Category Archives: literature

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 couple of years 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 far. 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 in the philosophical Western tradition, 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.

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How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

Joy in a Minor Key

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At some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

Recently the following from Richard Powers’ Orfeo got me to thinking about the major and minor keys in a new way.

There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.

MajorMinor1A lot can be learned from the major and minor keys that is applicable to everyday life. Traditionally the major keys have been described as “bright, extroverted, upbeat” and so on, while the minor keys are “introspective, complex, sad” or even “depressing.” Yet the circle of fifths shows that each major has its relative minor that is only one note different—a note that makes all the difference. Powers, who is a classically trained musician, is noting something important about the minor keys—they are rich and evocative in ways with which the brighter and more popular majors cannot compete. Yet the dividing line between major and minor is razor thin—if we are to pay proper attention to the music of our lives, understanding how major and minor interweave is crucial.

I had the opportunity to explore this with “Living Stones,” the adult Christian education group that I lead after church once a month, one Sunday last summer after the morning service. I was doing double duty, as I was also organist that morning,003 alternating with the organist emeritus every other week through the summer as the church was searching for a new full-time music minister. The fifteen or so regulars have a wide range of experience with music (or lack of same), so I presumed no prior knowledge. Gathering in the choir stalls by the organ rather than in our usual location, I oriented them to the major/minor distinction by suggesting that in the cycle of liturgical seasons, Easter and Christmas are major key seasons while Advent and Lent are minor key seasons. We moved then to a listening exercise, as I played first My country“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” our closing hymn for the morning because of it being July 4th Sunday, in F minor rather than its original F major, then a representative minor key hymn, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee,” in G major rather than its original G minor. As the Living Stoners compared the new keys to the hymn texts, they agreed that major is appropriate for the first hymn than minor and minor more appropriate to the second than major. Different texts require different tunes—and so it goes with the chapters and texts of our lives.

The Book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures is a case in point. The story is familiar. Job, “a man blameless and upright . . . who feared God and shunned evil,” is the topic of conversation between God and Satan, “the accuser.” In response to God’s “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth,” Satan replies “Well duh! You give him everything he wants and you have built a protective hedge around him.” After God agrees to remove the hedge at Satan’s suggestion just to see what happens, Job’s flocks, crops, Job-wife1servants and children are swept away within six short verses and one of the greatest texts on the dynamic of suffering is underway.

The drama of Job is relentless, with his suffering unaddressed by his apparently well-meaning friends and his less than supportive wife. Underlying it all is Job’s insistence that his suffering and pain is not justified in any sense that he (or any other human being) can understand. It is clear that he will not “curse God and die,” as his wife advises him to do—his commitment to his God is unshakeable. “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.” Job’s commitment, however, is neither passive nor facile. He wants answers and challenges a silent God to provide them. With very few exceptions, the Book of Job is entirely written in a minor key; the message of Job is that sometimes minor keys do not get resolved into major keys. Sometimes the text of one’s life demands a minor key; simply “waiting it out” or longing for it to be something it is not is to rob oneself of the richness and depth that only minor harmonies can provide.

0_21_0706_stockdaleWhen God finally does respond to Job’s questions and challenges, it is in a way that on the surface, at least, is entirely unsatisfactory to our contemporary sense of fairness and justice. God does not provide any reasons for Job’s misfortunes, nor does God explain himself. Rather, God makes clear in a lengthy soliloquy that he does not have to explain himself at all. As Admiral James Stockdale once described God’s response to Job, “I’m God and you’re not. This is my world—either deal with it or get out.”

It’s a tough message for our modern sensibilities, but is far closer to the reality of the world we find ourselves in than the stories we tell ourselves about “things working out in the end” or “justice will prevail.” Whatever value there is in suffering cannot lie in hopes for its removal or resolution. Yet we continue to try. jobs-restorationThere is nothing hokier or more forced than to resolve a composition from a minor key to its accompanying major in the last measure of the piece. But this is precisely what we find at the end of Job. In the final verses of the last chapter, after Job has been subdued by the divine display of power and superiority, Job magically gets everything back—children, flocks, servants, lands—and even his useless “comforters” and unhelpful wife get told off by God. “And they lived happily ever after,” in other words. I learned from one of my theology colleagues a number of years ago that these closing verses are not in the oldest texts of Job, but were apparently added in several decades or even centuries later.

Why? I asked my group. Why would someone want to change the original minor key story of Job, resolving it to a major key in the last measure? “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another thought. Which makes the better story? The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something Living Stoner said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. If there is meaning in the minor key movements of my life’s symphony, it has to be in the movement, not because the final movement will return to a joyful major key. The major keys ride the waves, but the minor keys plumb the depths, depths that give a life its richness and texture.lean forward As Richard Powers suggests, there is joy and satisfaction to be found in the midst of the suffering, a joy that is largely unavailable in any other context.

A couple of years ago, MSNBC (the only 24-7 news channel I can stomach, and even that not for very long) had a new ad campaign: Lean Forward. Out of context, it made little sense. Lean forward to what? But in the minor keys of our lives, “lean forward” or “lean in” is far better advice than “hold your breath and wait it out.” The purpose of the minor keys is not to provide a temporary alternative to majors. Rather, as another ad campaign many years ago suggested, sometimes minor harmonies are the most important threads in “the fabric of our lives.”

Wolf Hall

ICromwell am a great lover of historical fiction; it doesn’t come any better than from Hilary Mantel. Mantel fans are eagerly awaiting the third installment of her honored trilogy that immerses us into the world of Henry VIII as seen through the eyes of his consigliere Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the first two parts of the proposed trilogy each won the Man Booker Prize (the British version of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Mantel is only the third author to win the prize twice, and the first to win with a sequel, Bring up the Bodies in 2012 following Wolf Hall’s victory in 2009.wolf hall I recently reread Wolf Hall  and, as often happens, found both that I had forgotten how good it is and that there are many great passages I missed the first time around. Early in the novel, Cromwell provides us with a flashback to when he was a young star in Cardinal Wolsey’s orbit, a firmament containing another, brighter star—Thomas More—who in Mantel’s treatment becomes one of Cromwell’s opponents and competitors for the attention of the great and powerful. But more importantly, Cromwell reveals a fundamental difference between him and More that raises issues transcending this particular story:

He [Cromwell] never sees More . . . without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? cromwell and moreWhy does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Or, someone might add, show me where it says “liturgy” or “dogma” or any number of other things that are staples of Christian tradition even outside Catholicism. I have no idea whether Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell and More is accurate (neither does she, for that matter), but I am so strongly aligned by nature with fictional Cromwell in this passage that I share his utter astonishment with the fictional Mores among us. Wolf Hall is set during the early decades of the sixteenth century when the revolutionary impact of the Protestant Reformation is already making itself known in England. Thomas More is the epitome of religious certainty, imagined by Mantel as a vigorous, devout, hair-shirt-wearing and frequently inflexible defender of Catholic orthodoxy.

wolseyAlthough Cromwell rises to influence as the right-hand man of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, he is far more comfortable with situational flexibility than with pre-established beliefs and principles. When Wolsey falls from grace because of his failure to facilitate the king’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell’s ability to quickly adjust to changing circumstances and maneuver creatively brings him into the king’s inner circle. But he always keeps the Mores of his world in view, simultaneously envious and wary of anyone’s unflinching commitment to principle.

I hedgehog and foxfrequently find myself inadvertently dividing my fellow human beings into various categories (introvert/extrovert, high-maintenance/low-maintenance, Platonic/Aristotelian, hedgehog/fox, and more); Cromwell/More is another important distinction, especially when religious belief is under discussion. The older I get, the more Cromwellian I become, finding that even my most fixed beliefs not only are regularly under scrutiny, but that constant adjustment and change is a symptom of a healthy faith. Christian Wiman puts this insight better than anyone I’ve read:

WimanIt is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.

I am frequently reminded in a number of ways by various Mores that a Cromwellian embrace of change is dangerous in that it leads to the brink of the worst of all abysses, a relativistic world with no absolutes and no fixed points. I admit that it can be disconcerting to find that one’s most reliable cornerstones have crumbled or shifted, but I have learned to find stability in commitment rather than in content. Within the well-defined banks of commitment to what is greater than us, the river of faith sometimes flows swiftly, sometimes pools stagnantly, and always offers the opportunity to explore uncharted waters. The terrain of commitment looks very different from various vantage points, and in my experience spongseldom provides confirmation of what I have believed in the past without change and without remainder.

I remember several years ago that I came across one of John Shelby Spong’s books in Borders with the provocative title Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I read the book and found that the changes that Spong, the liberal retired Episcopal bishop of New Jersey was calling for were not changes I was willing to make then—or now. But I fully resonate with the energy of his book’s title. The Christian faith that I profess has not only changed greatly over the past few years (and promises to change even more going forward), but the Christianity I was taught in my youth would have died long ago if it had not changed. And this is as it should be. As James Carse writes,

carseThis is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is to stop criticizing or belittling those who build their belief systems in the manner of More, shaping all new experiences and information in the image of their most fixed and unchanging commitments. There are a number of Mores among my friends and family, and I’ve learned not only to appreciate them (usually), but find myself occasionally envying them. But at heart I’m happy being Cromwell as I watch the corners get knocked off my certainties.

There is no one but us

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

There are many aspects of the academic life that I love, but attending academic conferences is not one of them. Yet last weekend I found myself on an Amtrak Acela headed for a conference on Simone Weil, colloquywhere I would be reconnecting with some friends and colleagues as well as presenting a paper (the last one of the conference, usually the third rail of such events). After a four and a half hour train trip to Philadelphia, then another half hour on the regional train to the conference hotel, I was ready for dinner. My normal procedure would have been to take my tablet along and do a bit of paper grading, but both tablet and phone were in need of charging, so I headed to the onsite restaurant on the main hotel floor with Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, the reading assignment for the final meeting of my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium early the next week. At seventy-five pages, Dillard’s book was the perfect companion for dinner. With no electronic distractions and fortified by three fine craft beers and two appetizers, I read Dillard’s striking text from cover to cover, once again blown away by her unique ability to push me to places where I would just as soon not go.

Not much happens in Holy the Firm, a meditation on the beauty of the natural world as well as the many ways, both affirmative and devastating, in which it impresses and imprints itself on human beings. htfThe central event of the book is a private plane crash in which the face of Julie Norwich, a seven-year-old girl, is horribly burned. It is a classic WTF??? event, as Dillard expresses brilliantly.

We’re tossed broadcast into time like so much grass, some ravening god’s sweet hay. You wake up and a plane falls out of the sky . . . What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims?

I have spent almost a full semester not with my “Beauty and Violence” students asking the “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” question of whatever or whoever is greater than us and presumably responsible for some of the random violence and tragedy that surrounds us. A little kid with her face burned off? WTF??? indeed.

Dillard’s struggle with how to even shape a meaningful and appropriate question is eloquent, disturbing, and relentless. How are faithful people supposed to seek relationship with a God who is apparently oblivious to such events? “Where was God?” is frequently asked, a question that Dillard answers with truth rather than faith or hope. “We need reminding, not of what god can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel’s worth of sense into our days.” lawnThe truth of the matter, which the existence of  “flamefaced children” force us to confront, is that God does not appear to care.

We reel out love’s long line alone toward a god less lovable than a grasshead, who treats us less well than we treat our lawns. . . . Of faith I have nothing, only of truth; that this one god is a brute and traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen.

I expect my “Beauty and Violence” students to have a lot to say about this text in class this afternoon. We have worked hard all semester to challenge the traditional notions concerning God that are absolutely impotent when applied to Julie Norwich situations. Several authors have suggested that, for any number of reasons that are worthy of consideration and discussion, God is not omnipotent in relation to our world. Dillard nods toward such ideas throughout her work, including in Holy the Firm:

Faith would be that God is self-limited utterly by his creation—a contraction of the scope of his will; that he bound himself to time and its hazards and haps as a man would lash himself to a tree for love. That God’s works are as good as we make them. mangerThat God is helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen.

A God who creates out of love rather than power is limited in all of the ways that love places limitations on our actions concerning what we love. An intriguing possibility arising from alternative traditions in both Christianity and Judaism. But as my students and I have concluded regularly this semester, “We don’t know” is the most honest thing we can say when seeking to know the mind and intentions of the divine. And the follow-up, for persons of faith, is usually “Now what?”

As Dillard notes in the above passage, it appears that we clumsy, partially ignorant, well-intentioned but frequently failing human beings are how the divine gets into the world. And that, in many ways, is both empowering and worrisome.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us. There has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.

This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his prison cell awaiting execution by the Nazis,  writes to his best friend that “that we must live as people who manage our lives without God.” Because no cosmic source of answers and solutions is going to sweep in and set things straight. We’re it. “There is no one but us.”

The next morning as a couple dozen folks partook of standard conference breakfast fare waiting for the paper-presenting festivities to begin, I chatted briefly with Tomeu, the president of the academic group hosting the conference. Noting the absence of two annual regulars, I asked “Where is Jane? Where is Larry?” Both were on the list of papers to be presented over the next couple of days, and neither had been missing from any of the dozen or more of these conferences I’ve attended over the years. “Oh, you didn’t hear what happened?” Tomeu replied—“Jane fell last week and broke several bones.” “That’s awful!” I said—Jane is in her late seventies/early eighties and is rather frail. “And what happened to Larry is just terrible,” Tomeu continued.  sad angelLarry, one of the nicest people I have ever met, told me a year earlier about his beloved first grandson, showing me several photos of his pride and joy. Just last week, Tomeu said, Larry’s three-year-old grandson had choked on a marshmallow and could not breathe. By the time the marshmallow was dislodged, the child had been without oxygen for several minutes; in the hospital it became clear that he had suffered significant brain damage. The next day, Larry’s grandson died.

There’s nothing to say, other than oh my God. You want to scream A FUCKING MARSHMALLOW????, but in the end, no words are appropriate. I’ll tell this story to my students this afternoon, and Larry’s grandson will be the most recent example, joining Julie Norwich, of a “what the Sam Hill is going on?” complaint. It’s enough sometimes to turn one into an atheist. And yet here I, as I so often do, resonate with Annie Dillard—also from Holy the Firm.

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which Gpitino celticsod burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were.

Many years ago when Rick Pitino was coach of the Boston Celtics, he was often asked how long it would be before the Celtics returned to the glory to which spoiled New England basketball fans had become accustomed over the years. Pitino counselled patience, because “Larry Bird isn’t going to come walking through that door any time soon.” And neither is God. There is no one but us.

Dodge City Ethics

Bein’ born is craps. How we live is poker. Doc Holliday

sparrowOf the dozens of novelists whose books I have read over the years, Mary Doria Russell is one of the least likely favorites. I’m not a big science fiction fan (I much prefer mysteries), but her debut novels The Sparrow and Children of God, about a Jesuit missionary expedition in outer space (you can’t beat Catholics in space!) are both beautifully written and thought-provoking. Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt during the post-World War One partitioning of Palestine, is much better than I expected it would be. And I’ve avoided her most recent novels, Doc and Epitaph, which follow Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers through late nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, for quite a while since I’ve never been a fan of Wild West fiction. But a recent reread of Dreamers of the Day reminded me of what a wonderful writer Russell is; I was looking for a new novel, so Doc and Epitaph it is. I highly recommend  them.doc

Doc is set in 1878 Dodge City where the genteel and consumptive dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday finds himself scratching out a living as a card shark by night and a sometimes-dentist for cowboys who have never seen a toothbrush by day. A Northern-educated Southern gentleman who headed west hoping that the dry Plains air might be good for his lungs, Doc finds himself in a violent world where life means little and in which most of his acquaintances can barely read, let alone appreciate his conversational references to Vergil and Dostoevsky. One exception is Morgan Earp, the youngest of three Earp brothers in town, who is a policeman along with his older brother Wyatt. Wyatt can barely read, but Doc happily loans Morgan favorite volumes from the library he brought with him from Georgia, including Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist.

One morning Morgan is in Doc’s dentist office as Doc extracts several teeth from a chloroformed Wyatt, Doc and Morgan discuss the novels Morgan is reading.holliday

  • Doc: Morgan, how are you and Mr. Dickens getting along?
  • Morgan: I lie him better than Dostoevsky. Oliver Twist reminds me of Wyatt when he was a kid.
  • Doc: You met Mr. Fagin yet?
  • Morgan: Yeah. Ain’t made up my mind about him. He’s good to feed all those boys, but he’s teaching them to be pickpockets too. That don’t seem right.
  • Doc: But that is just what makes Fagin interestin’. Raskolnikoff, too. Fagin does his good deed with a bad purpose in mind, but the boys are still fed. Raskolnikoff kills the old woman, but he wants to use her money to improve society. As Monsieur Balzac asked, May we not do a small evil for the sake of accomplishin’ a great good?
  • Morgan: I don’t know. It’s still an evil.
  • Doc: And yet, that seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.

posterAnd there, in a dentist office in dusty, dirty Dodge City, is the heart of one of the greatest quandaries in ethics. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it ever morally permissible to act immorally in the attempted achievement of a great moral good?

Philosophers love this stuff. The other day when I tried to get a colleague and friend from the English department to choose whether she would choose to support our Providence Friars basketball team or the University of Virginia Cavaliers (UVA is her beloved alma mater) if they played in the Final Four, she asked “Is this one of those philosophy games where you give someone completely unrealistic hypotheticals and then force them to make a choice?” She undoubtedly had heard philosophy puzzles such as

Suppose an out-of-control train is running down the tracks directly at a bus full of 30 people stalled on the track. You have the opportunity to redirect the train to another track where one person is stalled in a car on the track. trolleyIf you don’t pull the switch to redirect the train, thirty people will die. If you do, one person will die and thirty people’s lives will be saved. Do you pull the switch?

To complicate matters, suppose that the one person on the second track is a brilliant scientist who is on the edge of discovering a cure for cancer. Does that make a difference? What if he or she is a homeless person? You get the point.

Surprisingly, non-philosophers don’t always enjoy playing such hypothetical games (by the way, my colleague said she would cheer for UVA, which almost ended our friendship instantly). But the issues raised by Morgan and Doc’s conversation still hold. c and pWas it morally permissible for Raskolnikov to murder the useless old miserly woman in the interest of distributing the millions of rubles she was hoarding to hungry and needy people? Does Fagin’s feeding of dozens of hungry children lose its positive moral strength when we find out that he is training them to be pickpockets and becoming rich in the process?

Many philosophers and theologians have noted that in an unpredictable world filled with evil, no one’s hands are ever morally pure—regardless of their intentions. Doc and Morgan’s conversation moves in this direction.

  • Doc: We’re none of us born into Eden. World’s plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what’s the best way to play a bad hand?
  • Morgan: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • Doc: Infinitely sad, but damnably true. Bein’ born is craps, but how we live is poker. The question is how to play a bad hand well.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus could not have said it better: “For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

But in first week of Easter, I would be remiss if I did not return for a moment to Doc’s characterization of the events of Good Friday and Easter: “That seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.” hyacinthMaybe, but something tells me that a utilitarian number-crunching calculus is not the motivating factor behind Easter. At the heart of the story is radical love—God responds to our flawed human condition by becoming one of us, taking on everything that defines us including pain, injustice, suffering, and death. The new life of Easter emerges from the worst that our world can offer, just as the hyacinths are poking their heads out of the seemingly dead grass in my front yard. No matter the hand we’re dealt, that’s the way to play it.

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

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. 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.” 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.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars a few semesters ago. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadOne week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing women who are pretending to be guys. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping as he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. For instance, I have been known to tell my students that It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I have written about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas on this blog before—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world.

The Big Guy and Me

St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I frequently teach in an interdisciplinary course that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! The last time I taught this course we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had all semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.

Quiet Ignorance

thinkingOver the past several years, I have frequently returned to a question that a friend asked me many years ago, the question that in many ways is the central question I have been considering in this blog over the past four-and-a-half years: How can you be a Christian and a philosopher at the same time? There are all sorts of answers available to this question, the simplest of which is “I can’t.” This would open the door to choosing one or the other. I know myself well enough to realize that if “choose you this day whom you will serve” was truly the only option, I would choose philosophy and try to find ways to walk away from my faith tradition. The spirit of critical thinking and skepticism is too strong in me to accept a framework of belief without constant challenge and questioning. I spent many years—most of my life, in fact—attempting to compartmentalize philosophy and faith. For me, at least, it did not work. critical thinkingThe time came to either walk away from faith, as many philosophers have done over the centuries, or to find a new way.

That “new way,” for me at least, involves allowing the energies of critical thinking and faith to interact with each other regularly and vigorously without pre-conception. It requires re-imagining basic concepts such as “evidence” and “fact,” as well as learning to create a large foundational space for subjective experience in my edifice of belief. This new way demands that I both allow that there are limitations to our natural human powers of reason and logical thinking, while at the same time never assuming that I know where those boundaries lie nor when I have reached them. Perhaps most importantly, this new way embraces both the reality of what is greater than us and the expectation that the lines of communication between that transcendent place and our human reality are open and available for exploration. My most recent engagement with these issues is focusing on the relationship between critical thinking and hope, the tension between cynicism (too much critical thinking) and naïveté (too much hope). As is often the case, I have found the work of Marilynne Robinson useful here.givenness

In “Metaphysics,” one of the later chapters in her recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, Robinson engages with the dynamic interplay of faith and critical thinking. Her baseline commitments are similar to my own—she is committed to excellence in reasoning and critical thinking, but is equally committed to her faith. Her faith commitments are to Calvinism; her essays frequently include advocacy for a faith framework which in the minds of many is rigidly conservative and suffocatingly restrictive. The faith I was raised in has many Calvinist features, most of which I no longer accept. Robinson’s effective use of reason in defending her faith is always impressive and occasionally convincing; in “Metaphysics,” however, she bumps directly into a boundary from the reason and critical thinking side.

Some issues are just beyond the reach of our natural abilities, Robinson thinks—predestination and the problem of evil are her two examples—in such cases she suggests that we take the advice of the great philosopher and occasional theologian John Locke. Locke-JohnNoting that Locke seeks to “free thinking of artificial constraints by acknowledging real and insuperable limits to the kinds of things we can think about fruitfully,” Robinson writes that

When there is no way to understand without compromising the nature of what is to be understood, I heed Locke’s advice. I am content to “sit down in a quiet ignorance” of those things I take to be beyond the reach of my capacities.

This is a loaded suggestion, to say the least. As much as I admire Robinson’s work, I find at least two troubling matters here.

First is “the nature of what is to be understood.” It is one thing to believe that beyond the reach of our natural capacities there is something we should seek to understand—with that I fully agree. It is quite another thing to assume that the nature of what is to be understood is known clearly enough that we can sort between which proposed ideas compromise that nature and those that do not. Their is an inherent contradiction in saying that “there is something important beyond the reach of our natural capacities, and the nature of that something is as follows . . .” Such parameters are far too close to dogma and doctrine for my taste. Robinson’s own example of the problem of evil is a case in point. For centuries thinkers have approached this problem armed with various assumptions concerning the nature of God—calvin and hobbesGod is omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and so on. And with these assumptions, the problem cannot be solved or even addressed fruitfully.

Robinson chooses at this point to adopt “a quiet ignorance”—we cannot figure this out. I choose, instead, to test the assumptions—what if one or more of our “givens” concerning God are wrong? How might taking that possibility seriously open new avenues of thought and exploration? Perhaps my favorite of all the courses I have taught in the past twenty-five years, a course that I am currently teaching, is built on just that possibility. Maybe rather than giving up in reverential ignorance, we should step into the tension between what we think we know and what lies beyond. Citing Locke, Robinson writes that “thinking that we know more than we do . . . blinds us to our ignorance, which is the deep darkness where truth abides.” I suggest that to assume that we know much about the nature of the divine is a prime example of “thinking that we know more than we do.”

My second concern has to do with “the reach of my capacities.” A number of months ago I read an interview with a philosopher who is also an atheist. She said that the issue of God’s existence “is settled to my satisfaction”—God doesn’t exist. atheist-theistThe larger issue is “when do I stop asking? When is enough enough?” This is a highly subjective matter, one that will be settled by many things in addition to logic and reason. In this Marilynne Robinson is not different from the atheist philosopher. Each of them has established the extent of “the reach of my capacities” to her satisfaction, something that all of us do but that no one should pretend to be an objective boundary that applies to all human beings. Each of us has a self-imposed limit beyond which we choose a “quiet ignorance.” I find more and more that wherever my boundary is, I have yet to reach it. Accordingly, “quiet ignorance” is not an attractive alternative.

Channeling John Locke one more time, Marilynne Robinson writes that “assumptions and certitudes imposed on matters that should in fact be conceded to ignorance warp and obstruct legitimate thought.” Point taken. Let’s also be aware that these very assumptions and certitudes frequently are clothed in the garb of unquestioned preconceptions. One person’s ignorance is another person’s legitimate thought.