerning the dragon with clearly conflicting intentions. The very breath of the dragon causes people to forget, to lose their memories—slaying Querig will remove this dragon-fog and restore the land to memory health. Yet, as usual, it isn’t that simple. Years earlier, Britain had been afflicted with civil war between the native Britons and the newcomer Saxons, a war with King Arthur and the wizard Merlin at the center. QuerigPeace came to the land when the dragon, empowered with Merlin’s magic, just by its breathing existence caused the warring factions to forget why they were fighting. Fast-forward several decades to the time of the novel, and the land lays under a dreamlike trance having forgotten most of the past.

But not everything has been forgotten. Wistan, one of the knights Axl and Beatrice meet in their wanderings, is on a mission from a neighboring warlord to slay Querig. The mission of the other knight, the aging Gawain from King Arthur’s court, is only revealed toward the end of the story—his mission is to protect the dragon. As long as Querig lives, the land will be at peace. But with peace comes a price—loss of memory, tradition, and identity. What price is worth paying for peace? What things are worth sacrificing one’s identity for? These questions and many others are at the heart of Ishiguro’s work.

In the days since finishing The Buried Giant, I’ve been thinking about the various ways in which I am tempted, as I suspect everyone is tempted, to live in a self-induced fog. sleepwalkingLiving in a fog is not the same as sleepwalking; rather, it is living with only partial awareness of one’s surroundings and fellow human beings, even of one’s own beliefs and commitments. I find that one of my main tasks as a professor is to provide students with some fog-lifting guidance and tools. Such tools are useful in making one’s beliefs cohere, for instance. Constructing a coherent set of beliefs is not like a trip through the cafeteria line, where everything goes with everything else. What one believes concerning God’s existence and nature should shed light on other things one chooses to believe. The position one takes on the dignity and value of human life should both illuminate and limit what one can believe concerning a host of other issues. To succumb to the temptations of compartmentalization is to choose a fog-enveloped existence in which one wanders from one commitment to the next with no awareness that these commitments are united in one human being.

A.D.On Sunday evenings for the past several weeks, NBC has been running A.D., a multi-week miniseries event about what happened to the early followers of Jesus after he headed home. In spite of the multiple liberties taken with the story, A.D. captures one thing very well—the challenges of and the dangers involved with keeping belief alive after the original inspirations are long gone. Those of us who seek to live out faiths with ancient roots in the contemporary world continue to grapple with these challenges. But as Christopher Wiman reminds us, a self-induced fog often makes the challenges even more difficult.Wiman

Just as some of Jesus’ first century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that grace takes in our everyday lives. . . . In fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.

The most effective fog chaser is to focus on something specific, something real, something that isn’t you—like the person right in front of you. bbtAs Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self—to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.

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 this Sunday 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 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.

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