Category Archives: human nature

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

I just finished spending a week with over one hundred freshmen spread across three classes immersed 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.

pickett

Academics in No-Man’s Land

This is the second in a projected series of occasional Friday reflections on what I have learned as a faculty member who has frequently had to play administrator over the past three-plus years. Mars and VenusMen are from Mars, women are from Venus, but maybe faculty and administration are from the same planet after all.

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

Faculty/Administration War Games, or How I learned to appreciate (or at least tolerate) assessment.

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

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

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

Administration Ridge

Administration Ridge

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

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

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

Faculty Ridge

Faculty Ridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

baseball jesus

The Farewell Tour

In the mostly forgettable “Forget Paris,” the 1995 romantic comedy follow-up to his 1989 megahit movie “When Harry Met Sally,” Billy Crystal plays an NBA referee with all sorts of personal and romantic problems. forget parisOn one particular evening Crystal is refereeing a game in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the LA Lakers are playing. Abdul-Jabbar is on a season-long “farewell tour” in each city his Lakers visit in the wake of announcing his retirement at the beginning of the season. Crystal’s personal problems have put him in a particularly bad mood that evening, and when Kareem mildly questions a foul call, Crystal immediately ejects him from the game. “You can’t eject me,” Kareem loudly complains—“I’m on my farewell tour!” forget paris referee“Well,” Crystal yells back, “let me be the first to say . . . FAREWELL!!”

Sports fans of all sorts, and baseball fans in particular, have been witnesses to the latest farewell tour during the months of the regular baseball season that ended last Sunday. Derek Jeter, the captain and twenty-year veteran shortstop of the New York Yankees made clear well before the beginning of the season that it would be his last, something that retiring sports heroes tend to do more and more often in recent years in order to set up a season of “lasts” as each sports stadium, arena or park is visited for the last time.Jeter farewell I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the Jeter farewell tour for a couple of reasons.

First, I’ve paid less attention than usual to baseball during this past season because by the end of May it was pretty clear that my beloved defending world champion Boston Red Sox were not only not going to repeat, but were destined for last place in their division. Second, Derek Jeter has spent two decades playing for one team—the freaking New York Yankees. I hate them with all the unwarranted and irrational hatred that only a sports fan can muster against their favorite team’s hated rivals. So, unlike the vast majority of baseball followers, I thought it was hilarious when ESPN’s Keith Olbermann began a seven-minute “Let’s knock Derek Jeter down to size” rant on his show last week with “Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not even the greatest shortstop who ever lived.”olberman

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/09/keith-olbermann-derek-jeter-espn

I might add that he also never (to my knowledge) walked on water, turned water into wine, or raised someone from the dead, although one might get that impression from the adulation flying around over the past few weeks during the final lap of Jeter’s farewell tour. I even tweeted about this the other day (something I do about once every three months): baseball jesus“If Jesus was retiring from baseball, would he get as much play as Derek Jeter?” “Only if he played for the New York Yankees,” a Yankees fan who follows me for some reason tweeted back. Maybe Jesus picked the wrong profession.

Even some Red Sox fans I know were rather shocked by Olbermann’s rant (which I’m sure is exactly what Olbermann intended and hoped for). Why? Because even though I have every reason to hate Derek Jeter because of his bad taste in choosing a team to play for, such hatred is tough to sustain—he’s been a class act for twenty years. In a world in which sports stars seem unable to go through a full week without shooting themselves in the leg, being picked up driving drunk, failing a drug test, or punching their fiancée in the face, Derek Jeter was a model of consistency and class both on and off the field. No scandals. No garish headlines about cheating on significant others. No steroid use. No posturing and showing up umpires (he never got ejected from a game during his whole career). How can you hate a guy like that? I found out a while ago that even if I have a hard time hating Derek Jeter simply because he’s a Yankee, others don’t have that problem.

NYBosDuring the baseball all-star game a few years ago, I was at the house of a friend who traditionally hosted a party for a few friends to watch the game. My friend is a Mets fan who (if this is possible) hates the Yankees more than I do, but two of his best friends—a married couple also in attendance at the party—are rabid Yankee fans. Of course plenty of trash-talking took place throughout the game, as the host and I made fun of the Yankee all-stars as they batted or pitched and the married couple belittled the Red Sox all-stars. Toward the end of the game, Derek Jeter, a perennial all-star, was the topic of discussion. “Come on,” the Yankee fans insisted, “you can’t hate Jeter. No one hates Jeter.” Grudgingly I admitted that I did indeed have a difficult time hating Jeter. But my friend the host had no such problem. “F___  Jeter,” he said. “And f___ his mother too.” My goodness. There is no hatred as intense and uncompromising as a sports hatred.

The whole “farewell tour” thing is an odd one. What will Derek Jeter do for the rest of his life? Play video highlights of his now ended career? Even the greatest sports star slowly fades from memory like the Cheshire Cat’s grin after the end of the last game. When’s the last time anyone heard anything from Michael Jordan, for instance? Maybe Jeter will go the way of many retired jocks and become a talking head on ESPN or MLB-TV. Brad and AngieI hope not—it would be in keeping with his classy character to walk away from the game, start a philanthropic concern or two, adopt a bunch of orphans from across the globe like Brad and Angie, and practice walking on water or turning it into wine.

Speaking of impressive feats with water, if Jesus had conducted a farewell tour with modern technology available after he rose from the dead, what would it have included? Some possibilities:

  • A surprise visit to the Sanhedrin during one of its weekly business meetings.
  • An exclusive “60 Minutes” interview in which Scott Pelley will get Jesus to say what he really thinks about his dad.
  • 5000An on-site restaging of the feeding of the five thousand, with hidden cameras in the baskets containing the five loaves and two fish so everyone can see what’s actually going on in there.
  • A re-enactment of the forty day temptation in the wilderness, this time accompanied by a CNN film crew so we can find out what the devil looks like.
  • A serious grilling by the various talking heads at Fox News during which Jesus will try (unsuccessfully) to explain why helping the poor, widows and orphans is not just another example of enabling people who should be able to support themselves.
  • A massive industry in Jesus paraphernalia—crosses, tee-shirts, mugs, hats, pieces of his clothes and cross, tours that follow “in the footsteps of Jesus”—a commercial bonanza! Oh wait—all of that stuff’s already happened.

Of course, Jesus chose not to do a first century version of the mega-farewell tour. He chose instead to spend his final forty days hanging out with his closest friends before ascending into heaven observed by only a few people. Imagine what a fit his publicist would have had nowadays if Jesus had turned down the opportunity to ascend to heaven in prime time on all of the channels. Talk about a farewell! But probably Jesus chose not to make a huge public deal out of his final weeks on the job because, in a real way, he never left.DJ and Jesus

lifes-a-bitch[1]

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a 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.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all 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.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

FSM

Knowing the Unknowable

babelI just spent a week with over one hundred freshman exploring the familiar but challenging stories of Genesis and Exodus. I do this just about every year, but each time I’m in a different place and the students have different interests, backgrounds, and prior experience with the texts, so once again “all things are become new.” This time the focus most frequently was on the problem of how to make contact with the most important force in the universe in a meaningful way when, virtually by definition, that force is unknowable. The God of the Old Testament stories wants simultaneously to have an intimate relationship with apparently random groups of human beings and individuals, yet frequently falls back on the “I’m God and you’re not” position when things get dicey (such as when human beings start asking tough questions).

a wild godA friend of mine from church who also is a regular at the monthly seminars I lead afterwards asked me several weeks ago whether I had ever read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God. I had not, and honestly had never heard of the book (although the title alone made me want to read it immediately). “Put it on your list,” said my friend. “I want to know what you think of the end of the book.” That was at the beginning of the summer; I only got to my assignment in the last two weeks of August, right before the beginning of the new semester.

I found the book to be equal parts interesting, annoying, and incoherent. As Ehrenreich, best known (to me, at least) for her best-seller nickeled and dimedNickeled and Dimed, wanders back in time to her dysfunctional childhood and tries to pick up a thread of investigation now that she is in her early seventies that she dropped many decades earlier, she frequently gets lost in the jungle that threatens everyone who writes about themselves—the temptation to believe that just because it happened to me, it’s interesting and important to someone else. The fine line between fascinating memoir and suffocating self-absorption is often close to invisible. I should have loved the book, given that it is (roughly) the story of an atheist trying to come to grips with what can only be described as a series of  “mystical experiences” that occurred over a few years in her late teens and early twenties. Right up my alley—sounds exactly like what God would do, send mystical experiences to an atheist while giving well-intentioned believers the silent treatment. But it wasn’t until the final chapter when I realized why the whole thing just wasn’t clicking with me. Ehrenreich writes:

I have no patience with Goethe when he wrote, ‘The highest happiness of man is to have probed what is knowable, and to quietly revere what is unknowable.’ Why ‘revere’ the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?

“Aha!” I thought. She’s trying to play the “seeking after God” game using a set of rules that guarantees that she will lose the game. balticThat’s like playing Monopoly using rules that guarantee you’ll not proceed past Baltic Avenue. Never a good idea.

Ehrenreich was trained as a scientist and came from a family with no regard for religion, so her categories of explanation for everything are objective evidence, provable fact, and calculating reason. She lacks the common vocabulary for even beginning to communicate about experiences that apparently do not fit into these categories, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. And it is a heroic effort throughout, regularly teasing the reader with impending breakthroughs in understanding—when she’s not spending page after page telling us about her love affairs, her immersion in sixties radicalism and a variety of stop-and-start careers, that is. But I hung in there because I was hoping for a big payoff of some sort—Barbara Ehrenreich meets the Divine.

In her final chapter, the one in which I hoped she would tentatively draw a line between the knowable and the unknowable as her experiences have led her to draw it, Ehrenreich instead unfavorably quotes the above passage from Goethe, then proceeds to speculate randomly about the “wild God” who has been lurking around the fringes of her rational and logical life ever since her mystical experiences as a teenager. Maybe God is the Presence we occasionally found ourselves in the middle of while experiencing natural beauty. FSMMaybe God is a creation of the “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” that cognitive scientists say our human brain comes equipped with, a device that predisposes us to project consciousness onto things other than ourselves, including rocks and trees. Maybe God is like a germ or a virus, not really alive but pervasively invading the various cracks available in living things. Or, I might add, maybe God is a Flying Spaghetti Monster, since apparently once one starts speculating beyond the boundaries of logic any guess is as good as any other.

“Why revere the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?” In the end, I find these questions to be sad, simply because the continuing assumption behind the questions is that everything, and I mean everything, is subject to not only logical scrutiny (that’s fine) but also the assumption that only those things that are at least in theory within the range and scope of human reason are worthy of even a moment of human attention. facebookIt is as if we have no other tools available for engaging with and trying to shape a meaningful life within the world we find ourselves so unexpectedly placed.

The other day I made the rare choice to get involved in a Facebook discussion. In response to my resistance to his universal claim that “Religious faith is bad,” a Facebook acquaintance (whom I’ve never met) said “Faith is belief without evidence. What else does it mean? Why else would it be needed?” My quick and inadequate response was “Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” As long as faith opponents are rejecting a definition of faith similar to TwainMark Twain’s “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true,” I’m with them. But that’s not what real faith is. Rather, it is applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” wrote the author of Hebrews. The relationship between faith, evidence, knowledge and hope is one worthy of extended investigation—perhaps a sabbatical?? But to assume that faith and evidence have nothing to do with each other is to define the game out of existence—or to guarantee advancing no further than Baltic Avenue.

assessment bumper sticker

Faculty-Administration War Games, or How I Learned to Appreciate (or at least tolerate) Assessment

ASSUMEEveryone has heard the old adage, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that “When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” Although it does not lend itself to such a witty and pithy saying, there is another ASS word that gets a lot of buzz on college and university campuses: ASSessment. When the term arises in conversations of any sort, the faculty says “Look out, the administrative ASSes are coming for our academic freedom!” while the administrators say “Look out, the faculty ASSes are braying about academic freedom again!” I am by training and gene pool strongly aligned with the faculty side of this divide, but over the past decade have had to play nice with administrators so regularly and often that I’ve come to realize that there just might be fewer devils in the halls of the administrative buildings than there are in the faculty offices on campus. assessmentBut administrators and faculty are wary of each other, and fall back into stereotypical fears concerning “the other” at the drop of a hat. So when the third rail—ASSessment—becomes the topic of conversation, all bets are off.

I managed to ignore assessment while chairing an academic department, then directing an academic program for a number of years, but eventually couldn’t avoid it any more. And I had to figure out whether there was an academic Claritin available to help me with my assessment allergies. One of my friends and teaching mentors in my early years as a teacher had a favorite story about assessment that he liked to tell. During the meeting of a committee whose members came from various academic departments, the topic of assessment of faculty and students was on the agenda. RodneyMy colleague, a distinguished English professor who also ran the Liberal Arts Honors program on campus, bristled on principle. “How are you going to quantify and measure what happens when a student reads and then a room full of students with a teacher discuss a Shakespeare sonnet or a page from Dostoevsky?” he fumed. “Some things can’t be quantified!” “Rodney,” a professor from economics patiently replied—“Everything can be quantified.”

My friend did not tell this story as a remembrance of a day when he learned something new. Rather, he used it as evidence that even in the academy, even on the campus of a college whose bread-and-butter is the humanities and the liberal arts, barbarians and Philistines are at the gate, seeking to turn the richness of the humanities into a linear, number-crunching mockery—just as Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD seeks to do in his introduction to a weighty poetry anthology in this scene from “Dead Poets Society”:

I remember the first time I met B____, the newly appointed assessment guru on campus—his daunting official title is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs/Chief Institutional Effectiveness Officer. He was appointed to this position roughly ten years ago at about the same time I became chair of the philosophy department. Knowing that my department had done absolutely nothing over the years in response to regular administrative prompts to develop internal assessment strategies, I was not surprised when shortly after moving into the chair’s office I received a pleasant invitation to come to the Academic Affairs suite and have a conversation with the assessment guru. Shortly after I sat down, he said enthusiastically “Vance, I’m an assessment geek!” “This is definitely not going to go well,” I thought. “I would rather stick a fork in my eye than even think about assessment—assessment geekhood is beyond my range of comprehension.”assessment bumper sticker

I was allowed to effectively thwart and ignore the whole issue during my four years as department chair, but by the time I became director of the Development of Western Civilization Program, the four semester, sixteen-credit-hour required set of courses that is the core of my college’s core curriculum three years ago, the lay of the land had changed. Due to accreditation requirements and an increasing insistence from various constituencies on the peculiar idea that teachers should be held accountable in some measurable way for what happens in the classroom, I realized that benign resistance and neglect would no longer be an effective strategy. wesleyOddly enough, I also realized that I had started moving incrementally in the direction believing that assessment might after all be desirable beyond the pragmatic fact that we were going to be forced to do it.

This was not the result of any John Wesley-like “heart strangely warmed” conversion experience concerning assessment. I am still wary of and uncomfortable with the very idea of quantifiable measures of what happens in a humanities-oriented classroom. But I at least had come to the realization that the standard humanities faculty insistence that any sort of assessment in the classroom is bogus and a violation of academic freedom is untenable. Unless we want to live in an Aristophanes-like educational universe that is comically removed from how the real world actually operates, we need to recognize that being held responsible for what we do on a regular basis is not a violation of anything other than our hubris and pretensions. News flash, humanities professors—even God gets held to recognizable standards on occasion.

The program I inherited had been chugging along merrily without agreed-upon standards and without being answerable to anything other than itself in any noticeable way for a couple of decades. Accordingly, the ongoing interaction between dozens of faculty and hundreds of students from semester to semester tended to produce islands of excellence and rigor in an ever-widening sea of mediocrity. rate my professorAnd everyone pretty much knew it, both within the program and on the campus at large. The only assessment tool used in the program was an informal “popularity poll” in which the students at the end of the year got to take out their frustrations anonymously on their professors in the manner of RateMyProfessor.com.

The biggest reason why the assessment lay of the land on campus had changed was that when I stepped into directing the program, the more-than-five-year process of core curriculum reform on campus had just ended, producing among many other things a new streamlined and improved version of the program, the first such revision in its four decades of existence. My task was to help lead the faculty from the old into the new. Amongst administrators and many faculty on campus there was a commitment to making the new core curriculum work—which meant a renewed, sharp focus on assessment. In response to B___’s request for a report on assessment progress at the end of each of my first two academic years as director, I provided a summary of conversations the faculty was engaged in related to important issues such as grade distribution and inflation—archimedesbut this wasn’t exactly assessment. Then going into my third year as director, I had what at the time seemed like an Archimedean “Eureka!” moment—looking back, it was a realization and idea both disarmingly simple and obvious, but completely against the grain.

One of the reasons assessment is so problematic for faculty is that it always seems to be imposed on them from outside, antagonistic forces. What if faculty and administrators actually met in the same room with the charge of developing instruments of assessment to track the progress of students in important areas of learning over their four semesters in the program? Administrators and faculty collaborating with a common goal? Impossible! Insane! But it was worth a shot—knowing that there are assessment experts on campus, why not have them work with faculty focusing on what might work in the context of this program rather than having the faculty wait for the assessment shoe to drop? task forceI sent an email describing my crazy idea to B_____; he enthusiastically accepted my invitation to help form the first ever “DWC Assessment Task Force” on campus (I call them the “Assessment Posse”). Three administrators, four faculty members (specifically chosen because of interest expressed), and me.

Over the academic year, the assessment posse turned out to be one of the hardest working and most creative committees I’ve ever been involved with, producing by April a twenty-question reading assessment quiz to be administered to students at the beginning of their first semester and at the end of their third semester in the program, a tool intended to indicate whether the program is actually facilitating “deep reading” of primary texts as it claims.faculty meeting We did a dry run by springing the quiz on those present at the last faculty meeting of the semester, received unexpectedly positive feedback, and we were in business.

All of this is fresh in my memory because this coming Monday the newly created assessment instrument goes live as three program teams give the quiz to 250 unsuspecting freshmen. How well will it work? Will information useful for tracking the program’s success or lack of same be gathered over time? I certainly hope so, but one thing I have learned for sure. Humanities faculty and number-crunching administrators can learn to speak each other’s language sufficiently to work toward a common goal. I’ve seen it happen. Imagine that!

my own property

A Compassionate Capitalist

I had the privilege of giving the sermon at Trinity Episcopal in Cranston, RI yesterday morning. Challenging readings–here’s what I said.

What are the responsibilities of those who have to those who do not have? This simple question drives much of the debate between competing economic systems—it becomes even more pressing when placed in the context within which we are gathered this morning, the context of faith. have and have notComparatively speaking, most of us here fall into the category of “haves,” yet we know that in our very communities there are those who are “have nots,” those who do not have regular shelter and do not know where their next meal is coming from. As the prophet Micah asked, “What does the Lord require of us?” Through example and parable in our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today, some interesting clues are provided.

In the reading from Exodus the Israelites (who were miraculously delivered from the pursuing Egyptian armies by the parting of the Red Sea last week), are complaining. And with good reason, because they are hungry in the middle of a desert with no food in sight—and it’s God’s fault. “At least when we were slaves in Israel we had enough food to eat,” they moan—which may be a case of selective memory. Moses in the WildernessIn any case, God’s solution to their predicament is direct and, to me at least, somewhat amusing. “You want food?? I’ll drop so much meat on you in the evening and so much bread in the morning that you won’t be able to figure out what to do with it all!” The white material left on the bushes and ground after the dew evaporates is confusing to the Israelites—“What’s this??’ they ask. “Man hu” in Hebrew, from which we get the word “manna.” “Manna from heaven” is a familiar phrase for an unexpected response to a real need.

The problem is, God no longer seems to be in the quail-and-manna business. We frequently talk in our monthly Living Stones seminars about the strange and peculiar strategy God has chosen to spread divinity throughout our troubled world, a strategy that hands the responsibility for bringing God into the world completely to us. In a continuing incarnational plan, God chooses to engage with the world in human form. vineyardSo the question “What does the Lord require of us?” takes on even greater importance since for all intents and purposes, we are it.

Today’s gospel reading is one of my favorite New Testament texts to use in seminar every fall with largely parochial-school educated freshmen who are under the false impression that they pretty much know everything that they need to know about the Bible. Here you have this crazy vineyard owner who pays everyone the same daily wage no matter how long they have worked, from a full day’s labor to just an hour or so. The workers aren’t unionized, it is clearly a “supply and demand” and “hire and fire at will” situation, so what is going on? What is this vineyard owner up to? My students bristle at his apparently cavalier attitude toward the rule that people should be paid in proportion to the amount of work that they do, a rule so engrained in our Prot work ethicWestern, Protestant-work-ethic assumptions that any apparent violation is not only a mistake, it’s an economic crime. “This guy sounds like a socialist!” several of my students complained, as if that in itself was a devastating argument against how the vineyard owner is choosing to dis-tribute wages. And on the surface, at least, these students had a point. But let’s take a closer look.

The situation described has a very contemporary feel to it. People out of work gather at an agreed location in the hope that they will be one of the few picked when bosses with work available arrive at the crack of dawn. Those looking for work might not have proper documentation, might be illegal immigrants—whatever their situation, they are not blessed with the security of regular employment. The vineyard owner or his representatives arrive at dawn, agree with the handful selected to work on the wages that will be paid for a day’s labor, and those who are not selected are left unemployed for yet another day. But the harvest is ready to be gathered, and the owner returns every three hours, at 9:00, at noon, and at 3:00, hiring more workers each time.pay day Even at 5:00, a few more are grabbed from the marketplace to help make a final push in grape-harvesting for the final hour of the work day.

Only when wages are paid do things get really interesting. We know what the vineyard owner does—he pays all of the workers the same amount of money, no matter how long they worked. Why does he do this? Is it because, as my students suspected, he has bought into a social and economic experiment that forces him to pay everyone the same, no matter how hard or long they have worked? No—when he responds to the complaining laborers who have worked all day for and have just been paid the same amount of money paid to the one hour people, it is clear that this is no economic innovator or radical:

my own propertyFriend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?

In the vineyard owner’s world, contracts mean something. This is what we agreed to—this is what is going to happen. And in the vineyard owner’s world, the profits from his vineyard are not common property—they are his property. He’s a first century capitalist through and through.

So why does he distribute wages in such a non-capitalistic way? In the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the kingdom that it is the responsibility of all of us who profess to follow Jesus to establish on earth now, familiar rules are not eliminated. kingdomRather, they are transformed. With Kingdom of Heaven eyes, he sees something more important than profit—he sees that at the most basic level, all human beings share the same needs. A daily wage is meant to meet daily needs—and each person has these needs regardless of how long they work. The vineyard owner never asks why his workers were unemployed, nor does he ask why some of them never were available for work until late in the day. These details simply do not matter. What does matter is that each of the workers at the end of the day needs the same things, and the vineyard owner chooses to satisfy those needs out of his own money. In the opinion of those who worked all day, they deserved more than those who came late. In the eyes of the landowner, all deserve a daily wage because all have the same needs. It turns our expectations upside down and violates our comfort zone. But that’s how things work in the Kingdom of God. The more you own, the more opportunity you are provided to give it away.

After asking his powerful question—What does the Lord require of us?—the prophet Micah provides an answer so direct, so seemingly simple, that it always jerks me up short. “He has showed you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6 8The genius of the vineyard owner in the parable is that he is an embodiment of Micah’s directive. The vineyard owner embodies humility because although technically the profits from the vineyard belong to him, he understands that everything we have is a gift, and that the only possible response to such generosity is to channel the generosity outward. He understands that justice is never spread evenly in terms of talents, wealth, abilities or anything else—it is our responsibility to create, just as he does at the end of the work day, a world in which all human needs are responded to equally, regardless of which humans have the needs. And he is merciful because he sees his laborers not as necessary cogs in the money-making machinery, but fellow human beings with whom, at least for this day, he can share his abundance willingly and liberally. Justice. Mercy. Humility. That’s what the Lord requires of us. Let’s give it a shot.

Lady M

My Life as Lady Macbeth

NiccoloOver five hundred years ago, Niccolò Machiavelli raised a classic question in The Prince: for a person with power seeking to keep or increase that power, Is it better to be loved or to be feared? This question came up in two separate seminars during Old Testament week with my freshmen in only their second week of college. The texts for the day were the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis along with the first twenty-five of Exodus; the main character in these texts—God—seems in his omniscience to have decided Machiavelli’s question millennia before Machiavelli ever showed up. For an extraordinarily powerful being who also happens to be capricious, vengeful, manipulative, insecure and self-absorbed, fear is far more effective than love. My students frequently wondered why God so often found it necessary to express divine power in over-the-top and destructive ways, given that nobody doubted who was more powerful in a God-human comparison, nor was it likely that anyone was plotting an overthrow of God’s rule. GodThe ancient Israelites and their forebears had probably read Milton’s Paradise Lost and found out what happened to Lucifer when he tried that. And apparently God wasn’t aware that Machiavelli’s question applies only to those whose power can actually be lost. If one is omnipotent, one can do whatever the hell one wants.

But for mere mortals lacking the ability to generate world-wide floods or to drop creative plagues on non-compliant people, Machiavelli’s question remains pressing. If one finds oneself in a position of power or authority and is seeking to use that power effectively, is it better to cultivate love or fear among those under one’s authority? Although teachers sometimes sound as if they are entirely powerless in the face of pressures from all constituencies, in fact a teacher in the classroom finds herself in a situation of almost complete power that demands a constant, flexible, lived answer to Machiavelli’s question. A teacher’s success or failure depends on how she or he shapes love and fear into a structure solid enough to withstand challenge but flexible enough to address the ever-changing atmosphere of the classroom on a daily basis. dept chairI’ve been at it for over twenty-five years and am still working on it.

I had to think through the “love or fear” issue in an entirely different manner when I found myself in an academic administrative position for the first time. As the chair of the twenty-two-member philosophy department, knowing that if trying to lead faculty is like herding cats, then trying to lead philosophers is like herding a breed of cats who believe that ideas alone are enough and that simply thinking something makes it so, I worried about how to even begin. At the end of four sometimes exhausting years, I was surprised to look back on my term as chair and conclude that it had largely been a success. We rewrote the department mission statement, entirely revised our major and minor, and hired six tenure-track faculty, all without anyone getting killed or maimed. Not known for my “people skills,” it turned out that I had a knack for what might be called “diplomatic persuasion.” I sometimes described this new-found skill as the ability to “diss someone without their knowing they’ve been dissed until a day later,” or to “convince people that what you want them to do is actually their idea.” diplomatic persuasionAmid tedious solitary hours of paperwork and tedium, the people management thing was sort of fun—and no one hated me (that I’m aware of) at the end of four years.

When I was asked a couple of years later to step into much larger and more challenging administrative role—leading the large interdisciplinary program that is the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum—I dusted off my “diplomatic persuasion” skills and retooled them for the task of leading and cajoling four times as many faculty down a much more treacherous path than I travelled with the philosophy department in my years as chair. Within the first couple of my first semester as director, I established a few new policies and started some difficult collective conversations that I fully expected to generate significant pushback. Surprisingly, I received almost none—everyone actually started doing what I asked. “Wow!” I thought. “My ‘diplomatic persuasion’ leadership skills really work! I actually know what I’m doing!”

Early one morning shortly before the day’s classes began I mentioned to a colleague who was a teaching veteran in the program my pleasant surprise that no one had (yet) directly complained about the new directions the program was turning toward. “That’s because everyone’s afraid of you,” my colleague suggested. Afraid of ME? Really? Introverted little ole me?? VM Ruane 9Although my colleague is not known for her sense of humor, I assumed she was kidding. “Yeah, right (ha ha ha)” I said. She replied by revealing something about me that I never knew “No, really. You can be very intimidating at times.” Add fifteen years in the program, tenure, full professorship, introversion, a teaching award and a gray ponytail together and apparently the illusion of intimidation is produced. “Fine,” I thought. “If people are under the false impression that I’m scary on some level and it’s causing them to actually pull together in a good direction, then that’s a card worth playing as long as it works.” When I reported a couple of weeks later to my two sons at our annual Thanksgiving gathering that the faculty in my program is afraid of me, the news produced guffaws and laughter of a rolling-on-the-ground-and-gasping-for-air variety.Propero

I was reminded of all of this three years later just the other day as the latest Facebook personality quiz caught my attention. “Which Shakespeare character are you?” Fully expecting the typical bland “You are Hamlet” or “You are Prospero,” another unknown feature of myself was unexpectedly revealed.

http://quizsocial.com/which-shakespeare-character-are-you/

Lady MacbethYou got: Lady Macbeth! Wow, are you ever good at manipulating people into doing what you want! It is a valuable skill, one that could help you secure a job in government one day, but also a dangerous one. Like Lady Macbeth, you have a love of power that could motivate you to do evil things. Don’t let it overtake you.

Well now—that’s very interesting. Am I really channeling one of the most determined and evil manipulators in all of Western literature? The closest contemporary comparison to Lady Macbeth is Claire Underwood, the amoral, calculating, ambitious and uncompromisingly cold wife of Frank Underwood, claire and frankthe Senate majority whip who in two seasons has climbed, manipulated, lied and murdered his way to the Presidency in Netfix’s megahit “House of Cards.” The only person more ruthlessly calculating than Frank in the “House of Cards” universe is Claire—she keeps his manipulative batteries charged when they run low. And I’m not making this up—there’s a whole cottage industry on-line that documents just how indebted “House of Cards” is to Shakespeare, especially to “Richard III” and “Macbeth,” and just how much Claire and Frank’s marriage mirrors the relationship between Lady and King (for a short time) Macbeth. (Spoiler alert)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/21/house-of-cards-shakespeare-_n_4823200.html

So apparently my commitment to “diplomatic persuasion” is actually an expression of my deep-seated commitment to power and manipulation. w to p barMy expressed desire to lead the program I direct effectively into a new and more creative future is a thinly disguised working out of my need to control. Nietzsche was right after all—all living things seek not just to survive but to extend their dominance and influence as far as possible. Administering an academic department or program has unexpectedly turned out to be an effective way for me to get to do what all human beings secretly want to do but often never get a chance to do—boss other people around and make them dance to your tune. I may end up dead with indelible blood on my hands, but the journey will be a lot of fun.

Or not. I’m not buying this, because I’m not buying that leadership necessarily requires a commitment to manipulation and power. leadershipBut I might be wrong. Maybe my sabbatical project should be to establish a new Lady Macbeth School of Leadership on some campus somewhere. It’s a thought. P.S. From Facebook comments generated by the results of the above Shakespeare quiz, I have discovered that friends and colleagues have learned that they are Bottom, Iago, Falstaff or Richard III. But so far I’m the only Lady Macbeth. The “quizsocial” person must have been having a very dark day when he/she put this quiz together.

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

As I read listened to and read the summaries of the President’s speech on the ISIS/ISIL threat in Iraq and Syria last week, I was reminded of a post I wrote exactly a year ago in during a different flare-up in the Middle East. And I continue to wonder: Who Would Jesus Bomb?

There are many things that I love about visiting our friends Mike and Suzy. Included among those things are the various and random items spread about their house that make me think. We usually enter their house through the garage; next to the door into the house is an extra refrigerator/freezer containing, amongst other thing, the better-than-Bud-and-Miller beer that Michael always makes sure is on hand for my visits. I take full responsibility for raising Michael’s beer awareness over the years and proudly survey the contents each visit.

For all of the years we have been visiting, two bumper stickers on the outside of this refrigerator have frequently caught my attention. The first: When Jesus said “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them. The second: Who Would Jesus Bomb?  Striking, provocative, and very timely. This week the most “do-nothing” U. S. Congress in recent memory is debating what should be done in response to events on the other side of the world—the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Do-Nothing-Congress1[1]This is a Congress whose members have become so constitutionally incapable of true discussion and compromise that they would rather use each other’s toothbrushes than try to understand each other’s arguments. Yet now they are strangely united by the question of what is the best and most appropriate violent response to violence. Although possible diplomatic solutions have been proposed, the tenor of the conversation often is not so much whether to respond with violence, as when and how.

I do not pretend to know what is in the best interest of the United States or of those in the Middle East. Whatever votes are taken, whatever decisions are made, and whatever actions are endorsed will be fraught with uncertainty and subject to endless second-guessing. I am also strongly committed to the separation of religion and politics in the sense that public policy should not be fashioned with any particularly religious framework in mind. The most pressing questions for me these days are almost entirely personal. Over the past few years I have begun to explore the parameters of my Christian faith in new ways, discovering over and over again that these parameters are more expansive and flexible than I could have ever imagined. wwjd-bracelet[1]But the question of whether or how to respond to what the Syrian government allegedly did to its own citizens jerks me up short when considered in the light of my Christian beliefs. I find absolutely no justification in the seminal texts of my faith to justify violence under any circumstances, even if such violence is proposed as a measured and proportional response to violence of a different order entirely. And this concerns me.

Truth in advertising requires that I reveal that my natural tendencies lean strongly toward pacifism and non-violence. I grew up in the sixties in the midst of the Vietnam War; my brother, three-and-a-half years older than I, was a conscientious objector. The draft lottery ended just as I became old enough to be subject to it; had it continued, I would have followed in my brother’s footsteps as a conscientious objector or perhaps in the footsteps of others to Canada.Vietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967[1] So it is not surprising that I resonate with the non-violence and pacifism of the Gospel texts—they align with and confirm my natural tendencies. For exactly these reasons, I am very cautious about making claims concerning the appropriate Christian position to take in cases such as have arisen in Syria. The philosopher in me knows that human beings, myself included, have a very strong tendency to interpret texts through subjective lenses and then treat that interpretation as if it was objectively true.

But I challenge anyone to find in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s parables, or his teachings from the Gospels anything that justifies responding to violence with violence, regardless of the nature of the violence that demands a response. This is what makes even sketching the outlines of a consistent Christian position in cases such as Syria so maddeningly difficult. Jesus in the Gospels continually stresses the importance of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick—the disenfranchised and powerless, in other words. _143081042209598[1]And could there be a more blatant example of abusing the powerless than killing innocent civilians, particularly children, by using chemical warfare?

A text I have used frequently in classes over the past several years is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie’s riveting account of how the villagers of Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in southeastern France, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children, under the noses of the Gestapo and the Vichy police during World War II. Inspired by the Gospel in action as taught to them by their dynamic pastor, Andre Trocme, the villagers hid and cared for refugees in their homes, farmhouses, shops and places of worship until they could safely be taken across the nearby border into neutral Switzerland. And they did all of this, at the continual risk of their own lives, in the open while fully dedicated to non-violence.

Hallie reports that upon the publication of his book recounting the story of Le Chambon, the author of one of the first letters he received sought to remind him of just how limited and insignificant the Le Chambon story really was in the larger context of World War II and the Holocaust. “Le Chambon wasn’t even in the war,” the author of the letter wrote. “Reverend Trocme and a miniscule number of equally eccentric kindred-spirits had no effect,” and mattered only to mushy-minded moralists. Only vast forces “make history,” forces energized by power that overwhelms moral niceties over and over again. Le-Chambon-before-the-war-634x397[1]“Nothing happened at Le Chambon,” the letter concluded, at least nothing worth paying much attention to.

Hallie allows that “the moral brilliance of the villagers does not light up the moral darkness around the village as much as it makes that vast darkness seem darker by contrast.” Individual and collective acts of moral bravery in the face of inhumanity, terror, and violence often appear to have no greater impact than spitting into the face of a hurricane. Force can only be met by greater force, violence often can only be thwarted by violence. Hallie himself was a combat artilleryman in the European theater during World War II, and writes “I knew that decent killers like me had done more to prevent the mass murders from continuing than this pacifist mountain village had done.” So in the real world, a world in which no one loves their enemies and no one turns the other cheek, why even try to think through violence within a framework of non-violence?

The world in which we live does not accommodate non-violence as a response to violence, peace as a response to aggression, apparent weakness as a response to power. Every attempt to institutionalize goodness and organize moral behavior ends up playing the same sort of power game that is supposedly being opposed. The message of the gospel is gutted every time it is joined to recognizably effective tools of power, even with the best of intentions. As followers of Jesus, we are saddled with a perspective and a call that is guaranteed to be a failure. Teachings_of_Jesus_6_of_40._parable_of_the_leaven._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible[1]And this should not be a surprise, since the whole Christian story is rooted in weakness, suffering, loss and apparent failure.

But this is what makes the presence of true faith and belief in this world so crucial. We are told in the gospels that “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Despite its apparent insignificance, yeast over time works its apparent magic on the lump of dough, changing it incrementally into something entirely different. Who would Jesus bomb? No one, because that is not the divine response to even the most horrific of evils. We are called to be present in the midst of it all, not proposing policies that God would endorse or solutions stamped with divine approval, but rather as witnesses of hope, of the possibility of transformation, and of an insistence that a better way is possible. As Philip Hallie wrote to his letter-writing critic, “thanks for your point of view. But something really did happen there.” We are called to be catalysts for changes that often are so small as to seem invisible. But as the proverb reminds us, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Entertaining Angels

Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2)

angel and jacobI’ve never known what to make of angels. I was bombarded with stories involving them as a youngster, from the angel chasing Adam and Eve out of Eden, to the one who wrestles with Jacob, to the one who brings bizarre news to Mary and the one who sits having a morning coffee on top of the stone that’s been rolled away from the empty tomb on Easter morning. But surprisingly, my favorite portrayals of angels are from the movies. Consider, for instance, the 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is a standard at my house (which probably makes my house the same in this regard as about a billion other households). G and C at nicksThere are many memorable characters and scenes; my favorite is when George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence Oddbody have a drink at Nick’s, the watering hole in the alternative universe into which George Bailey was never born. George and Clarence get thrown out of the joint shortly after Clarence orders a “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.” Nick is not interested in customers who want to do anything other than drink hard and fast, and he certainly doesn’t want an old guy dressed in a 19th century nightshirt and claiming to be an angel taking up barstool space and adding “atmosphere” to the bar. As George comments, “you look like the sort of guardian angel I’d get.”dudley and julia

Then there’s Dudley from the 1947 classic “The Bishop’s Wife,” the suave angel who comes as an answer to the prayers of Bishop Henry Brougham, who is struggling to raise money for the building of a new cathedral. Dudley’s mission turns out to be spiritual guidance rather than money-raising, a mission complicated by his increasing attraction to the Bishop’s lovely but neglected wife Julia. In both movies one learns that if angels exist, they almost certainly are not at all like what traditional art and sacred texts suggest. No wings flapping around here (although Clarence apparently gets his at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” upon the successful completion of his first solo mission).

angel unawaresI don’t know if I believe in angels as supernatural beings or not, but I’ve always liked the “entertained angels unawares” idea, thinking of angels not as non-human messengers from heaven but rather as unexpected vehicles and facilitators of goodness. The saying reminds me, first, that I never know which seemingly random person who drops into my life might be an unexpected game-changer. Second, I never know when I might unwittingly be a game-changer in someone else’s life. I’ve had many angels in my life—I’ve been with a certain red-headed one for more than twenty-five years; David Riceone of the most important was a close-to-three-hundred pound angel with a patrician New England accent.

My first teaching job after graduate school was at a small Catholic university in Memphis that focused primarily on engineering and business. They needed a philosopher (I was one of two philosophers in the six person Religion and Philosophy department) to teach a lot of Business Ethics (I taught four or five sections per semester). It was a good “starter job” and was tenure-track, but Jeanne and I hated Memphis and I couldn’t see myself teaching Business Ethics for the rest of my career. I started applying for positions in places like the northern Midwest and the Northeast immediately, but the job market was tight (as it still is) and we were worried. Then a close-to-three-hundred pound angel dropped into our lives.

The aging President of the university, Brother T., was such an incompetent holy terror that the university’s board created the position of Provost specifically in order to take the day-to-day operations away from Brother T. and nudge him into a retirement sunset. After a national search, David was hired as the new Provost. CBUThe university was small enough that even a junior faculty member just starting his second year at the place met the new Provost within a few days of his arrival; David’s office was just one floor down from mine. He was a breath of fresh air for Jeanne and me. David was a native, patrician Bostonian, spoke with an accent that we understood, was cultured and refined in ways that we appreciated, and had the wonderful Northeastern forthrightness and honesty that we embraced as opposed to the Southern hospitality and “charm” with which we did not resonate well. David was a wine connoisseur, had read just about everything, had wide-ranging interests, and had a heart as expansive as his waistline. boston-red-sox-alternate-logo-pair-socks-blue-59063And he was a Red Sox fanatic. Jeanne and I welcomed him like a long-lost older brother.

I don’t recall how I mustered the nerve to ask David for help escaping from the very institution where he had just been hired as Provost and day-to-day operations manager. I was only in my second year of teaching, my position was tenure-track (something many newly-minted professors nationwide would have killed for), and comparatively speaking I had nothing to complain about. fear and tremblingI came to his office on the morning of our scheduled appointment with “fear and trembling” of Kierkegaardian proportions, expecting him to do what a good Provost should, deflect my concerns positively (“It isn’t really that bad here,” “We need people like you here to raise the bar”) or shoot them down (“Shut up and do your job. No one likes a whiner”). Instead after a few minutes of intent listening (something few administrators do as well as David did), he smiled and said “I’m not surprised. You are too good for this place.” For a relatively new and still insecure teacher such as I, this was like the manna from heaven that God will dump down on the complaining Israelites in next Sunday’s Old Testament reading. “Tell you what,” he continued. “Let me take a look at your dossier; we’ll meet again next week and I’ll make some suggestions.” And so my boss took on the task of helping me make my dossier more attractive to a prospective boss at a better place. Only when angels get involved does this sort of thing happen.

David was as good as his word and more. Over several meetings that fall, he helped me revise my curriculum vitae, learn how to sell myself in ways a severe introvert would never think of, and begin to grow into the confidence as an academic that he saw in me long before I saw it myself. And it worked—not that academic year, but the next one. dustI landed my dream job at Providence College, where I am now in my twenty-first year, we shook the Memphis dust off our sandals and never looked back.

David unfortunately was not in Memphis to celebrate with us; he also was too good to be there for long. In the spring semester of his first and only year in his new position, Brother T. attempted to force David into making executive decisions that David’s strong moral convictions and big heart of generosity could not live with. Rather than compromise, he chose to resign—to the great dismay of the faculty and students who had come to respect and love him in the few short months he had been on campus. I can still see the huge banner the students draped off the side of an overpass outside the front gate of the college on the morning the word broke that David was leaving: DR. R—–, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US!

yaleJeanne and I stayed in touch with David over the subsequent years as we went to Providence and as he became a higher education administrative gypsy, taking positions at colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and probably others I have forgotten. We learned over time that he was a frustrated professor; despite a PhD in classics from Yale, life’s contingencies eventually plopped him in administration rather than in the classroom where he belonged. David visited us occasionally, we had the opportunity to return his generosity and write him letters of reference for a new position he was seeking, and he even took a thousand-mile nonstop road trip with us back to Memphis to celebrate the retirement of the athletic director at the college we had been so anxious to leave.

Despite many attempts, David never did lose the weight and sadly succumbed to a fatal heart attack five or six years ago. I miss him, not only as a friend and mentor, but also because I could use another good classicist in the interdisciplinary program I direct. The students and my faculty colleagues would have loved him. I’m not sure David ever fully understood how important he had been in my life, probably because I’m only fully understanding it myself now, twenty or more years later. David didn’t have wings and neither do I, but I pray that if a chance to be an angel for someone else arises unexpectedly in my life, I won’t miss the opportunity. I’m eternally grateful that David didn’t miss his opportunity with me. whtthe big guyIf there is a heaven, David is undoubtedly drinking fine wine with other portly angels such as Thomas Aquinas and William Howard Taft, while cheering on the Red Sox with Babe Ruth.babe