Category Archives: literature

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Face to Face with the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Without God

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Perhaps it is a feature of teaching at a Catholic college, but I am frequently surprised by how many of my students are convinced that the only basis for being moral is belief in a God who will hold each of us responsible after we die for what we have done during this life. I am familiar with this attitude—fire insurance policyI was raised with the Protestant version and believed that the primary reason to be a Christian is to gain an eternal fire-insurance policy. But people old enough to be a freshman or sophomore in college have undoubtedly encountered people who do not profess any sort of religious conviction and yet apparently have managed to develop working moral frameworks. When I ask my students whether it would be possible for an atheist to be moral, just about all of them admit that such a thing is possible—they just don’t know how. So I find myself faced with a continuing task each semester—exploring with my students the strange phenomenon of living a life of moral commitment and excellence without God. Or at least without the God they have in mind.

BonhoefferIn my “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester, my students’ expectations and pre-conceptions concerning the connections between moral commitment and religious faith were challenged on a regular basis. These challenges were most pressing during the weeks that we studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant pastor and theologian who ultimately found himself in prison awaiting execution because of his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer described the many ways in which his understanding of Christian commitment and action was changing. Lurking behind his ideas was one big question—where is God in all of this? In a letter a few weeks before his death, he wrote

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. losing faithThe God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

My students found this passage challenging, to say the least. In online discussions, several expressed their sadness that this pastor, who had been such a beacon of Christian hope and light during very dark times, lost his faith in his final days of life. I responded, tentatively, that Bonhoeffer had not lost his faith—but this was a very different sort of faith than my students were accustomed to.the bell

Bonhoeffer’s striking statement reminds me of the predicament that Michael Meade, a character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, finds himself in. Michael has an intense desire for God and the transcendent, seeking at various times to become a priest and, when that fails, to create the lay religious community that is at the heart of the novel. Throughout his life, Michael has considered himself “called” to service to God and has sought for patterns and signs that confirm his “calling.” Unfortunately, as with most of us, these signs and patterns turn out to be idolatrous projections of his own self-centered hopes and dreams. When the lay religious community fails and several of the members come to tragic ruin, including a man’s suicide for which Michael considers himself at least partially responsible, Michael is understandably on the brink of despair and suicide himself. As he seeks in the midst of ruin, for the first time in his life, to look at himself and at God cleanly and without preconceptions, he comes to hard conclusions.

The pattern which he had seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic imagination. At the human level there was no pattern. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” belief in godAnd as he felt, bitterly, the grimness of these words, he put it to himself: there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.

Michael has come for the first time in his life to see the need for “dying to self,” for removing himself from the center of the universe and insisting that the world must “make sense.” God’s existence has not been threatened by the deconstruction of Michael’s hopes and dreams, but the “belief system,” the vocabulary, through which he has defined and described God has been destroyed. Michael’s God, in other words, has died.

At the end of the novel, Michael reflects and takes stock. Rather than fill the resulting vacuum with yet another projection of himself onto the transcendent, Michael chooses to let the vast gap between himself and the Other remain, at least for the present, in all its power and rawness. God has not died, but Michael’s conception of God has. And at least for now, this is a good thing. The rituals that were once consoling and uplifting remain as a reminder of his true situation.

No sharp sense of his own needs drove him to make supplication. He looked about him with the calmness of the ruined man. But what did, from his former life, remain to him was the Mass. . . . The Mass remained, not consoling, not uplifting, but in some way factual. It contained for him no assurance that all would be made well that was not well. It simply existed as a kind of pure reality separate from the weaving of his own thoughts. . . . Writualhoever celebrated it, the Mass existed and Michael existed beside it. He made no movement now, reached out no hand. He would have to be found and fetched or else he was beyond help.

Sad? Yes. Regrettable? Undoubtedly. But Michael has chosen to see if, for at least a period of time, he can refrain from creating the transcendent in his own image. Perhaps when he begins again, he’ll be more aware of the contingency of all transcendent language.

When Bonhoeffer writes that The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us, he is recognizing, as Michael Meade recognized, that all of our imaginings about what God must be and will do are human constructs guaranteed to disappoint and fail. Living in the world “without the working hypothesis of God,” embracing God’s existence without confining God to the limits of human belief, may seem to leave commitment to moral principles and behavior without a foundation. le chambonBut this need not be the case. Magda Trocme, one of the leaders of the rescue efforts in the little village of Le Chambon where thousands of refugees, Jewish and otherwise, were successfully hidden from the Gestapo and Vichy police during the dark years of World War Two, is a case in point.

Magda’s husband, Andre, was the dynamic Protestant pastor in Le Chambon whose powerful and eloquent sermons inspired his congregation to live out their faith in real time in the face of prison- and life-threatening dangers. Magda had no patience for theologicalmagda niceties and regularly scoffed at the notion that her astounding generosity and fearless hospitality made her a “saint” or even morally special. She just did what needed to be done and facilitated the efforts of others to do the same, addressing every human need within her power to address no matter who the human in need happened to be. I have studied the Le Chambon phenomenon a great deal and have used the story of this remarkable village in class many times. But it was not until a week ago while reading a new study of the village that I encountered Magda saying anything about God. In her unpublished memoirs, now in the archives at Swarthmore College, Magda provides her definition of God:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

And that, for Magda, was sufficient for her to be one of the most remarkable moral exemplars I have ever encountered. And, I would argue, it is a sufficient foundation for moral goodness. Who knew it could be that simple?

There are More Things In Heaven and Earth . . .

Not long ago I received the following email out of the blue: “My name is ___ and I am a Christian from Pennsylvania. I am getting ready to pursue a career in the study of philosophy of religion at ____ after I graduate high school. I don’t know if you are a believer but if you are I want to ask to you about a few objections that I heard against Christianity that I can’t seem to find an answer for. But if you don’t have time I can understand. But I would really appreciate a direct answer to the questions if you have time I don’t want to be a burden. I wanted to see if you were comfortable with answering my questions before I sent them so if you want to please reply.”

I’m not sure how this young man got my name—I presume he may have sent this email to a number of persons in philosophy departments across the country—but in my response I invited him to send his questions on. Within ten minutes he sent a lengthy, rambling email with a number of very specific questions. Here are some of the highlights, condensed but unedited:

screen-shot-2011-11-10-at-11-17-36-pm[1]“The first objection to the Christian faith that I never heard refuted was the argument for Natural evil against God. . . . Natural evil is evil that arises independently of human action. . . . The free will defense does not apply to natural evil. How can one answer this objection why these things exist?”

“Why pray if God knows the future? It really doesn’t make sense to me. God already knows what is going to happen so why ask him to do something that he is already planning on doing? . . . It seems like when you are praying you are trying to inform God on something he already knows about. And what about when a tragedy happens. god-in-schools[1]Such as the Connecticut school shooting. I heard somebody say that God got kicked out of schools that is why it happened. I think that is absurd why would God do that to little children? Then I heard that someone said that little girl that survived was a miracle from God. What about the other 27 children that were murdered did God not want them to survive? It seems like one can only commit to either that God is complete free of men’s actions and he has no control over what men do to each other. OR God has complete control and makes evil things happen around the world. Which one is it?”

cowper_god_moves_in_a_mysterious_way_his_wonders_mug-p168069442141803762enqoe_216[1]“Why did God create people who he knows will go to hell? I believe again the only way to answer this is to resort to open theism. Otherwise this is a devastating attack on the benevolence and justice of God. The only response that I heard and I think is very weak is we don’t understand the way God works. I think that is true about some things but not this and it’s just a cop out.”

Here is my response to this young man:

Your excellent questions are all related to classic theodicy issues (the problem of evil, both moral and natural; free will and divine foreknowledge). These issues all arise from a very specific starting conception of God (omniscience, omnibenevolence, omnipotence, etc.). After more than two decades of working in philosophy, I’ll cut to the chase. With those starting assumptions concerning what God must be, you will fail to find a satisfactory rational/logical solution of either the problem of evil or the free will/ foreknowledge issue. My suggestion is that you challenge your assumptions. Since any conception of God is a human construct, we have no business being so rigidly attached to any single vision that we refuse to consider other possible visions and frameworks.

What if, for instance, God does not know absolutely every detail of the future?open_theism[1] What if through the gift of free will God has made human beings co-creators of the unfinished business of the world? What if Joan Chittister is right when she suggests that

Sister-Joan-Chittister-pf2[1]Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.”

What if the love of God is better understood through divine participation in our suffering instead of the elimination of suffering? The central images of the Christian faith, after all, include a fragile, helpless child and a tortured, dying human being executed as a criminal. Above all, don’t presume that you, or anyone else, michel-de-montaigne-006[1]knows with certainty what God must be like. As Montaigne writes, “there is no more notable folly in the world than to reduce these things to the measure of our capacity and competence.”

So don’t be afraid of “open theism” or any other tweaking of classical attributes of God that might help you see the issues you raise differently. I had a close friend many years ago ask me how I can possibly be both a Christian and a philosopher. I didn’t have a good answer then, but my answer now would be that the two complement each other beautifully, so long as my Christianity welcomes careful and legitimateShakespeare-More-Things1601[1] questions about absolutely everything and my philosophy recognizes that, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

Consider carefully the relationship between rational arguments concerning any particular conception of God and your own faith. Although faith is not independent of reason, faith’s vibrancy and health does not depend on rational argumentation. Will your faith be shaken if you fail to find a satisfactory logical solution to the problem of evil? Not knowing you, the best I can say is that time will tell.robinson[1] A living faith is rooted in something far more profound and primal than reason—it is the result of a real and vibrant encounter with divine reality. One of my favorite expressions of this comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Rev. Ames, a Congregational minister at the end of his life, puts it this way:

“They want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them ‘proofs.’ I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense. . . . In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp . . . It was Coleridgeportrait[1] who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”

The “mustache and walking stick” of philosophy of religion has for some time been focused on subjecting faith to sterile, logic-chopping analysis. Don’t let philosophy turn your obviously real faith into an argument or proof. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”followthrough_article_graphic[1]

Blessings on you in your future philosophical and faith endeavors!

philosophy gene

When Logic Fails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

book-books-heaven-library-read-Favim.com-120949[1]

My Best Friends

I sat down in my usual aisle seat on one of my infrequent airplane flights not long ago, and immediately dug out one of the half-dozen books in the backpack containing my current reading obsessions. This is my custom when flying, because I want to let my neighbors know that I am busy, I am deep in thought, Introvert[1]and I am not the least bit interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger, just one of the many effective tricks of the introvert trade. This behavior, along with the fact that the book I am reading is by some obscure author and the fact that I have a gray ponytail, usually provide sufficient clues that one tries to engage me in conversation at their peril.

On this particular day, however, the window seat to my left was occupied by a guy my age who apparently never got past the class clown stage. At the conclusion of the stewardess’s usual spiel about what to do if we have to land in water or lose cabin pressuresafety-demo[1], we were asked to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff. I, of course, read all of the way through the stewardess’s instructions and continued to read as people all around me turned off their phones, I-pods, and other electronic paraphernalia. “Hey!” my neighbor shouted down the aisle at the retreating stewardess while pointing at me. “Make him turn his book off too!” He repeated the exact same routine at the end of the flight when we were instructed to turn our electronic devices off for landing. Very funny—but he had a point. Of the two dozen or so fellow passengers within my field of vision throughout the flight, I was the only one reading a book.

9780312429980[2]Which reminds me of another flight several months earlier. This time in the middle of the flight I was deeply engrossed in reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. As the woman seated in the seat across the aisle one row in front of me returned from a journey to the facilities, she noticed what I was reading. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” I replied. “So do I!” she exclaimed as she pulled her KindleKT-slate-02-lg._V399156101_[1] out of her purse.” “I’m reading it too! Isn’t that weird?” I thought something that an extrovert or a rude person might have said out loud: “It would be a weird coincidence if you were actually reading, but looking at words on a screen is not the same thing as reading.” As I’ve said many times to many people over the past several years, when they invent a Kindle (or whatever) that feels and smells like a real book, I’ll buy one.

On occasion in our early years of being together, Jeanne would observe how few close friends I had (and have). This, coming from a person who is in the 1% most extroverted beings in the universe, was not an entirely fair comment. But one time she added “it doesn’t matter, though, because your books are your friends.” That not only is a fair comment, but it is entirely true. It’s too bad you can’t be friends with a book on Facebook, because that would increase my Facebook friend count from its current 568 well into the thousands. Several years ago I assisted my carpenter/general contractor uncle (actually I was more like his indentured servant)301189_269422219756617_1084268382_n[1] at my house as he tore out a wall in a corner-bedroom-soon-to-hopefully-be-a-library for the purposes of building a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcase in its place. “That’s a hell of a lot of books!” he laughed as he looked at the stacks of dozens and dozens of books on the floor for whom the bookcase would be a new home. “Have you actually read all of them?” (haw, haw, haw). “Actually I have,” I truthfully answered. “And these are less than a quarter of the books we have, plus an equal number or more in my office at school.” End of that conversation.

I suppose there is something to be said for the inevitable move from the printed word to the e-word, but whatever that something is, I’m not going to say it. There are few activities I enjoy more than organizing books on a bookshelf, roughly categorizing them according to an intuitive scheme that I am only partially conscious of. But when Jeanne is looking for a book that she read several months ago, prior to the last two book reorganizations, I can zero in at least on which two shelves of our multiple bookcases at home the book lives. When our basement, after two and a half years of sucking money out of our checking account, was finally finished the first furniture event was deciding which books should go on the bookcase in the new reading corner. I decided on the category “During- and post-sabbatical books roughly in the spirituality range that have been  meaningful to me (and occasionally to Jeanne) over the past six years.”

Moving those books downstairs opened up various possibilities for new groupings upstairs, more or less like planning the seating arrangement at a sit-down party with well over a thousand attendees. Who would like to talk with whom? Will charlesdickens[1]jodi-picoult[1]Charles Dickens mind sitting next to Jodi Picoult? (Charles probably would mind. He can sit next to George Eliot and Jodi can hang out with Pat Conroy). Would Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong get1216[1] along with Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister?df66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] (Yes). Who might the Pope like to sit next to?—I haven’t decided yet, but I’m thinking perhaps either Marcus Borg or Rowan Williams. Would it make more sense to seat Doris Kearns Goodwin next to David McCullough, or would the party benefit more by having the historians on different shelves? (Separate them).There is a distinct visual attractiveness and interest to a well-arranged bookcase. Tall and short, thick and thin—the appearance of books is as varied as their contents.

plato-2[1]aristotle3[1]My planning of the party in my philosophy department office has always been less creative, with chronology the order of the day across the shelves of my four large bookcases. But as I move in four years worth of accumulated books from my former director’s office, I’m rearranging the shelves to make room and am thinking that it’s time to mix things up. Plato must be sick of talking only to Aristotle by now (they’ve been disagreeing for over two thousand years) and would probably enjoy conversing with William James220px-Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006[1] or Richard Rorty.Thomas-Aquinas[1] I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have a great time sitting down with Friedrich Nietzsche. And if Aquinas or Augustine sits down with Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, all bets are off!

Many years ago, shortly after we met, Jeanne bought me a paperweight that occupies a prominent place on the desk in my philosophy department office. It contains the following attributed to Descartes: “Reading books is like having a conversation with the great minds of the past.” Indeed it is. Which brings me back to where I started. I cannot enter the world of electronic books because real friendship—with books and with people—is a multi-sense experience. Visual, olfactory, tactile. I can be friends with a book, but I cannot be friends with a digital screen. I could, presumably, load every book I own into a Kindle and carry my friends with me wherever I go. But my Kindle-books would no more be my friends than the 10,328 “friends” that an acquaintance of mine has on Facebook are really his friends. I don’t know what will happen to my books when I die; amazingly my sons are not competing to get them. But in my version of heaven my friends will be with me. No friend left behind.

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

Giotto lamentation

The Weight of this Sad Time

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

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

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

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

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

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hats Off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unvisited Tombs

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

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

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

Two Plus Two Makes Four

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

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

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

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

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unvisited Tombs

I saw a bumper sticker once that said “So many books, so little time.” I agree. Even though I sometimes feel as if I read for a living, the fear that I might live my allotted fourscore years and never get to read the greatest novel I’ve not yet read or the most profound play that has not yet crossed my path is palpable. At age 59, for instance, I’ve not yet read all of Dickens’ novels. That worries me. I’ve read most of them, but what if Little Dorrit or Martin Chuzzlewitt is better than Bleak House, my favorite? What if one of the handful of Flannery O’Connor short stories I’ve yet to read is more profound than “A View of the Woods”? What if I die without ever having read The Fairie Queen? Very disturbing.

I’ve chosen to address this fear systematically, by dedicating a central part of my summer reading list to one great author (by reputation) whose work I have never read. One summer it was Zola, another summer it was Trollope; I even slogged through the first half of Swann’s Way and joined the legion of readers who started and never finished Proust. Three summers ago, it was George Eliot. I had read Silas Marner,but never Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda. I was pushed in the Eliot direction because a colleague of mine had told me that his wife, who is also a voracious reader, has proclaimed Middlemarch as the greatest novel ever written. I finished it a few days before a visit to The Coop with my son. My colleague’s wife has a point.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is a book lover’s paradise. There are more bookstores per square inch in Cambridge than any other town I’ve visited, so many that I once even found a copy of my first book, a reworking of my dissertation, on an out-of-the-way shelf in the corner of an out-of-the-way little shop there. The only other place I’ve ever seen that book, other than collecting dust on my own bookshelf, is collecting dust in various libraries on college campuses I’ve worked at or visited. As David Hume said about his first publication, “it fell stillborn from the press.”

The central, largest bookstore in Cambridge is The Coop, an impressive establishment with several stories, balconies, nooks and crannies in which to sit and read—the sort of place I could easily spend a week’s vacation. Probably alone, though–I don’t think Jeanne could survive for more than a morning. Once while visiting the Coop with my youngest son, we walked past a table with a seemingly random collection of books on display. I picked up a copy of Middlemarch. Handing it to my son, I said “read the last paragraph.”

“Holy Shit!” my son exclaimed.

“I’d give my left testicle to be able to write like that,” I replied.

The paragraph he read was Eliot’s closing meditation on the remaining life of the main character, Dorothea Brooke.

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.

Through Dorothea Brooke, Eliot inspires reverence for the sacredness of ordinary acts and feelings, bringing to mind the prophet Micah’s injunction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Dorothea, to the great consternation of her wealthy uncle and guardian, regularly looks for ways to improve the living conditions of the impoverished tenant farmers working the hundreds of family acres, treats everyone as her equal even though societal norms claim otherwise, and improves the lives of those she touches with her natural generosity and truthfulness. Her gracious humanness is not religiously motivated; indeed, the only cleric in the novel is Dorothea’s ill-chosen and unfortunate first husband Mr. Casaubon, an academic so cerebral and lacking in affect that he regularly fails to recognize the real existence of anyone other than himself. The wellspring of Dorothea’s goodness is simply her own, expansive heart.

But the normal human constitution is not well tuned to the importance of ordinary deeds—all of us want to accomplish something magnificent, to perform historic acts, to live lives that are recognized, and to establish a great name on the earth. What is the value of attempting to live the life of virtue if no one notices? At the time I read Middlemarch I had not yet started this blog. I had written several dozen essays over the previous three years, both the vehicle and record of a spiritual awakening that was transformational. Family and friends had let me know, at various times and in various ways, that they were been touched deeply by them. But I wanted them to be published, and no publishing house had the good sense or spiritual acumen to take on the project. After the latest “thanks for sharing, but no” from a publisher, I said in exasperation to Jeanne “If these aren’t meant to be in print, what are they for?” As has happened so often over the past twenty-five years, she responded with the truth—“You may never know, and that’s alright.” In my thinking, the value of something is established by its being recognized. But perhaps in a different economy, value is measured in secret, even unknown ways.

In Matthew’s gospel, those who are invited to enter into the joy of their Lord are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave the homeless shelter, and visited those in prison, all the time unaware that by doing so, they were advancing the Kingdom of God. It’s almost as if they are surprised that simply acting out of human kindness and solidarity was enough to satisfy the divine requirements. But in a sacramental and incarnational world, it makes sense. What does the Lord require of us? Justice. Mercy. Humility. Perhaps I simply need to keep WWDD? in mind. What Would Dorothea Do?

Colorblindness

When I was growing up in northeastern Vermont, the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury was a favorite point of destination. It is an impressive stone structure, a small natural science and history museum, planetarium, and place to hang out all rolled into one. Admission was free for residents of St. Johnsbury, where my cousins lived, as well as for residents of neighboring towns, which included me. My cousins and I spent many Saturdays with nothing to do at the Fairbanks, followed, if we had any money, by a few strings of bowling at the alley just a few blocks farther down Main Street. Since the Fairbanks was also a favorite place for grade school classes to take their field trips (it was free, after all), I got to know the place very well.

Click on picture!

I’m sure it is now a cutting edge twenty-first century establishment (or maybe not), but in the sixties and early seventies when I frequented it, some of it was up to date (the planetarium), some was quaintly dated (the rest of it), and a few things were just plain creepy (such as the curators’ obsession with bad taxidermy and endless glass cases filled with decaying moths, butterflies, and other assorted insects). Other than the planetarium, my favorite part of the museum is one that I’ll wager has either been thoroughly revamped or discarded entirely—the “hands-on” science experiments in the crypt-like basement. The displays were as far removed from what one would find nowadays at even a mediocre science museum as Pac Man and Pong are from today’s video games, but Pong came out when I was in middle school, so it doesn’t take much to entertain me.

It was in the basement of the Fairbanks Museum that I gained, for the first time, empirical evidence supporting what I had suspected for my whole life—I’m partially color-blind. In a glass display at the bottom of the basement stairs was a row of color test plates (I learned today from Wikipedia that they are called “Ishihara color test plates”), circles containing colored spots within which were embedded a figure, usually a number, made of spots with a slightly different color. People with normal color vision can see the number easily, but those with certain color deficiencies can’t. I couldn’t. My normal color-seeing companions could immediately see the “25” in the circle, while I only saw spots. I learned that I have red/green color deficiency—nobody’s perfect.

Being color-blind has not turned out to be a big deal. I always ask Jeanne to endorse my clothing choices and especially to match a tie to a shirt when she’s home; when she’s not, I dress in safe colors, primarily blue, gray, black, red, yellow—anything that doesn’t require me to tell the difference between shades of green and brown, or various permutations of purple. Actually, purple turns out to be the biggest problem for this particular red/green colorblind person—go figure. But when I was a kid, my colorblindness was frequently a source of unwanted attention. My father and brother, for instance, entertained themselves by finding a house, a billboard, or car with the sort of color that I didn’t see as they did. “What color is that?” they would ask, and would laugh like hyenas when I got it wrong. When I finally started saying petulantly “I’m not playing that game anymore,” they laughed even harder.

Color-blindness, at least of the sort I have, is not a debilitating condition—it’s just good to know that I have it so that I can adjust accordingly. Far more important, I think, are the sorts of blindness that all of us are afflicted with, limitations so insidious that every one of is convinced that we see perfectly (even if no one else does). One of the continuing issues that I’ve grappled with over the past few years has to do with the importance of seeing, not just clearly, but differently. The natural human procedure is to view everything through filters and screens that tend to be invisible, yet distort everything that we see. A recent Sunday gospel provides a powerful example of the power of seeing differently. Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching is in full swing. The crowds are so unrelenting that Jesus and the disciples do not even have time for a proper meal. Jesus has a good idea—let’s get away to a deserted place and rest for a while. With that in mind, Jesus and his inner circle hop into their boat and sail on the Sea of Galilee to where they think they can have a bit of quality down time together. But word spreads so fast that a new crowd is waiting for them when they land. So they try it again, jumping in the boat and sailing away. But the masses are waiting for them wherever they land.

Put yourself in Jesus’ sandals—what do you see? I remember Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of a scene just like this in his 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Crowds of people in need of healing are swarming around Jesus demanding his attention, which he tries to provide. But for every person he touches, five more show up. The crowd becomes larger and more insistent, grabbing at his clothes, blocking his way, surrounding him in a closer and tighter circle. Their musical chant increases in intensity and pitch; Jesus begins to sing “There’s too many of you, don’t push me, please don’t crowd me” in a high pitched wail above the cacophony. Finally he screams at the top of his lungs—“HEAL YOURSELVES!!!” and the stage goes black. Then one spotlight shines on Mary Magdalene as she soothingly sings “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you; don’t you know everything’s all right, yes everything’s fine.”

Webber’s imaginative score is brilliant because it is so real. Trust me; the reaction of Webber’s Jesus to the crowd is exactly what my reaction would have been, except I might have included an f-bomb or two. In Jesus’ sandals, I would have seen a mob seeking to suck me dry of everything I have to offer, treating me like a miracle-dispensing ATM instead of a human being who gets exhausted and needs to get his batteries recharged. And there is an element of that in Mark’s account—Jesus is trying (twice, no less) to get away from the crowds that are demanding more than he presently has to offer.

And that’s the beauty of the story. Because although Jesus wants and needs to be alone with his friends and rest, he ultimately does not run from the crowd—he sees them for what they are. “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Yes Jesus was the Son of God and yes he perhaps had more to offer than we do, but his compassion for the crowd is not due to his divinity. It is due to his choosing to see differently, to get past the normal human self-centered filters and look at what is in front of him. He sees a need that he can address and addresses it, even though he’d rather be doing something else. Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and Jesus’ compassionate gaze on the crowd is one of pure love.

Color-blindness isn’t so bad. But other-blindness, the blindness that is part and parcel of being human, is. In John 14, Jesus promises that because he is going back to his Father and because of the coming of the Holy Spirit, we will do “greater works than these.” And although I don’t completely rule out the possibility of healings and other spectacular miracles today, these are not the works Jesus is talking about. Our greatest works will flow from our divinely energized ability to see things as they are, not as we would like them to be or as we wish they were, and to address the needs with unfiltered directness. Jesus looked at what was right in front of him with compassion. Let’s go and do likewise.