Category Archives: human nature

Insufficient Evidence

russellBertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. He was one of the most important and recognizable public figures in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century. He was also an avowed atheist. The story is told that at the end of one of his public lectures in which his atheism was on full display, a furious woman stood up during the question and answer period and asked, “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied, “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’”

I was reminded of this story when the author of an article I assigned in my ethics classes the other day included it at the beginning of his discussion of how people use evidence to support the different sorts of things we claim to be true. For instance, the author claimed, verifiable and objective evidence serves as the foundation for truth claims in the sciences, but in religious belief—no so much. Indeed, the author continued, religious belief is easy and available to everyone because evidence is not required—just faith (whatever that means). atheismThe author identifies himself as an atheist who is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious belief—his conclusions make me wonder if he has ever actually met a person of faith.

As I am working with fifty students in two sections of General Ethics through our current unit entitled “Does God have anything to do with ethics?’ I have found regularly that my junior and senior students—the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education—are often no more informed about the relationship of evidence to faith than the atheist author of the article for this given day. A few weeks ago I provided them with my “go to” definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the hebrewsevidence of things not seen. Some were surprised to learn that this definition, which does not refer to either God or religion, is from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Whatever else faith is, the author of Hebrews is claiming that evidence has something to do with it.

I decided, as I often do, to get at this tricky issue obliquely and through the back door. “How many of you have ever been to Japan?” I asked. No hands went up in either class section, including mine. “How many of you believe in the existence of Japan?” I asked next—all hands went up. “How does that work?” How do we come to believe in the existence and/or truth of something when we lack direct supporting evidence? Because clearly the preponderance of things that each of us believes to be true—thousands upon thousands of items of all sorts—are beliefs that lack direct empirical evidence to support them.“How many of you believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in 1865?” I aslincolnked next. All hands went up. “How many of you were there when it happened?” No hands went up—I assured them that even I was not old enough to have been an eye-witness. So once again we have an example of a claim that everyone believes to be true even though we lack “concrete evidence” (as my students like to call it) to support our belief. Or do we?

Upon being asked to list what sorts of evidence we do have to support our beliefs concerning the existence of Japan and what happened in Ford’s Theater in April of 1865, my students came up with several suggestions:

  • Testimony—The word of others, eyewitnesses when possible, counts as particularly strong indirect evidence. Even though I have not been to Japan, I know people who have visited there and have even met people from Japan. It is, of course, possible that all of these people are lying to me, but the more that the testimonies I gather are consistent with each other, the more likely it is that they are pointing toward something true. This doesn’t work, of course, when considering events where no eyewitnesses are available, such as what happened at Ford’s Theater, but fortunately the spoken word is not the only way in which we are able to gather relevant testimony.
  • Texts—Those who have not been to Japan have seen pictures of it and have read descriptions of it. These are indirect and second-hand, but become part of accumulating indirect evidence. Textual evidence for historical events for whom there are no longer any eyewitnesses is the bread-and-butter of the historian’s trade. goodwinThe great Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a talk on campus a couple of evenings ago—when she spoke of Abraham Lincoln, it never occurred to me to wonder if what she was saying was true. As she described the meticulous ways in which she gathered evidence for her book Team of Rivals from letters, diaries, newspapers, and other first-hand accounts from over a century-and-a-half ago, I was reminded of how the only evidence we have of the truth of anything occurring more than a hundred years ago requires both investigative strategies and an inherent trust in the results of such investigations.
  • Traditions—Often all we have to rely on to bolster various beliefs is what has been passed down from generation to generation as stories and traditions intended to capture the essence of an individual, a family, or a culture. We use such stories and traditions as evidence to support our best guesses concerning what might have happened; they form an important part of the foundation of belief that gets passed from generation to generation.

It was clear as the discussion proceeded that in some of the most important parts of our daily lives, both as we engage with the present and as we consider the past, our “certainties” are built on a foundation of uncertainty, a foundation that we eventually depend upon as if it were certain as our collection of indirect evidence reaches an imaginary tipping point.

We are now half-way through the semester and my students are familiar with my teaching strategies, so no one was surprised when I stepped back from the board where I had listed their examples of indirect evidence and asked, “How might these types of evidence work in another area of belief where we have a difficult time accessing direct evidence—belief in God?” As it turns out, the same sorts of indirect evidence that we use on a daily basis to bolster our belief in all kinds of things are available when we enter the arena of faith. sacred-textsSacred texts are used as sources of evidence of all sorts; regardless of whether a person considers such texts to be divinely inspired or not, they contain evidence of how people have engaged with issues of God and faith over the centuries. Such texts purportedly contain testimonial evidence to the existence and nature of God as the divine reportedly interacts with human beings, and interpretations of these testimonies become centerpieces of traditions that develop into religions.

We also have the same sort of indirect testimony concerning faith-related issues that my students used when identifying the sources of their belief in the existence of Japan even though none had ever been there. For instance, I know many people who report personal experiences that they believe can only be explained by an invasion of or intervention into their life by something greater than themselves. Often such reports can also be accounted for by explanations other than a direct encounter with God, but in such cases one must always consider both the reliability of the person giving the testimony and whether other similar reports have been given by other reliable sources. testimonyAnd as always, whether or not a person believes such reports is going to be a direct function of her or his predisposition to believe anything. How much evidence is enough? What sorts of testimony will I never believe, no matter who it comes from? To claim that evidence is ever free of all sorts of psychological and personality-driven biases is to ignore how we actually gather and use evidence in real time.

My answer to Bertrand Russell’s complaint that “you didn’t us give enough evidence” is that perhaps Lord Russell needed to consider what sort of evidence would have counted as “enough,” as well as what even counted as evidence for him at all. If his claim is that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to establish the existence of God, I might agree. But I would remind Russell that the vast majority of the many things that we believe to be true are not supported by such evidence either. When considering issues as important as faith, there is no need to change the rules of the evidence game—faith is, after all, “the evidence of things not seen.”

how convenient

Sorry for the Inconvenience

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m writing to let you know that I won’t be in class today at 11:30. Our lacrosse match on campus that was scheduled for yesterday was rescheduled for today at 3:30. Our pre-game prep starts at 12:00, so I won’t be able to make class. I know that I have already missed a couple of classes this semester [four, as a matter of fact], but I’m hoping this won’t be a big problem. snoopyMy academic advisor’s email address is if you have any questions. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m very sorry, but I won’t be able to make Friday morning seminar. I’m in a wedding on Sunday back home; I had a Friday afternoon flight home, but my mother changed it to Thursday afternoon because she was able to find a better fare on that day. I’ll contact you next week to see if there’s anything I need to make up. Sorry for the inconvenience.

My response to each of the above student emails that I received last week was something along the lines of “Dear Student: It is your responsibility to do whatever is necessary to account for missed classes (check the syllabus for the course policy on attendance)—you are also responsible for whatever we work on in the class that you miss. Your missing class is not an inconvenience to me at all—the inconvenience is entirely yours. Dr. Morgan.”

In student/teacher communication, “Sorry for the inconvenience” has become the “go to” email comment with which to close a communication containing information that you don’t want to take responsibility for. inconvenienceThe sender is saying “I hope that maybe a half-hearted apology for making your life difficult will cause you to be merciful, even though I know that you don’t have to and that I should have handled the situation differently.” On the level of effectiveness, the “sorry for the inconvenience” strategy ranks just slightly above the ostrich strategy which requires pretending that the situation never even happened. Used more broadly, “sorry for the inconvenience” could mean “I know what I just did or failed to do messed your day (week, month, year, life) up. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do anything about it or try to set things right—but I wanted you to know that I am aware of the inconvenience I just caused you.” Sort of like “I just wrecked your car—sorry for the inconvenience,” or “I am sleeping with your significant other—sorry for the inconvenience.”

convenience storeHuman beings do not like being inconvenienced. Although we might not admit it, we love “convenience stores” and have made them a ubiquitous part of the American landscape, simply because they are “convenient.” Early in the 2000s, shortly after the Supreme Court decided to appoint George W. Bush as the 43rd President of the United States, Al Gore wrote a book as well as both starring in and producing a documentary about the dangers of global warming with the wonderful title “An Inconvenient Truth.” I have often wondered why millions of people worldwide, but particularly in this country, are so vehement in either their denial that global warming is real or in their insistence that if it is real, human beings are not responsible, given the mountains of evidence and data that prove its reality and our complicity. an inconvenient truthThe title of Gore’s documentary and book directly answers such questions—people often go to extremes in their efforts to avoid anything that, if accepted as true, would force them to adjust their attitudes and actions in uncomfortable ways. I’m reminded of what Vera Brittain once said that teachers should never forget—learning is an uncomfortable process and “above all, human beings desire to be comfortable.” In addition, above all they desire not to be inconvenienced.

Which is what makes a familiar gospel reading from Mark so problematic. In response to Peter’s insistence that he is not going to go to Jerusalem to die, Jesus first puts Peter in his place in Jesus’ inimitable style, then issues this attractive invitation to his would-be disciples:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

To which Jesus might have added, Sorry for the inconvenience. Because what Jesus is describing is more than an inconvenient truth. He’s warning his would-be followers then and now that, as bonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s an inconvenient faith.

There is another story in Mark’s gospel that caught my attention in one of my first posts on this blog almost two and half years ago. A young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments, listing a few for the guy just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more.

We all know Jesus’ response—he tells him the inconvenient truth. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” rich young rulerWe also all know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” Jesus had inconvenienced the rich young man beyond his toleration level. But what precedes Jesus’ sharing this inconvenient truth is very  interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But this is an inconvenient faith—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s a story about being called to come and die. The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of dispensers of inconvenience. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

These gospels are “hard sayings” because they run roughshod over our desire that our dealings with what is greater than us be similar to a convenience store transaction. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z to get a break?” are the sorts of questions we so often want answered, but they are always wrong sort of question when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical several years ago I heard the poet browneMichael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything. The inconvenience of trying to believe in a God who never calls, writes, or tweets is transformed into the challenge of being God in the world.

Silence and Submission

trump-and-bushDuring the past two weeks, reports concerning the attitudes and actions of one of the major party candidates for President of the United States towards women over the past few decades has dominated the news cycle. The attitudes and actions of the husband of the other major party candidate for President towards women have been part of the news cycle for lewinskydecades as well. It’s difficult to imagine that there is a person in this country who either finds such attitudes acceptable or wants to hear yet another person’s opinions about them—so I won’t dig further into the details. Instead, I’m interested in why so many people, from every political and religious persuasion imaginable, has been surprised by the offensive, demeaning, and degrading attitudes and actions that have been illuminated over the past two weeks. Misogyny and prejudice toward women has been part of our social structure for centuries—one if the most powerful sources of these attitudes and actions is the dominant religion in our culture: Christianity.ancient-other

In the team-taught, interdisciplinary course that I teach in, we recently completed a unit called “The Other,” focusing on how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood and treated those who were different. During one seminar we considered ancient views of gender, with two of Aristophanes’ comedies and an assortment of excerpts from other authors as our texts. Some were remarkably equitable, including Plato’s insistence that both males and females are equally capable of being rulers of his idealistic and imaginary perfect community, and hence should be educated in the same ways. Other ancient voices were not as complimentary toward women. From Aristotle, for instance, we learned that women are “deformed males,” arguing that “as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” And in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we read thatpaul

I wish you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is her husband . . . a man is the image and glory of God, but a woman is the glory of her husband. For man was not created from woman, but woman from man. And man was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the sake of man . . . In all the churches of the faithful, let women be silent in the congregation, for it is not appropriate for them to speak. If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home . . .

But wait . . . that’s not all. A couple of Sundays ago, one of the readings was this from the Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.silence-and-submittion

After the lector finished I leaned over the back of the pew in front of me and whispered to the couple sitting there “Wow, I guess Paul was having a bad day when he wrote that!” “No shit!” the guy whispered back. I’ve often wondered what the experiential and/or psychological sources of Paul’s obvious problems with women might have been—I’m still wondering. But whatever the sources were, such attitudes, fully resonant with the majority of philosophies of his day with which he was fully familiar, had a powerful influence going forward—an influence that afflicts Western culture to this day.

I found that many of the dozen-and-a-half eighteen-year-old freshmen in each of mif-onlyy seminars on ancient perspectives on gender assumed that the attitudes toward women they were exposed to in the readings they prepared for seminar are no longer with us. We moderns are, fortunately, respectful of all and treat everyone equally, no matter what gender or sexual orientation. If only. I wish. It didn’t take very long or much encouragement, however, for a few female voices to start providing plenty of evidence that we not only have not moved that far from ancient attitudes on gender, but in many cases are arguably very much the same.

female-priestDuring that seminar I asked the students to start thinking about the ways in which we use gender to organize social structures by asking them to identify a job description for which one’s gender is truly relevant. They had a difficult time coming up with one, despite our culture’s history of making gender relevant to decision making in everything from wages to educational opportunities, until someone said “I know one—priest!” I pointed out, first, that one of my best friends is both a woman and an Episcopal priest, so clearly it is only priests of a certain sort (Catholic) who can only be male. The rules and traditions of the Catholic church notwithstanding, however, none of my students were able to identify any specific thing a Catholic priest does that could not be done equally well by a qualified male or female.gmm

Given that it is difficult to find anything in the actual reported teachings of Jesus to support either treating men and women differently or assuming that men are superior to women, it is truly remarkable to observe just how thoroughly such attitudes and actions became entrenched in the religion that grew out of Jesus’ teachings. There is plenty of evidence that many members of Jesus’ inner circle were women and that women were important leaders in the early Christian communities. But the documents containing such evidence did not make the cut when the New Testament was officially assembled, and such evidence was suppressed and ignored as a male-dominated ecclesiastical hierarchy emerged. After two millennia there are signs that biases against women are changing in some Christian circles, but there remains much to do and a great deal progress needs to be made.

When misogyny and Neanderthal attitudes toward women rear their ugly heads, as they have with a vengeance during the past couple of weeks in the context of the Presidential campaign, we should not be surprised. This is the natural outcome of centuries of history in Western culture, a history in which Christianity has been a central driving force. Christians are in nearth-and-heaveno position to take the high road and respond to such ugliness with moralistic tut-tutting and judgments. The truth of the matter is that Christian churches of all sorts have contributed to the embedded misogyny and sexism that still infects our world in many ways. If Christians truly intend for God’s will to “be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as we recite in the Lord’s Prayer every week, it is incumbent on us to put our house in order before casting stones elsewhere. There is a great deal of work to be done.


Preparing for the Clown Invasion

I suppose that, given that Halloween is only a couple of weeks away, we should not be surprised by reports that more and more clown sightings worldwide have caused people to become nervous. Where are they coming from? What are they up to?

Increased clown sightings

Concerns about clowns have been part of my life for the past thirty-five years or so, as I reported not long ago . . .

Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

I get most of my news piec2072985-e6f7-5e3e-994a-74990d3f595b.preview-300cemeal from NPR while riding in the car. Since Jeanne has the car most of the time, this is not a daily event. Even when I am “listening” to “Morning Edition,” I generally am only paying slight attention. It takes a lot for me to listen carefully. Civil war in Syria? Whatever. The Ukraine is falling apart? Yawn. Ted Nugent calls President Obama a bad name? What else is new? But when Renee Montagne reported this one morning, I was all ears.

Circus folk fear a national clown shortage is on the horizon. Membership at the country’s largest trade organizations for the jokesters has plunged over the past decade as declining interest, old age and higher standards among employers align against Krusty, Bozo and their crimson-nosed colleagues.

A clown shortage?? Really?? Apparently Renee wasn’t privy to the email exchanges flying around campus during the most recent controversy and brouhaha last week. Who knew there were so many clowns with PhDs?  I dismissed the clown report as the sort of filler that even NPR has to come up with on occasion. indexBut then the music for a South Korean skater’s short program the next evening was “Send in the Clowns,” and last Saturday the panelists on “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite radio program, started the show with a couple of minutes of hilarity concerning the impending clown drought. The panel suggested, for instance, that the art history majors dissed by President Obama the other day might want to look into enrolling in clown school as a backup plan for their current careers as Starbucks baristas. Clowns are in the air.

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

652223575f794d7cad2bd5347a0f10This is very strange. There seemed to be plenty of clowns around in my childhood, from Howdy Doody’s Clarabell to Bozo, with whom I spent many afternoons after school. I actually thought the Bozo part of the Bozo-the-Clown-300x206“Bozo the Clown Show” was insufferably stupid and boring, but was willing to put up with it for the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The next generation has its own clowns, most memorably Krusty from “The Simpsons.” There are a number of possible explanations for the looming clown shortage:


  • Young people who in the past were interested in clownhood are now going into politics.
  • The procreation rate of clowns is very low. The oversized baggy clothing makes clown sex very challenging.
  • Clown traffic mortality rates are extraordinarily high. Clowns are poor drivers to begin with, and piling twenty-five to thirty clowns into every clown-driven vehicle drives the death rate up exponentially when accidents occur.

Just when I’d stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.

I know one person who will be very happy to hear about the clown shortage. My son Caleb has suffered from a close-to-terminal case of coulrophobia (fear of clowns) since birth. A little over 30 years ago, five years after my BA, I found myself living in a tiny town in an isolated Star Valleywestern Wyoming valley, working in a grocery store, with four- and one-and-a-half year old sons in a marriage that was sure would not survive. Don’t ask.

We had almost no money, but that was okay since in Star Valley virtually nothing worth spending money on ever happened. So when a pitying friend gave me two tickets to the upcoming county fair, I was pleased to have something to do with my older son other than read Dr. Seuss books or watch television. I knew that Caleb was not amused by clowns, but this was a county fair, not a circus. Horses, pigs, cows, a petting zoo—what could go wrong? As we got out of the car and started crossing the parking lot to the entrance gate, I noticed that the ticket taker was . . . a clown. A stereotypical clown with a bald white pate, a bright orange fringe of hair, checked shirt, polka-dotted pants, oversized grin, exaggerated  eyebrows, size forty-two shoes. pennywiseMaybe Caleb wouldn’t notice. But he did. As we approached the entrance, Caleb protested repeatedly in an increasingly loud and panicked voice “DON’T LIKE IT! DON’T LIKE IT!! THERE’S PLOWNS!!!” In order to short-circuit the dragging-a-screaming-kid-with-his-heels-dug-in scenario that is the bane of all parents’ existence, I sighed, we turned around, got back in the car, and drove away.

evilclown7bc8A few weeks ago I told this thirty-year-old story to Caleb’s younger brother. After several moments of uproarious and uncontrolled laughter, Justin realized that he just been given the greatest gift a younger brother can receive—a completely and devastatingly embarrassing story about his older brother. The next time the three of us were together, Justin sprang into action. “Caleb, are you still afraid of clowns?” Justin asked, mimicking in a high voice Caleb’s plaintive “Don’t like it! There’s plowns!” To Justin’s surprise, Caleb not only did not consider this story to be a threat to his carefully protected manhood, but instead doubled down on his lifelong judgment concerning clowns. “Clowns are evil. I hate clowns. Clowns are fucked up.”

Don’t you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

What will a clown-less world be like? Probably the same as the one we’ve got—I have to admit that other than the above-mentioned adventure with my son, clowns have not been on my radar screen very often. But generations yet unborn will eventually wonder what the hell Judy Collins is singing about.

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

Evangelical Atheism

A couple of weeks from now I’ll be starting a new unit in my General Ethics classes with fifty juniors and seniors: Does ethics have anything to do with God? pc-catholicOn a Catholic college campus, where a significant portion of the students are products of many years of parochial school education, this is a big issue. Religious folks have been known to argue that the only possible reliable foundation for moral absolutes is belief in God, implying either implicitly or explicitly that atheistic non-believers lack any reason to be moral. Yet my students know either intuitively or through personal experience that it is entirely possible for a dedicated atheist to be a highly moral person. How does that work?

I have been a person of faith, sometimes reluctantly, for my whole life—the very existence of this blog is due to my continuing commitment to grappling with issues of faith in writing. Yet I have always been fascinated by atheism. Four years ago, my second blog post ever used Simone Weil’s comment that “Atheism is a purification” as a jumping off point, imagining how a season of atheism might be a healthy exercise for a person of faith.

A Practicing Atheist


Daniel Dennett

Several years ago when I was chair of our philosophy department I was responsible for the two-semester capstone seminar required of all our senior majors. Each year during the summer I would send the rising senior majors a list of three or four possible topics to spend the fall semester working on—one year they chose “Philosophy of Religion,” not surprising since half of the eighteen seniors were Catholic seminarians (required by the diocese to major in philosophy in their undergraduate years). Some of the seniors, particularly the seminarians, were probably surprised to see texts from avowed atheists such as Sigmund Freud, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins on the semester syllabus, but as a new professor in the theology department commented at the time, such works are “good for them” (the seminarians) to grapple with. Atheists, after all, struggle with the same issues as theists—they just do it a bit differently.

Last Sunday’s early morning episode of “On Being” with Krista Tippett on our local NPR station was an hour-long discussion of these very issues. The show was a repeat of a 2012 interview with Alain de Botton. De Botton is trained as a philosopher, but is best known as a sort of Renaissance man whose popular books include The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and Religion for Atheists. I knew I was going to enjoy the interview when it began with the following from de Botton: The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether it is true.

Alain de Botton and the School of Life

De Botton was raised in “a devoutly atheist family,” a Jewish family fully aware of the enormous suffering Jews had suffered historically and particularly in tdevout-atheisthe twentieth century, often in the name of religion. De Botton experienced in early adulthood what he described a “crisis of faithlessness,” during which he learned that there were a number of things tangentially associated with religion, including music, art, architecture, and moral guidance, that he found “incredibly interesting, fascinating, beautiful, [and] inspiring.” What’s an atheist to do?

De Botton’s story is a familiar one, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning God. While stories of people who were raised in a religious household and became atheists as adults, as well as of people raised as atheists who became religious believers as adults, are out there, the more common story is of those who are so shaped by their early years that they find it impossible, in spite of good reasons to do so, to radically change that framework as adults. De Botton occasionally implies that he wishes he could become a theist—but if there is something like a “religious gene,” he is lacking it. Knowing that the foundation of religious belief for many people is a feeling or experience, he notes that

I’ve not had this feeling . . . all I can report is that many of these bits of religion do impact me greatly. If I was different, I would be a believer, is all I can say. I can only speak from a non-believing position . . . I really don’t feel a belief in a divine being is something that rings bells with me. I’m happy to be in the atheist box, but it’s a much broader box than we might have allowed for.

The power of how one is raised cannot be overestimated. De Botton has no more natural access to what it is like to be a person of faith than I, raised in an all-encompassing religious atmosphere, can pretend to know what it would be like to frame important issues as an atheist would.

And yet, de Botton continues, atheists and persons of faith have much in common. Neither atheists nor theists are necessarily happy to hear this—each side is taught that the other is the enemy, a phenomenon encouraged by popular writers from the atheist camp such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam De Botton reports that he is occasionally accused in emails or print of having “betrayed atheism,” professing that “I didn’t know that’s what atheism was supposed to be about, being mean to religion . . . I think there’s an image of the fierce atheist who has faith in science and ridicules all religious moments and religious impulses. I couldn’t be further from that point of view.” Instead, he argues, religion has offered and continues to offer too much of importance to be rejected out of hand even if one is an atheist.reality-and-religion

An awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them . . . I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment . . . And suddenly, that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

Even if one sets arguments awrestlingbout the existence and nature of God as well as speculation about what happens after we die aside, religion has much to offer even to the most secular person. “Religion is this long tradition of deep thinking and wrestling with the complexity of the human condition as much as about the nature of God.” How then should we live? is a human question, not a religious question. We do not come into the world knowing how to navigate the minefield of human existence—de Botton is more than happy to poach on the ideas offered by religion, just as religions have “hoovered up” the best that the secular world has to offer since the beginning. De Botton’s “School of Life,” now situated in many cities across the globe, “picks up on the idea that we need guidance, that learning how to live is not something we just do spontaneously.” At this thoroughly secular school one will hear sermons, experience what feels all the world like liturgy, and even perhaps sing some hymns, all intended to be in service to human needs that are far deeper than what religion  one belongs to (if any).  As Krista Tippett says in the interview, “What I see you doing is carving out what has been traditionally, religiously called ‘sacred space’ in secular culture.”evangelical-atheism

Toward the end of the interview, Tippett also comments that “I do feel that another religious and particularly Christian impulse that you are taking up as an atheist is that of being evangelical, which is about spreading the good news that you’ve discovered.” The good news is that “there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars we may differ about what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.” Just as many other supposedly incompatible binaries—Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, and more—atheists and religious folks need not be at permanent odds with each other. Each of us is human, sharing the same needs, hopes, and dreams that all human beings possess, no matter how we package them.

baseball jesus

The Farewell Tour

I am a fan of all New England pro sports teams, but my attachment to the Red Sox is greater than my attachment to the Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins combined. The Patriots, lacking their all-world quarterback Tom Brady, have unexpectedly won their first three games of the season, but I have hardly noticed. That’s because the Red Sox, who have ended up in last place in their division each of the previous two seasons, are the champions of the AL East and begin the playoffs tomorrow. I always say that I don’t pay attention to the NFL until the Red Sox play their last game of the season–this year I hope that will not be for a few weeks.papi

At the heart of this year’s winning season has been the  most spectacular farewell tour in baseball history. When David “Big Papi” Ortiz announced several months ago that he would be retiring after the 2016 season, little did anyone know that the 40+ Ortiz would put together what has been perhaps the greatest season of his illustrious, Hall of Fame worthy career. His final season has been so remarkable that many don’t believe that he will really retire once the season is finally over. But I suspect that he will, hopefully with a fourth World Series ring in tow. 

I’m sure that a post just for Big Papi, and hopefully celebrating the 2016 World Series Champion Red Sox, will be forthcoming in a few weeks. For now, I am reminded of what I wrote at the end of the farewell tour of another athlete a couple of years ago, a reflection that led to some speculation about what the farewell tour of certain important figure from history might have looked like . . . 

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

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: 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

Horton in a Nutshell

geahDr. Seuss was a regular in our house when my sons were young—my thirty-something sons still occasionally mention how much they both loved Green Eggs and Ham in particular. Theodor Geisel’s creatively madcap work has occasionally made it into this blog over the past four years, from the star-bellied Sneetches in an early essay on heresy

Dr. Seuss and Heresy

to the environmentally-minded Lorax during an on-campus controversy over the demise of a 150-year-old oak this past summer.

I Speak for the Trees

The most recent Dr. Seuss classic to cross my radar screen involves a gentle elephant who believes that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” a couple of kangaroos with bad attitudes, and other jungle animals dedicated to making the elephant’s life difficult. Early last summer someone at a conference Jeanne was attending told her that she should read Horton Hears a Who; by late summer a large orange-covered copy had arrived at our house. I paid no attention to it until a couple of weeks ago.nutshell

As I drove across town headed for minor oral surgery (a phrase that has turned out to be oxymoronic), I listened to an interview on Boston Public Radio with Ian McEwan, one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

Ian McEwan on Boston Public Radio

McEwan was in town on a book tour promoting his new novel, Nutshell. On the basis of the interview, I ordered the book on Amazon as soon as I got home. It is a reworking of Hamlet with a few twists, including that it is narrated by an unborn child hanging upside-down in its mother’s uterus. A la Hamlet, the unborn child knows that his mother is having an affair with its uncle and that they are plotting to kill its father. The fetus is urbane, sophisticated, listens to music and podcasts vicariously through its mother, has developed a connoisseur’s picky tastes in wine, and wonders whether there is life after the uterus. This is going to be fun.

Toward the end of the segment, the two interviewers asked McEwan to read a passage from Nutshell.

Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies to be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some: courtship among the 18th century gentry, life beneath a sail, talking rabbits, sculpted hares, fat people in oils, dog portraits, horse portraits, portraits of aristocrats, reclining nudes, nativities by the millions, and crucifixions, assumptions, bowls of fruit, flowers in vases, and Dutch bread and cheese, with or without a knife on the side. Some give themselves in prose merely to the self. In science, too, one dedicates his life to an Albanian snail, another to a virus. Darwin gave eight years to barnacles, and in wise later life, to earthworms. The Higgs Bosun, a tiny thing, perhaps not even a thing, is the lifetime’s pursuit of thousands. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things? And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. So, why not be an owl poet?horton

In the wonderfully random way that things often connect together, this passage made me think of the book that had been laying on our coffee table for the last couple of weeks: Horton Hears a Who.

Horton the Elephant, while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. He comes to realize that the voice is coming from a small person who lives on the dust speck; indeed, the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, the home of microscopic creatures called Whos. the-whosThe Whos know that they are vulnerable and exposed to possible harm in a dangerous world; the mayor of Whoville asks Horton for protection, which Horton happily agrees to provide. He places the Who-planet on a clover that he proceeds to carry in his trunk as carefully as a waiter carrying a tray of crystal champagne glasses. Horton has come to the same realization as the pre-born narrator of Nutshell: Each existing thing is the center of its own universe of interests, desires, and concerns—but each existing thing is “bound in a nutshell,” “just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

The apparent insignificance of human existence prompted seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal to write that The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Yet in Psalm 139 we are told that

You have formed my inward parts;

You have formed me in my mother’s womb . . .

My frame was not hidden from you,

When I was made in secret

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

As both Horton and McEwan’s upside-down narrator realize, everything is at the same time both insignificant and unique. The challenge is to keep both of these in mind simultaneously.success

As Horton’s story proceeds, his fellow jungle animals refuse to believe that the Whos exist, believing rather that Horton is nuts. In scenes reminiscent of grade school playgrounds, various animals ridicule Horton, eventually managing to steal his Who-bearing clover and hide it from him in a large field of clovers. After a long search, Horton rescues the frightened and shaken Whos; at his prompting, they finally prove their existence to the still skeptical jungle animals by making as much collective noise as possible until everyone can hear them. Now convinced of the Whos’ existence, all the animals vow to help Horton protect the tiny community.

Each of us is both insignificant and infinitely precious, no matter what current circumstances might indicate. From within the confines of his mother’s womb, McEwan’s narrator gains insights into a world he’s not sure he will ever reach. The Whos, upon discovering just how vulnerable and fragile their world is, are discovered by someone greater than themselves, someone willing to put himself on the line again and again to preserve their special existence. It’s a wonderful retelling of a story that generations have embraced. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” after all.a-persons-a-person

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 a recent 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 in this class—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.

moral-disagreementWhen 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. 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 recent classes, 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 my “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.

West of What?

ruaneThe heart of Providence College’s core curriculum is the Development of Western Civilization (DWC) program, a sixteen-credit, four-semester, interdisciplinary and team-taught series of courses required of all freshmen and sophomores regardless of major. From its origin in the 1970s, DWC (or “Civ,” as many call it) has been both a regular source of pride and occasionally of controversy, both of which have been the case recently. I have taught in the program for sixteen of the twenty-one years I have taught at the college and directed the program for the four academic years before my 2015-16 sabbatical. At the end of August on the first day of the current semester (my first day back in the classroom in fifteen months), my colleagues and I chose to spend our first ninety minutes with our new freshman students by raising the question that many of them were probably thinking but were too afraid to ask: Why study Western civilization at all?

The very existence of a program such as ours is controversial in many quarters where many wonder, in an increasingly diverse and globally connected world, whether the study of dead-white-guys“dead white guys” is anything more than a lame and outdated exercise in cheerleading for white folks. But others seek to defend the primacy of Western civilization over all others. One of my colleagues began the class with a clip from the Republican National Convention a couple of months earlier. A talking head panel was filling up air space waiting for the first speaker of the evening. After one person mentioned that the hall was filled with lots of angry white people, Iowa Congressman Steve King took offense.

King: This “old, white people’ business does get a little tired. I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about — where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Panel moderator: Than white people?

King: Than Western civilization itself. It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Unites Stated of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.

King’s comments astounded a couple of people on the panel and outraged a third—as the table exploded into shouting, the moderator wisely broke for a commercial.

The congressman’s comments reminded me of something brought to my attention a few weeks earlier. A person who gave a talk at my college over fifteen years ago remembered it in a recent column on a conservative website, recalling that some of the people present were not happy with the content of his talk.

 I am sure I noted the fact that some cultures are better than others and I might well have quoted (with enthusiastic approval if I did) William Henry’s observation, in his book In Defense of Elitism, that “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.” I am very fond of Henry’s native prosuperior-civiliztionsboscis image, not least because, like Saul Bellow’s question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”, it is so reliably productive of rage among pampered left-wing academics.

These comments could have been written or said by some of my colleagues on campus who often defend the existence of our DWC program by asking “Why wouldn’t we want to focus close-to-exclusive attention on Western Civilization? It’s the best civilization ever!”

After Congressman King’s clip from the RNC, my teaching colleagues began a conversation with our students by asking basic questions such as “What is Western Civilization?” The students seemed unsure how to answer other than to say “we are!” After a few minutes I made my first contribution. “This is going to sound like a stupid question,” I said, “but I’m sitting over here listening to all of you talk about ‘Western Civilization’ and I’m wondering: West of what? Are we talking geography here? What is Western Civilization west of?” None of us had thought to load a map onto PowerPoint, so I just asked the students to picture Europe, Asia, and Africa in their imaginations. “If we draw a dotted line from north to south to divide the East from the West, where would we draw it?”drawing-the-line

The first suggestion was that it would go through the Middle East, in a way that would perhaps include Israel in the West but perhaps the rest of the Middle East in the East. “What about Turkey?” one of us asked. They weren’t sure. Of course if the dotted line continues straight south from Israel, another question arises. “What about Africa? Is it in the West?” I asked.funny-africa “No,” just about all of the students answered, meaning that our dotted line needs to take a sharp turn left from Israel, bisecting the Mediterranean Sea so that Europe to the north stays in the West (as everyone knows it should) and Africa to the south stays non-West (as everyone knows it should). Remembering Congressman King’s inclusion of the United States in Western civilization (even though it does not make an appearance in DWC until the beginning of sophomore year), the dotted line should cross the Atlantic so that the U.S. and Canada lie on the Europe (northern) side of the line. Mexico and Central America? Iffy. South America? Not sure. It was pretty clear that the line was intended to include those most like us in the West and exclude everyone else.funny-asia

This exercise established pretty quickly that the answer to West of What? cannot be geographical. One student then helpfully suggested that “I think ‘Western’ refers to various ideas rather than geographical areas.” Asked for examples, students suggested things like democracy, human rights, capitalism, and monotheism. One of my colleagues, a theologian, jumped on that one. “Is Christianity a Western religion?’ he asked—“Of course!” was the answer (Congressman King would have been proud). “What about Judaism?” The students weren’t as sure there, even when my colleague pointed out that both Christianity and Judaism started in the same place and that Jesus was a Jew. “What about Islam?” Most of the students thought not (Donald Trump would have been proud), prompting my colleague to point out that for a number of centuries during the Middle Ages the westernmost area of Europe—Spain—was Muslim. Trying to define “Western” by religion doesn’t work much better than geographically.monotheism

Finally, one brave student said “I think that ‘Western’ for most people means pretty much the same thing as ‘White’.” And I suspect there’s a great deal of truth in that suggestion. When we study Western Civilization, we will undoubtedly end up studying predominantly dead white guys unless a concerted effort is made to engage with non-Western influences. I mentioned to the students, for instance, thg-and-iat most people don’t know that one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—philosopher in the Western tradition, Plato, was heavily influenced by thought from Persia and India. The dotted line is porous, in other words. Furthermore, one of my colleagues who is of Italian ancestry pointed out that one hundred years ago in this country, immigrants from southern European countries such as Greece and Italy were not considered by many in this country as white.

After ninety or so minutes of this, I’m sure our students left largely in confusion. And that’s a good thing. Despite the name of the course, “Western Civilization,” upon close scrutiny, turns out to be as much a reflection of our expectations and prejudices as anything else. This is good for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old young adults to understand at the outset of their forays into their college education. We live in a polarized political and social climate in which labels and categories are used as if they are as objective and set in stone as the Ten Commandments. Only when we realize that all such dividing lines are at their roots random, porous, and fluid might we seize the opportunity to do better.

The Right Niyyah

As I wait impatiently for my sabbatical that is under contract with a publisher to return from the editor, I’ve been thinking about some of my blog essays that “made the cut” in some sense to appear in revised form in my book-to-be. One of these essays is about the challenge of cultivating the right attitude with which to enter the world on a daily basis. I learned a lot about this from Rami Nashishibi when he was interviewed a year or so ago on Krista Tippett’s “On Being.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being,” a show that I frequently catch several minutes of on Sunday mornings as I drive the fifteen minutes from our house to the early show at church. A few weeks ago, her guest was Rami Nashashibi, Founder and Executive Director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, in Chicago. He’s also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology of Religion and Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.nashishibi

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

Graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he’s the leader of a globally-emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in post-9/11 America.

Not surprisingly, the conversation was wide-ranging, fascinating, and introduced me to a number of matters and issues that are well outside of my usual frame of reference. What particularly grabbed me, however, was a brief exchange toward the end of the interview, just as I was pulling into my usual parking spot at Trinity Episcopal.

Krista Tippett: I told you I was on your Twitter feed, and I love this. I think it was really recent. You wrote: “My 4-year-old discovers the spiritual power of her name as she looks over and seriously asks, ‘Daddy, do you have the right niyyah?’” What does niyyah mean?

Rami Nashashibi: So niyyah — in kind of Arabic-Muslim parlance — is spiritual intention. niyyahAnd oftentimes — it’s both the Swahili and Arabic word. And oftentimes, Muslims are always asked before they pray, before they do any act of service, before they engage in anything that has any kind of sense of worship associated with it, is it being done for the right niyyah? Is it being done for the right purpose? Are you attempting to get fame or credit? I think, yes, there was a song that had used her name in that way and the light went off in the middle of it and turned over to me on the couch and asked me that question. Honestly, I looked at her and I didn’t have an answer for her for I think a good 20 seconds. She nodded her head and she said, “No, probably not.”

And I said, “What?” We then had a conversation. I said, “Well, at least keep me in your prayers that I have.”

This four-year-old’s simple question—Do you have the right niyyah?—has stuck with me ever since. So has her response to her father’s lack of response—“No, probably not.” It’s hard enough to figure out what the right thing to do is on a daily basis; adding in that it should be done with the right intention, for the right reasons, seems like piling on.intentions and actions As a philosophy professor who has taught introductory ethics courses more times than I care to count over the past twenty-five years, I have thought about this a lot. When I ask my students “What is more important—what you do, or why you do it? Actions or intentions?” they usually split roughly down the middle.

And so do the great moral philosophers. There is the tradition of those who say that only results matter (since they can be observed and measured publicly) and intentions are irrelevant. Then there is the other tradition (spearheaded by Immanuel Kant) who say that results are irrelevant—the true measure of the moral life is internal. Were your intentions pure? Was your heart in the right place? If so, then you are morally in the clear, even if the results of your intended action go “tits up” (to quote my brother-in-law).

VgMKgyZMy students are pretty smart, and it doesn’t take very long before they realize that the “results or intentions” question is a false dichotomy. Because in truth, normal human beings care about both. If morality is just about doing the right thing, then the person who identifies the things that should be done and does them—even if for all of the wrong reasons, such as self-righteous smugness or the praise of others—is morally in the clear. But Nashashibi’s four-year-old daughter is right—we want not only the right thing to be done, but for it to be done with the right niyyah, the right intention or reason. And that sucks, because it takes things straight into the human heart. For those who profess the Christian faith, it also takes things straight into the world of grace.

The first thing I ever learned from Scripture about the human heart as a young boy was from JeremiahJeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked—who can know it?” Far less attention was paid to the Psalm that is recited in liturgical churches during the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” Straight from the Jewish scriptures is both the problem of and the solution for right intentions. As a flawed human being, I am incapable of doing things for the right reason, but help is available. Through divine grace the heart is changed and turned toward the good. Rami Nashishibi’s daughter is right when she doubts that her dad has the right niyyah, so long as that depends on his own energies and strength. But when the divine gets involved, everything changes.

The mystery of grace is exactly that—a mystery. Divine grace enters the world through flawed human beings, strangely enough, and there isn’t enough time to try to figure it out. Grace is something to be channeled, to be lived, not systematized and turned into dogma or doctrine. My bright abyssThe poet Christian Wiman writes beautifully about this. Through many years of cancer treatments, he learned to hear God, then to channel God, in the most unlikely places, the very places where divine grace apparently lives. Wiman writes that

God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is composed of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. . . . All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

The right niyyah is not the result of struggle, training, or calculation. And as the author of Deuteronomy tells us,deuteronomy

Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

All I have to do to have the right niyyah is to open my heart, open my mouth, and let it out.

To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.