Category Archives: incarnation

ghost of jesus

The Ghosts of Jesus Past

living stonesToward the end of a particularly lively and deep seminar with my “Living Stones” adult Christian education group after church a few Sundays ago, I asked the group “so what makes us think that we are anything special, that Episcopalians have a better angle on God than anyone else? What makes us think that our way is any better than anyone else’s, Christian or otherwise, other than that it is our way?” Very quickly one person replied “it isn’t any better.” And everyone else in the group of fifteen or so proceeded to affirm this answer, either with positive head nods or similar verbal replies. We are all seekers after God, but other than the matter of “comfort zone,” there is nothing that makes our chosen framework for that search any better than the way of other Christian group, or the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or any other way for that matter. Oh my. So it has come to this.

Earlier in the discussion I had told the group the story of a conversation that Jeanne and I had with our good friends Michael and Suzy a few years ago as we travelled with them and their boys to some central Florida attraction. I don’t remember any of the details of the conversation other than something Michael said. ecclesiamHe’s a Catholic theologian, and offered that “I fully expect to see my Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters in heaven.” No extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”) for him. Those would have been burning-at-the-stake words for any Catholic theologian not many centuries ago; truth be told, the Baptists I grew up with would not only have wanted to virtually burn Michael (Protestants have done such things in the past as well), but would also have considered Michael as on the fast track to perdition simply because he is Catholic. I agreed with Michael, and had for some time, but to hear my Episcopal friends take his broad ecumenism without blinking as a “no brainer” was revealing. I had mentioned toward the beginning of seminar that my own spiritual journey and process of growth over the past few years has, among other things, been a slow process of putting some very loud and intrusive ghosts to rest. ghost of jesusBut by the end of seminar I could still faintly hear them rolling over in their graves. I could also hear, more distinctly, different ghosts altogether. The ghosts of Jesus past.

The fundamentalist, evangelical Baptists I grew up with had their own version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, although no one in the group knew Latin. We didn’t need to, because we knew the King James Bible backwards and forwards. The Bible is littered with verses that we took to mean that it is difficult to get into heaven, and those who don’t find the way are going to hell.tattoo

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.

There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

And we sang hymns and contemporary tunes every Sunday that doubled down on this exclusivity.the blood

What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Jesus died so I might live.

fire insuranceThese all lead to Fire-insurance policy Jesus, a Jesus whose whole purpose was to provide a way of escaping the wrath of a pissed-off God the Father and the eternal flames of hell. And, not surprisingly, we were convinced that our small group, and the few other groups who believed exactly as we did, had nailed it. We possessed the one effective policy—and all of the others were pretenders and fakes.

I was taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine—a doctrine that has confounded and confused the greatest philosophical and theological minds for the past two millennia—but in reality, it was divine Jesus who got all the play. human and divineI wanted to know what Jesus was like as a kid my age, but all I got was one story from years 2-30 about Jesus from the gospels, a story in which the twelve-year old Jesus is polishing his halo rather than acting as twelve-year old humans do. Grown-up Jesus never laughed, never had fun, was always serious, was always doing things that real human beings don’t do (like performing miracles and rising from the dead), wasn’t married, didn’t have kids—very difficult to relate to on a human level. So I came to think that despite the doctrine, Jesus in truth was a divine being pretending to be human for a certain amount of time, just so the human beings around him would be a little bit more comfortable. Jesus wearing a human Halloween mask was unapproachable, impossible to resonate with, and yet was the person in whom I was supposed to trust and believe, the guy who was my only ticket to eternal happiness.

I stopped believing in Halloween Jesus a long time ago, and I blame him for my immediate attraction as an adult to stories in which Jesus is acting like a normal, limited human being rather than God in the Flesh or the Savior of the World. I wrote on this blog a week or so ago about just such a story.imagesJMFY4ONJ

Mister Perfect has a Bad Day

If the Incarnation means anything, it means that God became meat (carne = flesh, meat). That crass equivalence reminds me that this is not a story of an ethereal and unapproachable bridge to an unknown God, but rather a story of divine love so extreme that all of the trappings of divinity are dropped in exchange for becoming human. It makes it a lot more possible to believe in a continuing Incarnation—God in us—if the model and paradigm was just like us and still was a worthy bearer of the divine.

Putting a stake through the heart of Fire-Insurance Policy Jesus was a lot more difficult and has taken a lot more time. He’s like a vampire—every time I think he’s done for, he pops up somewhere else in a slightly different form. hellfireBut putting Halloween Jesus in the grave has helped. What is the Christian faith really about? Escape from eternal damnation or a transformed life and working to establish God’s kingdom on earth now? With the help of mentors, conversations and books over the past several years I have strongly landed on the latter option. So much so that I can truthfully say that I don’t know exactly what will happen when I die, and it doesn’t matter.

I am not a God-believer because it guarantees me an attractive afterlife. I believe in God because it is the only framework within which I find the empowerment and direction to avoid cynicism and despair. And, sure enough, it is not only Christianity that provides such a framework. I am a Christian because it is my history, my heritage, my home. cloudsBut I can imagine a Muslim, a Jew, or any other God-believer finding similar strength and empowerment in their own histories and traditions (not so sure about the atheists, though—food for thought!). The Living Stoner who said that there is nothing special or better about our (my) way of doing things was absolutely right—as Marcus Borg writes, “there is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience.” This has nothing to do with doctrine, dogma, or intellectual affirmation. But the ghosts of Jesus past are not happy.

The Muslim/Christian Brotherhood

The never-ending violence in the Middle East has taken on new dimensions in the past weeks and months. I wrote the essay below exactly a year ago, but the point is even more relevant now than it was then.

Icblog_d216e4f627-thumbc[1]’m currently reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I first became aware of the book, as many people did, by being alerted on Facebook to a horrendous interview—“Is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done??”—that Aslan was subjected to by Fox.com. The interviewer was unable to get past the apparently incomprehensible notion that a Muslim would be interested in or be qualified to write a book about Jesus. Despite Aslan’s excellent academic credentials as a comparative religions scholar, the Fox interviewer continually revealed her total inability to grasp what a comparative religion scholar does, as well as her regular confusion of facts with a severely limited world view and her general ignorance disguised as investigative journalism.

Reza Aslan Fox.com interview

The interview went viral, and Dr. Aslan’s book shot to the top of the NY Times best-seller list, which it still sits. I, of course, am one of the reasons why his book shot to the top of the list, since I ordered it on Amazon as soon as I listened to his cringe-worthy interview on Fox. I even mentioned briefly on Facebook that I wish someone from Fox would interview me concerning “freelance Christianity,” so my blog could go through the stratosphere. ku-medium[1]One person commented that liberals might start standing in line to get interviewed by Fox, just to help their current project gain momentum among reasonable people.

Zealot is a thoroughly researched academic investigation of what current scholarship can tell us about Jesus, not as the Redeemer of the world, as Christians believe, nor as one of the greatest prophets of God, as Muslims believe, but as the first-century CE Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine. Aslan is an engaging and clear writer—something many academics are incapable of beingimagesCAEYQIP4—and has written a fascinating book that provides, even for those of us who think we know something about it, an illuminating perspective on not just Jesus the man, but on the turbulent political and religious times in which he lived and died. Not once in the entire book would I have been able to detect whether Aslan was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or something else. He makes his own personal religious pedigree clear in the five-page “Author’s Note” with which the book begins, pages that the Fox.com interviewer obviously never bothered to read.

It has been a very long time since the historical details of what the man Jesus was and was not have had any direct impact on my own faith commitments. I have evolved into believing that the truth of a story is far more important than the facts of a story, a manner of belief that has a far longer pedigree in human experience than the relatively recent idea, a product of the Scientific Revolution, that only verifiable facts can be considered as true. Accordingly, Aslan’s book is neither a confirmation of nor a challenge to my Christian faith. Actually, of far more interest to me than the book is the author’s interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” a couple of weeks before the Fox.com debacle.

Reza Aslan NPR interview

The book tells me that Aslan is a fellow academic, and the interview tells me that he is a brother in faith. that begin Zealot. Born in Iran into a nominally Muslim family, Aslan came to the United States at the age of twelve when his family fled Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. Three years later, he “found Jesus.” Following his sophomore year in high school, Aslan spent the summer at an evangelical imagesCAO1SD62Christian youth camp and heard “a remarkable story that would change my life forever . . . the greatest story ever told.” Not surprisingly, Aslan returned home from that summer with the same proselytizing energy that I remember also having when returning from such summer camps in my youth. His mother converted to Christianity, as did many of his friends. Problems arose in college, however, when as a religious studies major Aslan began to find that there is a huge gap between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history, between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, he discovered that in his estimation Jesus of Nazareth was a lot more interesting than the Jesus his religion had told him about. In the midst of cognitive dissonance, drifting away from the religious framework that had changed his life just a few years earlier, imagesCA25BMC1Aslan found himself full of doubt and anger.

Interestingly, it was two of his Jesuit professors at Santa Clara University, recognizing both Aslan’s scholarly promise and his deepening crisis of faith, who suggested that he reconsider Islam, the religion of his forefathers that he had never been seriously taught in his formative years. Aslan converted back to Islam, finding that it spoke to many of his deepest spiritual needs while avoiding a number of the conflicts with reason so central to Christianity. In response to the interviewer’s asking for examples of just what it was about Christianity he found so problematic, Aslan answered that

imagesCAU0LBPVThe problem with Christianity, what would ultimately push me away from it, is the notion of the Trinity, the notion of the Incarnation, the idea of Jesus as the literally begotten Son of God . . . It never made sense to me.

“Well no kidding!” I thought as I listened to the interview. If the Trinity and the Incarnation are the only parts of Christianity that didn’t make sense to you, you weren’t trying! What about the Virgin birth and Resurrection (just for starters)? One of my favorite exercises in class is at an appropriate point in the semester to ask students to brainstorm and create a list of those aspects of Christian belief that make no rational sense. It doesn’t take very long—the Incarnation, Trinity, Virgin birth and Resurrection are just the beginning. I’ve heard and read all of this before, particularly from academics; some version of “I was a Christian (or fill in the blank) in my youth, but when I became an adult and realized that it didn’t make reasonable sense, I stopped believing.” In a case such as Aslan’s, it would have been perfectly reasonable to become an atheist or an agnostic. Neither one of those choices would present the slightest obstacle to being a fine scholar of religious studies.

Instead, Aslan became a Muslim, finding that

imagesCAO2E9CLThe God that I intimately and deeply desired in my heart was a being of divine unity, a being that encompassed all of creation. And that’s how Islam talked about God . . . in the Sufi tradition, God is all of creation, His very substance is existence . . . everything that exists exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of God . . .  without separation between Creator and creation.

Of course, it could be argued that many Christians and Jews also believe exactly this. But in my estimation it doesn’t matter. Aslan is my brother in faith despite having rejected Christianity for Islam, because deep down he continues to share with me a foundational desire and belief, one that is far more important than which religion one espouses. Toward the end of the NPR interview, Aslan expresses this desire.

TitleHeader[1]If you believe our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it is only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. This is the ineffable experience of faith.

Each of has to make a decision concerning what to do about the big questions when reason and objective facts run out. And this decision always involves a leap of faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Some choose to deny the existence of anything transcendent, but even this requires faith. imagesCA139MTRAs a character in a novel I read earlier this summer says “atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.” For others, religions provide an arena within which to develop languages and practices that speak of the human encounter with the divine. Happy leaping!

Humility and Wonder

Last Sunday’s gospel focused on one of Jesus’ signature miracles–the feeding of the five thousand. Here is a reflection on that story and its implications that I first posted about a year ago.

My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as a friend of mine says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?”, I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS, jerk!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human knowledge. Or at least my knowledge, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

I teach philosophy, which has the reputation for trying to rationally explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. Philosophers also have the reputation of lacking humility.This reputation is, unfortunately, well deserved if referring to the main streams of philosophy since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

The other ancient philosophical starting point is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” This is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility, woven together, turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. Psalm 8 gets this connection just right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what transcends us, while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what transcends us.

I heard a homily a few years ago on Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand in which the homilist struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. “We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of morons that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So not only does a spirit of generosity start spreading through the crowd, but gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, and no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why did the homilist, and why do all of us, find it necessary to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? Pascal put it succinctly: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the wonder of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine defines a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding five thousand with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

Making the Truth Laugh

One of the many enjoyable occurrences at the end of each semester is occasionally receiving thank-you notes from students. Often they come from quiet students who said little in class but eloquently mention a moment or a text from the semester that made a difference or that will stick with them. The bookshelves in my philosophy department office are lined with such cards and notes, welcome reminders that once in a while something works better than expected.

A year ago I received such a note from a student in the Honors interdisciplinary class that I teach with two colleagues. The student wrote that our class was “the best college course I’ve ever taken,” a judgment tempered slightly by the fact that she was a freshman and at the time had only taken six college courses so. Later in her note, however, she thanked the three of us for our senses of humor, writing that “I have never laughed so hard or as often in any class I have ever taken.”simone weil[1] That one I’ll cherish for a long time, because my teaching philosophy for years has been shaped by Simone Weil’s observation that “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” For this student, at least, mission accomplished.

chickenthoreau[1]When it comes to learning, laughter is serious business. Although they often do not occupy front row seats in the pantheon of philosophical greats, many of my favorite philosophers—Epictetus, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche and others—depend on various forms of humor to shape their thought. Irreverence is a particularly effective philosophical tool. A logical argument demonstrating that human capacities do not match human pretensions is not as effective as Montaigne’s126763672545178[1] “even on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own ass.” Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest master of irreverence who ever lived, undermines commitment to logical precision with ““It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!” and scoffs at piety with “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” As I told a junior faculty member after observing a skilled but humorless performance in his logic class, “philosophy is serious, but it isn’t deadly serious.”

nameoftherose[1]In Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose, laughter plays an unexpectedly central role. Set in a fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery, Eco weaves murder, heresy, liturgy, medieval medicine, sexual deviance, the Inquisition, opulence in the face of abject poverty, and political intrigues between the Emperor and two competing popes into a memorable fictional tapestry. A central thread in that tapestry is a question that sparks frequent and passionate debate: Did Christ ever laugh?protectedimage[1] This seemingly random question becomes the center of an intense debate that ultimately involves far more than academic curiosity. Jorge, the venerable and blind former librarian insists that Christ never laughed. Not only is there no record of such a thing happening, but there are also solid theological reasons for denying laughter to Jesus. “Laughter foments doubt,” Jorge argues, and doubt undermines those things about which we must be certain. Those in doubt must turn to the relevant authority—a priest, abbot, text—to remove uncertainty. 4349348690_947b4e3701[1]Laughter makes light of what is most serious and most indubitable.

William of Baskerville, the visiting Franciscan monk who becomes the medieval Sherlock Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of several murders at the abbey, counters that there is nothing in the sacred texts indicating that Jesus did not laugh, and also points out that laughter is part of human nature (and Jesus was human, after all). Furthermore, William claims, “sometimes it is right to doubt,” given that doubt and uncertainty are part of the natural human rational thought process. “Our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason must also please divine reason.” William is not given to hilarity, but has a keen eye for the ironic and incongruous throughout the novel, frequently showing that the true pursuit of truth often takes one down paths of uncertainty and irreverence. The adventure and openness of the process is far more instructive than any certainty that hypothetically lies at the end of the path.

As the novel progresses to its dramatic conclusion and the body count of dead monks increases, the depth of Jorge’s commitment to certainty and rejection of the twin demons of laughter and doubt is revealed. For decades, Jorge has been the self-appointed concealer of the only existing copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, in which Aristotle show that the value of comedy is to cause us to laugh at power, at pretension to greatness, and at human aspirations. Laughter allows us, at least temporarily, to abandon fear. In Jorge’s estimation, laughter is the enemy of authority, both temporal and spiritual, and must be snuffed out at all costs. Accordingly, he has murdered those in the abbey whom heJorge_&_William[1] suspected of knowing about and lusting after this dangerous text.

In the climactic confrontation  between Jorge and William at the novel’s denouement, as the depths of Jorge’s insane commitment to protecting certainty and truth  becomes apparent, William exposes the true nature of Jorge’s obsession. “You are the Devil. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” Jorge has shaped his life and actions according to his conviction that truth is to be protected, that it must be defended against all threats—there is a strong element of fear in his conviction that he owns the truth. He is absolutely right about one thing, though—laughter and doubt are direct threats to everything he considers holy. Laughter can bring pretensions to certainty and truth to their knees far more effectively than argumentation.imagesCAEB25EV Rather than face such a world, Jorge destroys the book, himself, and ultimately the library and entire monastery.

In the final pages of The Name of the Rose, in the midst of smoking ruins and ashes, William reflects with his young apprentice Adso on what they have seen and experienced. William refers to the dead Jorge as the “Antichrist,” an appellation that Adso does not understand.images[5]  “The Antichrist,” William explains, “can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear those who are willing to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them.” What is to be learned from the tragic and apocalyptic events at the abbey? William’s speculation is one that all seekers of truth and lovers of human beings should take to heart. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Anne LamottAnne Lamott, whose work causes me to laugh more than any author I can think of, defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is not only uniquely human, it is one of the many signs of divine love that each of us carries into the world daily. Did Jesus laugh? That depends on whether he was a human being or not. Since incarnation, humanity infused by divinity, is at the heart of the Christian faith, laughter is a fundamental expression of God in us. “Lighten up!” is a call to holiness.

diy-quote-wall-art_856-1[1]

The Powers of Words

The building looked like the love child of a logic problem and a crossword puzzle. Richard Powers, Orfeo

            During the summer I tend to plow through a book per week, making up for all of the months during the academic year when I do not have the time to read anything other than what I have assigned the students or have been assigned by my colleagues and superiors. Powers orfeoLast week’s book was Richard Powers’ Orfeo. Powers is one of my favorite novelists, but I don’t recall ever having a conversation with anyone about his books. He’s the sort of author whose books win awards, whose novels reviewers rave about as “brilliant,” a “tour de force,” and “his generation’s Herman Melville,” but few people read. Orfeo is his eleventh novel—I’ve read them all, but could not tell you off the top of my head the plot of any one of them. Powers is incredibly smart, knows a ton about classical music, science, philosophy, politics and a bunch of other things—and he enjoys showing off his intelligence. His books often strike me as clumps of genius loosely connected by characters and a plot. What makes me keep track of when the next Richard Powers novel is coming out and purchasing it as soon as it is released is his mastery of the English language. I can think of no author—and I’ve read many—who astounds me more often, page after page, with a phrase or descriptive sentence that makes me put the book down and simply say “Wow. That’s beautiful” (or brilliant or a tour de force). Orfeo is no exception.

And so she sat pushing her pen across the page like a pilgrim slogging to Compostela.

compostelaReplace “pushing her pen” with “clacking his laptop keys” and I know exactly what Powers is describing. I’ve never made the pilgrimage to Compostela, but have talked to a few persons who have. It takes daily preparation beforehand, but above all requires a daily commitment. Some days will be bright and beautiful, filled with great conversation and a general joie de vivre. Other days will be drizzly, cold, gloomy, and invite one to stay in bed. But getting to Compostela requires putting in the miles every day, regardless of weather and/or emotional contingencies. Writing is like that. Waiting until the stars are aligned and you have something important to say means that you will wait forever. It’s like police work—days on end of boredom punctuated by unpredictable moments of sheer terror (or inspiration or insight if one is writing—hopefully writing doesn’t always inspire terror). The immediacy of regular blog writing is helpful—committing myself to two new posts every week guarantees that I won’t wait on elusive inspiration.

Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t yet destroyed.

one of these thingsI try to introduce my students to the important concept of cognitive dissonance all the time, usually starting with a reminder of the Sesame Street game: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.” Our natural tendency is to resolve dissonance into similarity, even if it requires forcing the issue. But part of a liberal education is a growing awareness that sometimes contradictions not only cannot be but should not be resolved. Familiarity breeds contempt, but dissonance keep us on our toes—and that’s a beautiful thing.

“Isn’t the point of music to move listeners?”

“No. The point of music is to wake listeners up. To break all our ready-made habits.”

TNelsonhe same is true of the learning process. Important thinkers from Aristotle to Simone Weil tell us that the struggle and process involved in grappling with unfamiliar ideas is often far more important than getting “the right answer.” In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Christopher Nelson (President of my alma mater St. John’s College) nails it: “A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match.”

We are brought back to ourselves by solitude, and from ourselves to God is only a step.

With this I return, as I frequently do, to a phrase from an obscure medieval nun that captures the essence of what I learned on sabbatical five years ago: My deepest me is God. Using the vocabulary of Christianity, Powers is identifying the truest meaning of incarnation, the divine embedded in human form. The point is just as powerful when taken outside of a religious context. Usually what I most need and desire cannot be found by turning outward to things, persons, jobs or events. The source of everything I need is internal. EttyI spent all of last semester with a bunch of sophomores studying how various people in the worst possible circumstances time and again came to this realization. Etty Hillesum was a case in point.

Etty Hillesum has been described as “the adult counterpart to Anne Frank”; her diary and letters, published as An Interrupted Life, reveal a remarkable awareness and compassion in the midst of some of humanity’s darkest days. She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. Knowing that I taught a colloquium on various issues related to the Holocaust last semester, the President of my college recommended it to me at lunch the other day. I knew that the recommendation was a fortuitous one as soon as I read the introduction by Jan Gaarlandt. Gaarlandt writes of Hillesum’s “totally unconventional” spirituality and rejects the attempts by both Jews and Christians to claim her as typically Jewish or typically Christian as “unprofitable.” As I suspect is the case with most persons described as “religious,” Etty’s spirituality was uniquely her own; she regularly addresses God in her diary and letters as she would address herself.

I hold a silly, naïve, or deadly serious conversation with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God . . . I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call “God.”

This may not be “typical” in any sense, but it captures the incarnational heart of Christianity beautifully. As the medieval sister said, My deepest me is God.

The Greater Jihad

0690=690[1]Lead on King Eternal, the day of march has come

Henceforth in fields of conquest Thy tents shall be our home

Through days of preparation, Thy grace hath made us strong

And now O King Eternal we lift our battle song. 

Almost five centuries ago, as he observed his fellow French Catholic and Protestant citizens regularly kill each other in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Michel de Montaigne wrote that “there is no hostility so extreme as that of the Christian.” A strange statement—hostility and bloodshed seem entirely incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount. But I learned at a very early age to ignore or set aside this contradiction. Many of the hymns of my childhood shared a common theme—we Christian believers are at war and must be prepared to do battle at any moment. From “Lead On, O King Eternal” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”onward_christian_soldiers-detail-new[1] through “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” to “Who is On the Lord’s Side?” I learned a spiritual vocabulary of aggression, violence and warfare. I was never clear about exactly who we were supposed to be fighting or how to recognize the enemy, but I knew I had been drafted into an army, whether I liked it or not. And in the more than five decades of my life, world events have regularly made it clear that religion and aggression, faith and violence, often go hand in hand.

sons%20of%20thunder[1]In the Gospel of Luke, James and John, known as “the sons of thunder,” have this sort of thing in mind when they ask Jesus for permission to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan town that refuses to put Jesus up on his way to Jerusalem. It is no surprise that Samaritans would turn Jesus away, because the center of Samaritan religious worship was in Samaria, not in Jerusalem where Jesus was going, as it was for Jews. Samaritans and Jews then were as different as Catholics and Unitarians today, as different as Sunnis and Shi’ites.imagesCAON6NA5  James and John want to kick ass and take names, all in the interest of spreading the word that the Messiah has come and if you don’t like it or believe it, watch out! But Jesus won’t let them do it; he even “rebukes them” for thinking of such a thing. And the disciples, even those in his inner circle, are confused yet again. If you have the power to establish the truth and eliminate those who won’t follow it, why not use that power?

A book I recently finished reading for the second time, Stephanie Saldana’s The Bread of Angels published in 2010, places the reader in the middle of such questions. breadofangels[1]Saldana’s book is a memoir of the year that she spent from September 2004 to September 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship in Damascus, Syria studying Arabic. It would be another five or six years before the current civil war in Syria that has claimed over 100,000 lives to date would erupt, but Syria in the early years of the twenty-first century, as it had been for decades, was a place of both religious and political tension. These tensions were heightened by the fact that Stephanie’s home country, the United States, had invaded Syria’s neighbor to the east, Iraq, just a few short months prior to her arrival in Damascus.

Stephanie lives in the Christian section of the Old City of Damascus, Syriac_Catholic_Church_logo[1]surrounded by Arabs who follow the liturgical rites of the oldest known form of Christianity, but her daily walks across the city place her in contact with the predominantly Muslim working urban class. She particularly befriends Mohammed, who keeps a carpet shop and looks like Groucho Marx. Although his carpets are extraordinarily beautiful, often the product of his own painstaking restoration, business is slow and his shop is almost always empty. In response to Stephanie’s sympathetic concerns, Mohammed tells her a story.

“When the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, was returning from battle, he stopped on the top of a hill before entering the city. He turned to his companions and he said ‘Now we return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ Do you know what that means, Stephanie? The lesser jihad, the jihad of holy war, is simply to fight in a military battle. But the greater jihad is to work all day repairing carpets without any new business. It is to feed your family. The greater jihad, Stephanie, is just to live.”

In Arabic the word “jihad,” so frightening to many non-Muslim Westerners, simply means “struggle.” The point of Mohammed’s story—told from within the context of a religion that shares a history of violence and warfare with Christianity—is that the greatest struggle of the life of faith is not winning converts or defending one’s beliefs against those with whom one disagrees. The greater struggle of faith is worked out in the daily grind—the struggle of weaving divine threads into the often mundane tapestry of a particular human life. As a novice monk tells Stephanie toward the end of her book, “Resurrection is not an event in the past, but a concrete reality, something we look for every day.” So where is this concrete reality to be found? How are we to participate in the greater jihad of faith?

fruit-of-the-spirit[1]A familiar passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians provides a direction. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” At first read, these characteristics are not particularly remarkable, certainly not as attention-getting as the gifts of the Spirit—tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, and the like—that Paul lists elsewhere. Jeanne pointed out to me the other day that while the gifts of the Spirit direct attention to the person with the gift, the fruits of the spirit are directed outward away from the person exemplifying the fruit. Love, generosity, kindness—these are expressed toward others, channeling divine energy away from oneself into the world. And note that these are the fruits of the Spirit. A tree does not expend extraordinary effort or grit its leafy teeth or work overtime to produce fruit. A tree’s fruit is the natural result of health, growth, maturity, and time. These fruits cannot be rushed—often waiting and silence are the best incubators. jeremiah1[1]As Jeremiah, in a rare good mood, writes in Lamentations, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” What more likely place for that to occur than in the daily routines of our lives? The greater jihad cannot be won as one might win a battle or war; 220px-Molana[1]it must be lived. As the great thirteenth-century Muslim poet and mystic Rumi wrote, “If you want to witness the resurrection, then be it.”

Yet clearly it is possible, even typical, for even those human beings most in touch with their divine nature to fail to live out these fruit. Just consider Jesus today in the gospel reading after he saves the Samaritan town from being burnt to a crisp. Is it loving, gentle, or kind to tell someone whose father just died to “let the dead bury their dead”? Is Jesus being patient or generous when he casts aspersions on the commitment of a person who just wants to be a faithful son and say goodbye to his family? Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace? One of the most attractive things about Jesus in the Gospels is also one of the most confusing—he is so recognizably human.

In Yann Martel’s award winning novel, Life of PiYann Martel holding Life of Pi[1], which was recently made into an Academy Award winning movie, Pi Patel wonders about this Jesus guy. Pi loves God and everything about God, so much so that he is trying to be a Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time. But one of the main things he doesn’t get about Christianity is Jesus, who Pi critiques by comparing him to a Hindu God who temporarily became human.

vishnu_40[1]There is the story of Vishnu incarnated as Vamana the dwarf. He asks demon king Bali for only as much land as he can cover in three strides. Bali laughs at this runt and his puny request, and he consents. Immediately Vishnu takes on his full cosmic size. With one stride he covers the earth, with the second the heavens, and with the third he boots Bali into the netherworld. . . . That is God as God should be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.

      This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him—what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. . . .This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god—and in a hot place at that—with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; depositphotos_5367133-Jesus-Riding-a-Donkey[1]and when he splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a God who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?

Pi has a point. And yet he admits a few pages later that “I couldn’t get him out of my head. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.”

“God on too human a scale.” For anyone imagining what God in the flesh might look and act like, Jesus is a surprise, sometimes even a disappointment. And so are we—some days will be better than others in the greater jihad. But God in human form is the whole point of the Incarnation. Energized by the fruits of the spirit, the life of faith introduces the kingdom of God into the world.

Lead on, O King Eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease

And holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace

For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum

But deeds of love and mercy thy heavenly kingdom comes.

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished last fall. We are currently working on a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended last year. We are finally turning it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

The future library has one large interior wall that we have decided will be the location of family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship over twenty-five years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display will be the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success. VM Ruane 8I’ve had a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-two of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Last week I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

Last Sunday Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

Passing the Baton

sp-olympics-athl_0498999228[1]A disturbingly common mishap in recent Summer Olympic games has been the failure of U.S. track and field relay teams. Individually, these teams almost always are made up of the best runners, top to bottom, of any nation’s relay contingent. Best times, best individual win-loss records. But great individuals do not a successful relay team make. In a relay race, each runner is required not only to run her or his lap as swiftly as possible, but also to hand the baton to the next runner smoothly and securely within a specified number of meters. As the baton falls to the track during these attempted transfers, time after time, the truth becomes crystal clear.Women%20baton%20drop[1] In the quintessential American spirit, the members of the U.S. relay teams have spent far too much time honing their individual running skills, and far too little time practicing how to be a team (if they’ve practiced at all). Passing a baton while both the passer and passee are running, one decelerating and one accelerating, within a limited amount of space takes practice, practice that is not nearly as sexy or stimulating as running as fast as one can by oneself.

Baton-passing serves as an interesting analogy for many human situations, particularly generational ones that involve passing a virtual baton from the geezers to the young punks. A successful transfer requires the ability and desire to receive and run on the younger generation’s part and a willingness to let go and slow down from the older veterans. Debate about curriculum reform has been swirling around my campusimages[2] for close to a decade now, centering on a large, four semester course, described as the “core of the core” at my college, that is required of all freshmen and sophomores. This course was created, and then established as the heart of the college’s core curriculum in the early 1970s, a course that was groundbreaking and audacious in its day. Many of the faculty who were the “young Turks” of that time, the movers and shakers who invented this course and shepherded it through the faculty senate and administration against all odds, are now senior faculty on the verge of retirement. Others have already retired, some have died. And the course they created, which  defined many of their academic careers both in the classroom and out, became stale and badly in need of fresh vision and creative reconstruction. Despite the good will of many of the next generation of faculty, highly qualified and motivated women and men who willingly seek to carry a revitalized course forward for the next few decades, the reform debate was frequently poisoned by the resistance to any meaningful change by the older generation.resisting_change[1] It has been sad to observe. By accident of age and time served at the college I am positioned, as both one of the youngest of the older generation and one of the most experienced of the new generation, at the very point where the baton transfer should occur. As a veteran of teaching in this program and a long-standing advocate for needed change, I was asked just short of three years ago to direct the new version of this program that emerged from curriculum reform as it transitions from the past into the future. We’ve been doing it with some success over the past three years, in spite of some continuing resistance. As I’ve told several of my senior colleagues over the past few years, “it’s impossible to run a relay race if you won’t let go of the baton.”

Five years ago Ascension Sunday happened to be the seventeenth and last Sunday that I would be worshiping at St. Johns Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota on sabbatical. As I sat in my choir stall seat during seven-o’clock morning prayer, then in the sanctuary later in the morning during mass, there was a certain wistfulness and a bit of emotion, but not as much as I expected. For this Ascension Sunday was an appropriate milestone in my spiritual growth, a marker of the point at which I would tentatively and with fear and trembling take what I had learned and experienced over the previous four months “into all the world.” I was never taught to pay attention to Ascension Sunday in my religious tradition. But even after I was introduced to the liturgical calendar for the first time in my middle twenties, Ascension Sunday was simply the Sunday before Pentecost, after which we would slog through week after week of Ordinary Time boredom in green through the summer and fall until we were rescued by Advent purple right after Thanksgiving. 0181[1]But as I inhabited for the first time the psalms and New Testament texts on that Ascension Sunday, I thought “Wow. Jesus was the ultimately prepared and successful baton passer.”

In one way Ascension Sunday completes the story of the Incarnation that began with Jesus’ birth. Jesus doesn’t ascend out of his human body to heaven—he takes it with him, because the next lap of this story, the “Christ in us” lap, is just about ready to explode. Jesus showed extraordinary patience with his all-too-human followers during his short stay on earth, teaching them basic truths through stories and actions, all preparation for when it would be up to them to receive the baton and run their own incarnational race. The forty days after the Resurrection were all practice for a smooth passing of the baton. Jesus kept telling them “It’s all right. I’m not leaving you alone. It’s better for you that I go, because I’ll be sending you the greatest teammate ever. You can do this, because I’ll still be with you. When I leave, don’t go crazy and start running in every direction out of fear or impatience. Wait. Pray. You’ll know when it’s time to run. And when you do, you’ll turn the world upside down.” And when the clouds closed on Jesus’ heels as he ascended into heaven, for once the men and women who had loved and followed him did what they were told. j0387426-11[1]They went into an upper room in Jerusalem and waited.

I’m told that the receiver of the baton in a relay race should not seek to accelerate until she or he feels the slap of the baton in the palm of the receiving hand they have extended backwards as they begin to run. The receiver never sees the runner coming up behind, but there’s no mistaking the transfer from the unseen runner when it happens. And in the upper room ten days after Jesus left, as we will celebrate next Sunday morning, there was no mistaking that the baton had been successfully transferred. holy_spirit[1]The Incarnation goes on, and we recipients of the Holy Spirit carry it “to the ends of the earth.” In his homily on that Ascension Sunday, the Abbott observed that with Ascension Day, the Easter message of “Glory, Glory, Glory” that has been front and center since Easter changes to “Go!” 4423454959_524f73018a_z[1]The word to me that day and ever since was “Take what you’ve been given, what you’ve found, and go.” As my favorite Psalm says,

Day unto day takes up the story

And night unto night makes known the message.

We are carrying the baton, and are to run as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

Behind the Curtain

Earlier this week I led a seminar with a number of colleagues from the Honors Program as part of a two-day end-of-the-semester workshop. Our text was several essays from Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth-century diplomat, philosopher, and introvert who has become one of my favorite authors over the past few years. My general tendency, both as a philosopher and as a normal human being, is toward the details rather than grand, sweeping schemes, and toward skepticism rather than certainty. French wars of religionMontaigne speaks directly to both of these tendencies. He lived in 1500s France in the midst of the bloody French wars of religion that broke out between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation, and frequently comments on the absurdity of human beings claiming to know with certainty anything about the nature or will of God. He observes that “there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities,” arguing that “It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scales without their being trivialized.” He was a person of faith and considered himself to be a good Catholic, but sought to live the sort of life that he most admired: “The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measureOz, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.” Words of wisdom, I think.

But there is in many of us a seemingly incurable desire to peek into the mind of God. As Dorothy and her entourage in The Wizard of Oz, we want to know what’s behind the curtain. On the way to the early show at church last Sunday, Jeanne and I caught the last few minutes of Krista Tippett’s radio program On Being. She was interviewing Jewish theologian and prolific author KushnerRabbi Lawrence Kushner, who ended the interview with a charming story from one day when he was giving a bunch of preschoolers a tour of the synagogue.

I was leading a tour of the sanctuary, of the prayer hall with the children in the congregation’s preschool. And then I figured as a piece de resistance I’d have them come onto the bima, or the little prayer stage up in front of the room, where there was an ark where we kept the scroll of the Torah. It was accessible via a big floor-to-ceiling curtain. And I got them up on the stage, and I was about to call them—’Open the ark,’ but I saw the teacher at the back tapping her wristwatch, which as you may know, is an old Talmudic gesture, which means your time is about up, bucko. So, I said, ‘I tell you what, boys and girls. We’ll come back when we get together again in a couple of weeks, we’ll come back here and I’m going to open that curtain there and show you what’s behind it.’ It’s very special. You know, and so they all say, “Shalom, Rabbi,” and like little ducklings, follow the teacher back to the class.
Well, the next day, the teacher shows up at my office with the following story. Apparently the preceding day’s hastily-concluded lesson has occasioned the fierce debate among the little people as to what is behind the curtain. They didn’t know. And, the following four answers are given, which is I think pretty interesting.

FNAnswer One: The first kid guessed that there is absolutely nothing behind the curtain. As Kushner notes, this kid “is obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university.” I read recently in the NY Times that 68% of academic philosophers in this country describe themselves as atheists, with 13% more leaning in that direction. I had no idea that I am in such a minority amongst my peers—what do they know that I don’t know? Food for thought and another post, perhaps. I am reminded of a story Nietzsche tells—in a dream he once took the mask off a Greek sculpture and found himself “staring into the empty eye sockets of nothingness.”

jewish holy thingsAnswer Two: Another preschooler, playing a safe hand, thought that behind the curtain one would find a Jewish holy thing. This kid will probably turn out to be a nominal follower of Judaism, recognizing the existence of “holy things” and perhaps people like the rabbi who are strangely obsessed by “holy things,” but unlikely to be bothered by what they might represent and what Holy Thing might be lurking behind such “holy things.” Pretty much like the vast majority of children cranked out of Protestant Sunday Schools and CCD classes every year.

Monty HallPat SajakAnswer Three: A third kid, channeling his inner Monty Hall or Pat Sajak, hoped that a brand new car was behind the curtain. There are any number of televangelists who scream something similar from various media outlets on a daily basis. There’s something attractive about The Gospel of Prosperity, the notion that God wants the most faithful followers of the Divine Plan to be rich and prosperous. Too bad that there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea anywhere that I’m aware of.

Answer Four: The most fascinating answer came from child number four. As Kushner tells it, “the fourth kid said no, you’re all wrong. mirrorNext week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there will be a giant mirror.” Not only is this creative and interesting, I’m more and more coming to believe that this little boy or girl is right. What one expects or hopes for when engaged in faith-related activities may say little or nothing about God, but it says a lot about the person doing the expecting and hoping. Whatever God is—if God is—our thinking and believing about God always begins with what we want and need God to be. Somehow the four-year-old knew that whatever is hidden behind the curtain is us. The story of Incarnation, of God becoming human so that we might become God as Irenaeus put it, begins with this mirror.

The Easter Mouse

palinAt the end of last year, just in time for the holiday season, a new book by Sarah Palin was published. Entitled Good Tidings and Great Joy, with the subtitle A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas, the book was promoted, among other things, as “a fun, festive, thought-provoking book, which will encourage all to see what is possible when we unite in defense of our faith and ignore the politically correct Scrooges who would rather take Christ out of Christmas.” war-on-christmasEvery fall in recent years various conservative voices have called for like-minded persons to “take Christmas back” from various elements and constituencies seeking to secularize and remove Christ from it. This strikes me as a relatively recent phenomenon. My upbringing was as conservative Christian as it comes, yet my family had no problem mixing the baby Jesus in a manger with other not-so-Jesus-like features of the holidays, such as the year I got both a BB gun and a G.I. Joe doll (but don’t call it a doll) under the tree. The violent presents must not have had much of an effect. I do not own a gun nor have I shot one in at least thirty years. I’m glad the Christmas police never came to my house—we would have been in trouble.

But that’s nothing compared to the trouble we would have been in had the Easter police ever showed up at the wrong time. Easter is a confusing holiday for a kid, much more confusing than Christmas. Christmas is dependable—it comes on the same day in December every year. But Easter is confusedly flexible—it can show up on any given Sunday between the middle of March and late April.6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e55034926a8833-800wi I learned as an adult that there is actually a method to when Easter occurs. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring either on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Although this formula sounds very new-agey and smacks of Druids and such, it apparently was established at the Council of Nicea in 325. No telling what a bunch of theologians and bishops will do with too much time on their hands. All I knew as a kid was that Easter didn’t seem to know when to show up, except that it was always on a Sunday—with either snow banks or flowers outside, depending on the year.

I also knew what Easter was supposed to be about. Jesus was dead and now he isn’t any more. But my real interest was in various not-so-Jesus-like accoutrements that went with Easter—bunnies, Easter baskets, chocolate eggs (crème-filled or hollow) and, my ultimate obsession and downfall, jelly beans. My mother, very much like a Cadbury egg, was hard (or at least Swedish and stoic) on the outside and soft on the inside. 400px_JesusBunny_xlargeShe talked a good game about Easter being about Jesus and not about bunnies, eggs, and candy—but my brother and I knew that every Easter morning before we headed off to church would be an early spring version of Christmas morning. Each of us would find an Easter basket filled with our favorite sweets, as well as a toy or two. Mine was usually a small stuffed animal, facilitating my inexplicable and very strong stuffed animal obsession. One Easter, my mother said that in addition to the Easter basket, she had hidden two solid chocolate rabbits, one for each of us, somewhere in the house—it was up to each of us to find ours.

My brother found his within five minutes or so slid out of sight but within reach behind the piano. But I could not find mine. I’m usually pretty good at this—Jeanne will attest that I am almost always the “finder of lost or misplaced things” in our house. chocolate bunnyBut I could not find my freaking chocolate rabbit. It came time to head off for church and my mother would have caved and revealed where she had hidden it, except that—typically—she could not remember. I knew better than to suggest that I stay home and find my chocolate rabbit while the rest of the family went to church, but I was not thinking “He is Risen!” thoughts while at the service. I was wondering “where the fuck is my chocolate bunny??” (or something like that—the “f” word had not made it into even my inner vocabulary yet).

The chocolate rabbit was never found. To his great consternation, my mother made my brother share his rabbit with me. Several weeks later, though, we found out what had happened to my bunny. As I helped my mother move the massive console record player in the corner of the living room so she could clean underneath, we discovered the box that had contained my chocolate rabbit, empty with a large hole chewed in the bottom left corner. imagesCALFEA3OMy bunny had been confiscated and eaten by one of the several mice who lived in our old barn of a house. We could hear them running behind the walls on occasion. My father set mousetraps in various closets and the furnace room on a regular basis; one of my older brother’s jobs was to check the traps occasionally and discard any unlucky mouse with a broken back that he discovered. I hoped at the time that the freaking mouse who stole my bunny was one of the ones caught by a trap, or at least that the mouse died of a sugar and chocolate overdose. But the Easter Mouse has become iconic in my personal mythology over the years, representing the continuing pull of sacred and secular that has evolved from a confusing tension as a child into an endless source of fascination, ideas, and challenges for growth (as well as blog posts!) as an adult. news_closeup_santamangr_lgSanta Claus or the baby Jesus? Santa’s elves or the angel Gabriel? Rabbits or an empty tomb? Jelly beans or unleavened bread?

As I sat toward the back of a full Trinity Episcopal Church for Easter Sunday service yesterday morning (Jeanne was up at the altar again), I was reminded of something provocative that a good friend of mine once said: “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No?” In a slightly more formal way, New Testament scholar NTWright 250wN. T. Wright has the following to say about the stories:

The practical, theological, spiritual, ethical, pastoral, political, missionary, and hermeneutical implications of the mission and message of Jesus differ radically depending upon what one believes happened at Easter.N. T. Wright

Indeed they do—but beyond confirming that I believe the Easter story is true in the sense that “these stories are true—and some of them actually happened,” I not very interested in debates concerning the historical veracity of the foundational stories of Christianity. Personally, I’ll take the Incarnation over the Resurrection as the seminal truth of my Christian faith. But here’s what I do know to be true about Easter:

  • I know that resurrection is real because I’ve experienced it.
  • Easter is a reminder that death does not have the last word, that life always springs from what has been left for dead.
  • New life is often unexpected, inexplicable and unpredictable. I don’t know what the dozens of little green things that have sprouted up throughout my back yard and flower beds are (I’ve never seen them in previous springs), but they are alive. downy woodpeckerI don’t know what the little downy woodpecker hammering away on the vinyl siding of our neighbor’s house this morning was thinking, but it was life in action.

As the newly sighted man said when interrogated about the person who healed his blindness, “I don’t know about Jesus but one thing I do know—I was blind and now I see.” My life narrative will always include the language of incarnation and resurrection—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But this I know for certain: New life is for real.