Category Archives: literature

Hope in Exile

As is the case with any profession, the life of an academic includes some great and some not-so-great features. After twenty-five years of being a college professor, here’s a brief list:

Great:

• Sabbatical

• Being in the classroomlove teaching

• Team-teaching with colleagues

• Planning courses

• Writing

• Beer with fellow teachers on Friday afternoons

Not So Much:

• Gradingtechnology

• Being in a dysfunctional department

• Trying to get what you have written published

• Technology in the classroom

And academic conferences. Especially academic conferences

I have written in the past about my dislike of academic conferences. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenure and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. Not to mention overheated and ugly seminar rooms along with stale pastries and lukewarm coffee. I do not learn much just by listening to someone—I’m more a visual and tactile learner—but traditionally that’s been the way things go at conferences. colloquy posterOf course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

Fortunately I have not had to work the academic conference circuit vigorously since I earned promotion to full professor almost fifteen years ago. There is, however, one group of academics that I enjoy gathering with annually for a conference—the American Weil Society. If you read this blog regularly or even occasionally, you know that Simone Weil shows up on a semi-regular basis. I’ve had an intellectual affair with this strange woman from the first half of the twentieth century for at over fifteen years now (Jeanne calls Simone my mistress), a connection that has produced a book, several articles, and a paper at the Weil colloquy almost every year.

I have attended the annual Weil Society colloquy just about every year for the past couple of decades; we have hosted the Weil colloquy twice in the past ten years here at Providence College. There are a solid two dozen or so Weil scholars from North America who attend just about every colloquy. The theme of this year’s colloquy is hope in exile“Hope in Exile,” an evocative topic that prompted me to send in a brief proposal. The proposal was accepted, so now I have to write the paper. That’s one of the great things about a blog—it provides me with an opportunity to run my thoughts past intelligent people before I am responsible for them in person.

As I searched my notes and Simone Weil texts the other day for “hope” references, I was surprised to find that she doesn’t explicitly discuss the topic very often. And yet, the theme of how to avoid despair in the middle of a world that seems determined to drive us toward it on a daily basis is a thread that winds through most of her writing. In her final work, NfrThe Need for Roots, Weil considers why despair is not a necessity.

If pure good were never capable of producing on this earth true greatness in art, science, theoretical speculation, public enterprise, if in all these spheres there were only false greatness, if in all these spheres everything were despicable, and consequently condemnable, there would be no hope at all for the affairs of this world; no possible illumination of this world by the other one. But it is not so. (Emphasis mine)

This reminded me of something I just read the other day from Marilynne Robinson:

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.

One encounters this sort of “somber panic” and such proposed “terrible remedies” everywhere one turns these days. When everything is pushing intelligent people toward cynicism and/or despair, what reasons are there, if any, to cultivate hope? The cynic is likely to agree with Violet, dowager countess of downtonDownton Abbey, who says that “hope is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.” The hopeful person might counter with something like what I heard Maria Popova say on NPR’s “On Point” the other day: “Cynicism is the sewage of the soul.” My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

Simone Weil’s insight is a good place to start. If it is actually the case that human beings are incapable of producing anything of value, if it is true that even the best of human endeavors are polluted by falsity and worthy of condemnation, then cynicism or despair are the reasonable order of the day. There is no reason other than naïveté to hope for anything other than a continuation of mediocrity, violence, and death until we finally manage to snuff ourselves out. But after setting the stage for such despair, Weil opens the window a crack with just one sentence: But it is not so. RobinsonMarilynne Robinson concludes her comments on the attractiveness of cultural pessimism with a similar sentiment.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism—exactly the same grounds, in fact—that is, because we are human . . . To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

The stakes could not possibly be higher. As I begin working on this with the upcoming conference in mind, I start with the premise that what really needs to be sorted out is the relationship between critical thinking and hope, since critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Our contemporary challenge is to find a place between the scylla and charybdisScylla of cynicism and the Charybdis of naïveté, seeking to build a life in that space because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom as well as a futile self-protection mechanism. And perhaps it is worth taking note of Simone Weil’s suggestion that the illumination of this world by “the other one” might be a reason to hope. What is that other world? How might a passageway for mutual illumination be opened? Stay tuned—I welcome your ideas and contributions!

We Are More Than We Are

Although it often caused trouble and brought me grief during my primary and secondary education years, I have never tried very hard to hide my serious geekiness. PindarAccordingly, I start today’s blog post with the ancient Greek lyric poet Pindar. I need to be careful here, because I have four colleagues and friends on campus who are trained classicists—for all I know, one of them might have written their dissertation on Pindar. Many of Pindar’s surviving poems are “victory odes,” celebrations of triumphs gained by competitors in Panhellenic festivals such as the Olympian Games. Here’s an example:

One born to prowess / May be whetted and stirred / To win huge glory / If a god be his helper.

This tendency to attribute athletic prowess to divine help is still with us, as anyone who has watched a football player point to heaven after scoring a touchdown or heard a basketball star thank his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for a game winning shot will tell you.pointing to heaven

It’s highly unlikely, of course, that God gives a crap about who wins or loses sporting events, but attribution of success to divine assistance is so common among athletes both professional and amateur that it can easily become annoying. I remember once a number of years ago hearing Jim Rome mention on his daily sports talk radio show what he would say if he was God when someone points to heaven after scoring a touchdown: Stop pointing at my crib when you score a touchdown or I’ll break that finger off and shove it up your ass! That’s the sort of God who inspires a muscular Christianity. But the very idea of God playing favorites in this way makes no sense.

Or does it? My “go to” news source, The Onion, published a shocking and revealing article on this very topic just last week. As it turns out, the Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, has been caught red-handed playing favorites and giving gifts to certain college athletes in deliberate defiance of NCAA rules and regulations.The Onion

Reports indicated that over the past several decades, the Almighty has provided hundreds of players from high-profile Division I football and basketball programs with abundant natural speed, strength, and agility, and both the universities and the players themselves are now said to be facing heavy sanctions and punishments. “We take these allegations incredibly seriously and are doing everything in our power to determine the precise nature of God’s relationship with these college athletes,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert. “There is mounting evidence that the Lord—in blatant violation of NCAA rules and regulations—bestowed upon these players special and innate athletic abilities that other students never received.”

The article goes on to say that over 300 D-1 NCAA schools are implicated; Kris and BenI must say that when I watch my Providence Friars play, I fear that at least two of our players may have received such gifts—which makes me wonder whether our accumulating wins this season will ultimately be voided. One thing’s for sure—athletic directors across the country are not going to put up with God acting in this manner.

University of Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione . . . denied any knowledge of Sooners players receiving illegitimate gifts, but assured reporters that going forward, the school will strictly forbid any communication between student-athletes and God during church services or private moments of prayer. God

The article concludes by reporting that “at press time, NCAA officials had announced an eternal ban on God that will prevent Him from having any association with collegiate sports until the end of time.” Good for them—the last thing we want is a deity inserting itself inequitably into human affairs.

NCAA investigates God for giving gifts to athlete

As shocked as I was by the revelations from The Onion, upon further thought I wasn’t that surprised. Jeanne has remarked regularly ever since I have known her about the various ways in which God plays favorites, granting miracles and making personal appearances to those who don’t deserve it while the most pious and committed among us get the divine cold shoulder and silence. One can hardly read a chapter of any book in the Jewish scriptures without encountering blatant divine favoritism on display. sun on the just and unjustBut in fairness, there are other ways to explain this apparent unfairness. We are told that the sun shines and the rain falls both on the just and the unjust; any number of sacred texts warn against assuming that God is being unfair simply because things don’t turn out the way we would prefer. In divine inscrutability, God does what God does, and it is up to us to find a way to work with what often looks for all the world like divine randomness. As James Stockdale once summarized the message of the Book of Job, God is telling Job that “this is my world. Deal with it. Either get with the program or get out.”

The older I get, the more inclined I am to look for intimations of the divine in places both unusual and mundane. Sometimes favor seems to drop into the day as light as a feather and as ephemeral as a wisp of smoke, while at other times transcendence invades the everyday in ways that only the most deliberately blind could miss. Jeanne and I call such eventsbig bird “Big Bird moments” and have come to expect them as a normal part of our lives. Then there are other reminders that we are not alone and that this is not all there is which, instead of dropping in from outside, arise from within our deepest selves. Marilynne Robinson refers to these as moments when we discover that “we are more than we are,” moments she describes as follows:

By this I mean to suggest the feeling all of us have who try something difficult and find that, for a moment or two perhaps, we succeed beyond our aspirations. The character on the page speaks in her own voice, goes her own way. The paintbrush takes life in the painter’s hand, the violin plays itself. There is no answer to the inevitable questions: Where did that idea come from? How did you get that effect? Again, particulars are lacking. We have no language to describe the sense of a second order of reality that comes with these assertions of higher insights and will override even very settled intentions, when we are fortunate.where did that come from

In my own life, these moments occur regularly in the classroom; I have also experienced such moments on the organ or piano bench. When I walk out of a classroom thinking “Whoa! Where did that come from?” I am realizing that I am more than I am and I had nothing to do with it. When I am able to improvise a bridge between the penultimate and final verse of a hymn on the fly that is far better than I could have come up with if I had thought about it, I have the “sense of a second order of reality” that Robinson is talking about. Sure, it could be luck, chance, a confluence of unknown events, or Scrooge’s blob of undigested cheese. But I choose to consider such moments as “thin places” where the membrane between the here and now and what is greater than us becomes so porous as to almost disappear.thin places

Such moments cannot be planned, nor can they be manufactured. But they can be witnessed rather than ignored. Recognizing them requires a shift in attitude and focus that needs to be cultivated—it’s something I’ve been working on, with mixed success, for the past several years. We are surrounded by moments of pure grace, moments when, as Anne Lamott writes, “suddenly you’re in a different universe from the one where you were stuck, and there was absolutely no way for you get there on your own.” We are surrounded by such moments, if we only have the eyes to see them.

the other

I Was a Stranger

A few days ago in a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. If the raccoons are undocumented immigrants, it is not difficult to imagine what lessons we are to draw from the exterminator.

This made me think about an essay about strangers I wrote a bit over a year ago . . .

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform not long ago, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

Give Us Barabbas

easter cantataAn annual musical fixture of my Baptist upbringing was the Easter Cantata. Each year on Easter evening our small choir would perform a contemporary setting of the Passion and Easter story from Last Supper through the Resurrection. My aunt Gloria was the choir director, several of my relatives sang in the choir from my pre-teen years on, and from about age twelve through high school I was the piano accompanist for this annual event. We weren’t that good and the quality of the music we performed was even worse, cranked out in some evangelical music factory on a regular basis in a sad mockery of the superhuman weekly bachcantata-composing efforts of my musical hero, Johann Sebastian Bach, in 18th century Leipzig.

The cantata score each year as well as our performance was completely forgettable, but I was reminded the other day of a striking feature of each cantata. During the portion portraying Jesus’ trial before Pilate, one male would sing the part of Pilate (my cousin Greg one year), another would be Jesus (my cousin Greg a different year), and the rest of the choir was the crowd singing “Release unto us Barabbas!” “Away with this man!” “We have no king but Caesar!” and “Crucify him!” I remember clearly the strange dissonance of these lyrics sung vigorously in a building dedicated to the worship of the man being condemned to death; even though the temptation was to consider the crowd as evil sinners, give us barabbasI also remember wondering if there might have been more than a few well-meaning folks in the group calling for Jesus’ crucifixion who actually thought they were doing the right thing. Sometimes “Give us Barabbas!” seems to make sense.

I think we find ourselves in one of those times. Regular readers of this blog know that I have been wondering about how Christians who are also Republicans fit all of that together and, most recently, why so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump. Then this past Sunday, Donald Trump gave the convocation address at Liberty University, the self-proclaimed largest evangelical Christian university in the world.

Donald Trump at Liberty Universitytrump at liberty

Interviews with students afterwards revealed strong support for Trump because of his perceived honesty, directness, outside-Washington status, business experience, and the perception that he had the best chance among the Republican candidates to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump’s inability to identify the location of his favorite Bible verse or to even quote it accurately, his apparent lack of any commitment to traditional Christian values beyond lip service, and the fact that a conservative Christian leader described Trump recently as “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States” seemed to matter little, if at all. One student said “I know a lot of people speak of his ego and how that’s not a Christian value — but I honestly think his ego is what gets things done. I’m okay with an egotistical president. He wants to be the best, and I think for that reason, he gets things done.” When faced with the opportunity to judge a candidate according to the values he and his chosen university profess, this student chose to punt. “Give us Barabbas.”givenness

At the gym later in the day I read an essay from Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection The Givenness of Things that shone some new light on these matters. In “Awakening,” Robinson reflects on a contemporary phenomenon that runs rampant through our current public and political discourse—a professed “Christianity” that looks and sounds like anything but Christianity.

No doubt as a consequence of a recent vogue for feeling culturally embattled, the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic. On one hand I do not wish to overstate the degree to which these two uses of the word “Christian” are mutually exclusive, and on the other hand I think it would be a very difficult thing to overstate how deeply incompatible they can be.

For many people, in other words, “Christianity” has become a tribal label, a marker of “us” vs. “them,” the very sort of tribalism that currently infects and threatens to permanently damage our political and social structures. Robinson notes that when the hallmarks of being a Christian are reduced to “are you in or out?” very un-Christian consequences are inevitable.saved and unsaved

The simple, central, urgent pressure to step over the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and after this the right, even the obligation, to turn and judge that great sinful world the redeemed have left behind—this is what I see as the essential nature of the emerging Christianity. Those who have crossed this line can be outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciations of anyone else.

How is it, I have been wondering recently, that professed Christians can support candidates and policies that are, by any stretch of the imagination, anything but embodiments of traditional Christian values? If Marilynne Robinson is right, it is because contemporary Christianity often is not a way of life or a commitment to the principles of a historic and beautiful religion—it is rather a way to facilitate what are often the worst tendencies in human nature and behavior.

People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he or she might not also shout, “Give us Barabbas!”

muslims are terroristsAll of this sounds rather harsh and judgmental—also not congruent with Christian values. So be it. I grow weary of hearing the name of my faith used in the service of un-Christian and inhumane policies and actions, in much the same way that sincere and serious Muslims must tire of hearing their ancient religion’s name used as a placeholder and justification for terrorism and murder. The truth of the matter is that Christianity as a lived faith runs contrary to much of our deepest, natural human wiring. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Tribal Christianity, on the other hand, appeals to the worst in our nature. As Robinson points out,

It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear . . . If the claims to Christian identity we hear now are rooted in an instinctive tribalism, they are entirely inappropriate, certainly uninformed, because in its nature the religion they claim has no boundaries, no shibboleths, no genealogies or hereditary claimants.

As Robinson writes, fear and the desire for identity and a place to belong can cause people of good will and intentions to choose and accept things that are in truth the very opposite of what they claim to believe in, even with the real thing right in front of them. But fear need not rule the day.voting

We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and predilections. The haunting fact is that we are morally free. If everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, it is only probable—but never necessary—that some of us join in.

no complaining

Educating the Uneducated

This is the point in the semester where teachers start returning the first graded assignments to students and students start having a fit. A bit over a year ago I wrote about one of these exchanges that was particularly satisfying . . . 

An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly. Epictetus

 We have all had the experience of only realizing after the fact what we should have said in real time. This happens to teachers frequently—you want to tell the unvarnished truth to a student who badly needs to hear it, but circumstances don’t allow it. But every once in a while, one gets the chance to actually say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. DWCI had that opportunity in an email exchange early this week.

A quick setup—I direct an interdisciplinary program (Development of Western Civilization, known colloquially by faculty and students as “DWC” or “CIV”) in which at any given time eighty or so faculty are teaching close to two thousand students. If students are having difficulty in class I am the next resource after the faculty teaching their section. A few evenings ago I received an email from a student complaining about his professor; I gave myself until the next morning, then responded. The original exchange of emails, as well as those that followed, is below. These are entirely unedited other than to change the names (except mine).

11/3/14 7:24 PM Hello Dr. Vance Morgan my name is PO and I am a freshmen at Providence College.  This email is with regards to my CIV seminar teacher Dr. X.  Currently I have a D- in the class and I believe I deserve much better.  In high school I was in the top decile in my grade and history was my best subject.  We recently got midterm grades back and the highest grade in both of X’s seminars was an 82.  I received a 60 and after conversing with some of my classmates I found out that I had done better than a good amount of them.  He gave out very little partial credit where credit was due and he is very bias.  unhappy studentWe also have written 5 papers and I’ve only received back one so far.  Also, in seminar he goes out on tangents and hardly gives time for individuals to participate.  Also, he bashes anyone who has a “wrong” answer that doesn’t consist with his own beliefs.  I know that you are not Dr. X and you can’t speak on his behalf but I do all the readings and take notes in lecture and I do not believe my grade reflects my work ethic solely based on his system of grading.  When the highest grade in both seminar classes (and there are some very smart individuals in my seminar class) is an 82 that says something about his grading system and I believe it is unfair.  He makes his gradings based on if he agrees with the material one’s written.  I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining but I just want to know what you think I should do to do better in the class or if I should do anything else.  Tomorrow I’m going to talk to him about my grade but I doubt he will change anything.  Sorry for bothering you with this long message but I’m doing well in all my other classes and I don’t want CIV to completely destroy my GPA.  Let me know if there’s anything you can do to help or if there is anything I can do to get my grade up.  Thank you for your time and get back to me whenever you get the chance.  Sincerely, PO

11/4/14 8:21 AM Dear PO: After reading your email carefully, I have a couple of comments and a couple of suggestions:

  1. Your record in high school and how you are doing in your other classes this semester is irrelevant to how you are doing in DWC. So are the grades that other students are getting in DWC, which are not your concern. You may have been a successful student in high school and may be doing well in other classes here at PC now but you are not yet a successful student in DWC. If I were you I would also be concerned about my DWC grade and be concerned about how to do better. I would not, however, assume that my grade is something that was arbitrarily given to me by my professor, as you seem to have assumed. Your midterm grade is simply Dr. X’s recording of what you have earned thus far in DWC this semester.
  2. You may believe that eighteen or nineteen years of life experience and eight or nine weeks of college experience qualifies you to have an informed opinion about how a college course should be organized and taught, but you are mistaken. Dr. X is a fine and experienced DWC no complainingprofessor with a well-earned reputation for excellent teaching and a willingness to help students. Your rambling critique of various aspects of seminar and his teaching style is clearly aimed at finding every way possible to place responsibility for your poor performance in DWC this semester on someone other than yourself.
  3. DWC is a difficult course–no one is claiming otherwise. It is not at all unusual for midterm grades to be of the sort that you describe in your email. I had no midterm grades over an 84 in either of my freshman DWC seminars this semester. It often takes a while for freshman students to become acclimated to the rigors of this program and to adjust their usual studying habits to the greater demands of DWC. Things generally get better in the second half of the semester, but only if you use what has happened to this point wisely. The last thing you want to do now is start blaming your professor for your lack of success rather than seriously considering what you need to be doing differently in order to ensure success. Having a good work ethic, doing the readings and taking notes are all good places to start, but are by no means a guarantee of success.

That said, here are a couple of suggestions (since you asked):OAS

  1. Make use of the Office of Academic Services (OAS). The OAS, located in the library, has tutoring available for all aspects of DWC, including writing, note-taking, seminar discussion and preparation for exams and quizzes. They are anxious to be of assistance, particularly to first semester freshmen. Use their services.
  2. Meet with Dr. X. This is the one good idea that you include in your email. But, if you are intending to meet with Dr. X only to argue about your grade, then you are absolutely correct when you “doubt that he will change anything.” He won’t, nor should he. If, rather, you are interested in clarification about grading policies and (especially) getting advice for how to do better in DWC going forward, Dr. X will be happy to help you.
  3. Change your attitude. You say that “I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining,” but that is exactly what you are doing. Your email is nothing but an extended session of complaining and attempting to blame someone else for something that you are ultimately responsible for. attitude adjustmentIf you want to be successful in DWC and in college overall, it’s time to take responsibility for yourself. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (someone you might be studying later this semester) wrote, “An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly.” It’s time to stop doing that. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 9:42 AM Good morning Dr. X: I thought you might enjoy reading an email that I received last evening from one of your DWC seminar students and my response this morning. . . Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 10:04 AM I apologize for complaining and I appreciate your help. I will do my very best to work harder in the class and use your words of advice to help benefit me in the class.  Thank you. Sincerely, PO11/4/14

10:28 AM Best of luck with the rest of the semester. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 3:26 PM The young man who wrote you came to visit with me this morning, and seemed quite contrite.  He didn’t bring his exam with him, and simply asked how he might improve.  That was a big change in attitude.  This young man started the semester by putting his head down on the desk while I was lecturing.  He hardly said a word in seminar.  I saw him consulting spark notes before I began seminar last week.  I think you’ve taught him a lesson, Vance.  Time will tell; I’ll keep you informed. Dr. X

Time will indeed tell, as it always does. But in one exchange of emails (1) a student’s path has perhaps been slightly redirected for the better, (2) a professional relationship and friendship with a colleague has been strengthened, and (3) I got to say what every teacher want frequently wants, but seldom gets, to say. Not bad for a day’s work. :-)time will tell

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Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about God. That’s a strange thing to spend time doing, given that the very existence of God, and God’s nature if God does exist, has been seriously and vigorously debated since someone first looked into the sky and wondered if anything is out there. What sorts of evidence count for or against?images Is certainty possible? And if God exists, which God are we talking about? I am a skeptic both by nature and profession, but I also believe that God exists. How does that work?

I was recently reminded by the usual random confluence of events of a way proposed close to five hundred years ago to establish belief in God while at the same time doing an end run on all of the questions above. PascalThe proposer was the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal; the proposition has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager,” one of the most debated and controversial arguments any philosopher has ever offered. Pascal was a world-class thinker who found himself knocked on his ass one night by what he interpreted as a direct message from the divine. It changed his life, moving him strongly in a religious direction and causing him to put his mathematical theories on the shelf.

Pascal lived in a time of skepticism; the medieval worldview had crumbled, Montaignethe Scientific Revolution was in full swing, and religious wars were being fought all over Europe. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most eloquent and brilliant skeptics who ever lived, was the most widely read author of the time. Pascal had no doubts about God’s existence—his “Night of Fire” had burned away any uncertainty—but he was smart enough to know that not everyone has such experiences. Lacking direct experiential evidence, and knowing that every philosophical, logical argument for the existence of God has been disputed by other philosophers using logical arguments, what would a betting person do?

Consider the options, says Pascal. Either you believe that God exists or you don’t, and either God exists or God doesn’t. That means there are four possibilities

1. I believe in God, and God does not exist

2. I do not believe in God, and God does not exist

3. I believe in God, and God exists

4. I do not believe in God, and God exists

Options 1 and 2 are essentially a wash. Believer 1 will probably live her life somewhat differently than Non-believer 2, but at the end of their lives they both are dead. End of story. But if it turns out that God does exist, then everything changes. Believer 3 is set up for an eternity of happiness, while Non-believer 4 is subject to eternal damnation. On the assumption that we cannot know for sure whether God exists but we still have to choose whether to believe or not, it makes betting sense to be a believer than to be a non-believer. As the handy chart below indicates, the believer either lives her life and dies or gets eternal happiness, while the non-believer either lives his life and dies or gets eternal damnation. So be smart and believe. QED.

chart

Many silent assumptions are woven into the argument, assumptions that have driven analysis and critique of Pascal’s Wager ever since. For instance, the argument assumes that there is about a 50-50 chance that God exists. evil and sufferingBut it could be argued that the preponderance of direct evidence from the world we live in (evil, disease, natural disasters, etc.) counts against God’s existence—the likelihood of God’s nonexistence is far greater than 50 percent. Others have pointed out that the difference between 1 and 2 is not negligible at all. Believer 1 might spend her life denying herself all sorts of experiences and pleasures in the mistaken belief that a nonexistent God doesn’t like such experiences and pleasures, while Non-believer 2 will enjoy such experiences and pleasures to the fullest. And what if God exists but is of an entirely different nature and character than we think? What if the things we believe will please God actually piss God off?

I find such critiques to be compelling and do not find Pascal’s Wager to be an attractive argument at all, but I believe in God’s existence so what do I know? I am far more interested in what Pascal says after the options are laid out to the person who buys the argument but is currently a non-believer. If I don’t believe in God’s existence but am convinced that a smart betting person does believe in God’s existence, how do I make that happen? just believeHow does one manufacture belief in something one does not believe in? Pascal’s advice is revealing.

You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. What have you to lose?

Pascal is borrowing a technique from Aristotle, who once said that if you want to become courageous, do the things that courageous people do. In this case, do the things believers do and one day you may find you’ve become one.

Pascal came to mind when I read a reader’s comment on my blog entry “The Imposter” a few days ago.

The Imposter

In response to my discussing imposter syndrome and our general human fears about inadequacy and lack of importance, the reader wrote

“Fake it until you make it” is actually almost a principle in Judaism, although not in those words. The medieval work seferSefer Hahinuch, which goes through the 613 commandments of the Torah according to traditional rabbinic calculation, states that a person is affected by his actions. If you do the right thing, little by little it can make you on the inside more like the act you are playing on the outside. Of course you can’t just do it to fool people. You have to intend to fulfill G-d’s will in the world and do things pleasing to Him according to what He has given us to work with. We do our job and keep refining it, and the work, the very inner struggle is pleasing to G-d because we are getting closer, because we are striving to be true to ourselves and Him, even though we know we aren’t there yet and never will be totally. But that is called doing His work.

Although this principle in Judaism reminded me of Pascal’s wager, it is actually very different. The Jewish principle supposes that one accepts that it would be good to live according to the rules and guidelines in the Torah but is not naturally inclined to do so. By putting these rules into action they become my own, all the time believing that becoming a person who does such things habitually is pleasing to God. But whether they are pleasing to God or not, they are arguably making me a better husband, father, son, Bros Kneighbor and contributing member of society.

Pascal’s suggestion is far less demanding, requiring nothing more than going through the motions of certain rituals on a daily or weekly basis. This is not likely to make me a believer or a better person so much as just a person with a very busy Sunday morning every week. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Father Zossima’s advice to an unbeliever who wants to believe is quite different: he recommends the “active and indefatigable love of your neighbor.” Much like the Sefer Hahinuch, Father Zossima provides no shortcuts to belief in God. Rather he recommends the difficult prescription of transforming one’s heart and mind by one’s actions. This doesn’t establish any metaphysical truths, but it does open the door to the good human beings are capable of. Whether God exists or not.belief

Reading and Writing

My twenty-plus years teaching at Providence College have afforded me an opportunity every semester for team-teaching in the large interdisciplinary program that is the heart of our core curriculum (a program I directed for four years ending last July). downloadTeam-teaching is fun, exhilarating, and demanding; this begins with the planning of the next semester’s syllabus. Faculty from different departments having different experiences with and notions about pedagogy bring all sorts of ideas to the table and do not always agree, particularly about the amount of daily and weekly work to schedule for our future students. My contribution to the discussion is always the same: “They should read until they drop, then write until they drop again.” In that order—there’s nothing that feeds intelligent writing more effectively than reading.

It is strange that I temporarily forgot this important connection between reading and writing during the past few months. The working highlight of the first half of my sabbatical was an intense spurt of writing from September to Thanksgiving, surely energized by a bicycle mishap in early October; I all of a sudden had to find something to do with the four to five hours per day during which I had been riding my bicycle and getting into the best shape of my life prior to the mishap. In addition to completing a second draft of my current book project, I was able to maintain my established blog routine of two new 1200-1500 posts per week—something that my most famous writing friend, kathleen Kathleen Norris, suggested last May that I would probably not be able to do while writing a book. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the book is closely related to my past three-and-a-half years of blog work.

But since Thanksgiving, the writing energies have begun to dry up. I still have been able to produce new blog posts, but a couple of them seemed forced and I was often writing under self-imposed deadline pressure. The proposal that needs to be written for my book draft wasn’t getting written. Just a few days before Christmas I realized one of the main reasons for my current writing malaise—reading and writingI haven’t been reading much for the past few months. There are a number of excuses I might offer, but none of them fully explain why, when I actually have more unstructured time than any grown-up should have, I have been neglecting my first love—reading. I’ve even gotten out of the habit of reading the daily psalms every morning. Very bad idea.

A quick review of my blog posts from a year ago was illuminating. Many of my late December and early January posts either mention or focus directly on either Barbara Taylor Brown or Christopher Wiman. Why? Because just before Christmas break last year the work of these two authors was recommended to me by two different friends, so I spent Christmas break reading several of Brown’s books and a memoir by Wiman. The point? I write about what I am reading—the ideas, images, and insights of a good book never fail to be evocative. my life in middlemarchSince I think best when I am writing, that’s where these ideas, images and insights become my own.

Awareness frequently produces change, and this time was no exception. Awareness of my reading slump caused me to pick up Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a biography/memoir centered on George Eliot’s masterpiece (and my favorite novel). Sure enough, several passages inspired by Mead’s book are central to my New Year’s Eve blog post, and others will form the core of my forthcoming Valentine’s Day post for Jeanne. Then for Christmas Jeanne gave me The Good Book, a collection of essays, edited by Andrew Blaumer, in which thirty-two writers from all sorts of angles write about their favorite passages and characters from the Bible. Although the older I get the less I believe in mere coincidence, good bookI “coincidentally” opened first to “The Womb and the Cistern Cell,” an essay by Brooks Hansen about John the Baptist.

John “just happens” to be one of my favorite characters from the New Testament; twice in the past four years I have had the privilege of giving an Advent sermon on John the Baptist Sunday in early December. On one end of his life is a miraculous birth narrative that in my estimation rivals that of his younger cousin Jesus, and at the end of his life he finds himself in a dungeon (a cistern well) and a state of despairing doubt. He sends a question via his disciples to Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? These are the last words we hear from this man, the first person recorded to recognize adult Jesus for who he was. Hansen finds this remarkable, and so do I; he concludes his essay by reflecting on the intimate connection between belief and doubt.

Light is born of darkness. Darkness is the necessary precondition of light. Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, the baptistwhich is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows. Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if we ever encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith. That, in fact, is a fairy tale.

I wish I had read this before my most recent sermon three weeks ago—it would have made the cut. I frequently say and write that in just about all aspects of belief, certainty is vastly overrated—Hansen makes the same point much more eloquently. This is why reading feeds writing. Reading enlarges one’s vocabulary, broadens one’s perspective, and provides examples of the richness of language and experience. And it is fun—what’s not to love?

The Best and the Worst: A Wish for the New Year

Love does not say “I ought to love”—it loves. Pity does not say “It is right to feel pity”—it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just”—it acts justly. George Eliot

There are eight to ten movies that Jeanne and I watch religiously during the Christmas season, from the obvious (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas”) to a few that are not as well-known. We ended our annual Christmas movie-watching binge on Christmas Eve this year with one of the lesser known films, the 2006 French film “Joyeux Noel.” Joyeux NoelOne of my favorites, this film is a fictionalized account of the 1914 Christmas Truce that spontaneously occurred in numerous places along the battlefield trenches throughout France during the first Christmas season of World War I. The movie is strangely both feel-good and devastatingly sad. The soldiers from both the German and the Allied sides are portrayed as humane and patriotic, willing to share in spontaneous brotherhood and solidarity for twelve hours or so, all the time knowing (as the viewer also knows) that carnage will return within hours and continue for another five hellish years. William Butler Yeats described it well: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.the second coming

I am not the first person during the past weeks and months to think of the next two lines from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” when considering current events: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. From departmental drama to presidential politics to immigration crises to the war on terrorism, these lines capture the essence of the world we live in. During this holiday season, the closing lines of Yeats’ masterpiece are especially haunting: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? What is this world that we have created? And what hope is there, as we move to yet another year, to stem the blood-dimmed tide and begin to do something different?

With a few notable exceptions, the public sphere these days is crammed to overflowing with people who embody Yeats’ observation. Those who have boundless passion and energy, grabbing all the headlines and air space regularly display the worst aspects of what humans can be—intolerant, judgmental, pompous, self-centered, ambitious for all the wrong reasons—while evidence of what is best about us seldom rises to our attention. my life in middlemarchI read in Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch the other day a line from a George Eliot essay that could have been written yesterday about many of our public figures. In a withering critique of Dr. John Cumming, a well-known nineteenth-century Scottish Evangelical preacher, Eliot comments on his ability “to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morality with a high reputation for sanctity.” Our current political landscape is populated with such people; as Eliot writes elsewhere, “one’s ambition is always in the inverse proportion of one’s knowledge.” And this is not forced on us—if pollsters are correct, this is precisely the sort of person that many of us are attracted to.

The obvious solution for this would be to find a way to spark the conviction of the “best” so that better people will seek the highest offices in the land. This is a problem that has challenged philosophers and others since Plato’s Republic—how is one to ensure that the best people are in charge of things (Plato essentially said they should be forced to do so)? My own thinking is that the “best” do not necessarily lack conviction as Yeats suggests; instead, the “best” are those whose conviction leads them to live the sort of life described by middlemarchGeorge Eliot beautifully in the final sentence of Middlemarch:

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.

Goodness does not enter the world on grand stages with fanfare and media coverage. Rather, the best people are those who live lives of excellence and virtue with conviction, seeking no reward or notoriety. How is such conviction cultivated?

Many argue that religious faith is the most likely, perhaps the only, source of moral excellence and conviction. There is strong evidence linking faith and moral excellence, but we are all aware of just how much damage and violence is done in the name of religious purity and conviction in our nation and world. In his recent book sacksNot in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks, until recently the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, reflects on the connection between faith and moral conviction:

Abraham himself sought to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry . . . To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.

It is perhaps time for persons of all faiths to seek common sources of moral conviction, shared simply by being human.

George Eliot consciously intended her novels to be an inspiration for human excellence, but she spent most of her adult life as an agnostic, having left the Anglicanism of her youth behind in her early twenties. She found the wellspring of moral excellence and conviction in obvious, but often overlooked places—good and badour shared humanity and our capacity to empathize with others. Her answer to the perennial question “Why be moral?” is as direct as it is simple:

I am just and honest, not because I expect to live in another world, but because, having felt the pain of injustice and dishonesty towards myself, I have a fellow-feeling with other people, who would suffer the same pain if I were unjust or dishonest towards them. It is a pang to me to witness the suffering of fellow-beings, and I feel their suffering the more acutely because they are mortal—because their lives are so short, I would have them, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery.

This is not a call to debate, legislation, philosophical hair-splitting, or theological distinctions. It is a simple call to action. As the prophet Micah wrote so many centuries ago, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” These are action verbs. We are called to do more than talk.

In keeping with Rabbi Sacks’ call, my New Year’s resolution is to find new ways to be a blessing in the part of the world that is in front of me on a daily basis. Perhaps if enough of us shared that resolution, our collective conviction might introduce some positive change into a world that badly needs it. It’s worth a try.

one thing

One Thing

In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays New York executive Mitch Robbins, whose hassled life is wearing negatively on his work, his marriage, and his friendships. At thirty-nine years old he finds himself deep in a midlife crisis. three amigosFor his birthday, his two best buddies purchase a two-week vacation for the three of them at a dude ranch in New Mexico to participate in a dude cattle drive. As is usually the case with Billy Crystal, hilarity and poignancy ensue simultaneously. The tough-as-nails trail boss Curly, played to great effect by Jack Palance, is an enigma to Mitch from day one—Curly is silent, curmudgeonly, skilled at his job, self-assured, and clearly in possession of information that Mitch badly needs. One day while rounding up strays, Mitch asks, “Curly, what is the secret of life?” As a good philosopher should, Curly answers with another question.

You know what the secret of life is?

No, what?

(Holding one finger up) This. one thing

Your finger?

One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.

That’s great, but what’s the one thing?

That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.

One thing. Finding out what that one thing is might be the point of anyone’s life, but that’s a pretty big task. At the beginning of a new year, a more manageable question might be “What is the one thing that I resolve to do this coming year?” And I don’t mean something like drinking less coffee or going to the gym more. I mean “What is the one thing that I resolve to do in this coming year that will be good for the inner me, for my soul?”one more thing I gave this assignment to the Living Stones seminar group that meets once a month after church when we met in December, and they’ll be bringing their “one thing” resolution when we meet next. As for me, I resolve that in 2016 I will be a more reverent person.

Reverence is not a concept that is particularly in favor in Western culture—it probably hasn’t been for decades. The term is almost always used in religious contexts, especially during the holiday season just ended. The shepherds and wise men gaze reverently upon the Christ child, Mary listens reverently as the angel tells her that her world is about to be turned upside down, the stable animals chew their hay reverently as they observe Mary reverently giving birth to Jesus while Joseph reverently boils water and finds some swaddling clothes. I suppose that sort of faux holiness has its place (maybe), but that’s not what I have in mind.

The sort of reverence I am resolving to develop this year is more like Moses’ reaction to the burning bush in Exodus. As he is taking care of his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks one day, he notices something weird out of the corner of his eye—a bush that is on fire but is not being burnt up. He could have thought “that’s weird” and kept on going. burning bushHe could have made a mental note to check back later when he wasn’t so busy. He could have Googled “burning bush” on his tablet after dinner with Zipporah and the kids when he had a few minutes of down time. But he didn’t. Instead, he said “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Loose translation—“Holy Shit! What the hell is that?” Moses was willing to interrupt his busy day to take a look at something outside his usual frame of reference. Reverence begins with the ability to see in a different way, to notice what’s going on outside the boundaries of my agenda, to be attentive to even the most mundane items and events that cross my path. Most importantly, reverence is cultivated by an increasing awareness that everything is important in its own right. simoneThe Greek philosopher Protagoras famously claimed that “man is the measure of all things.” Reverence says that I am not the measure of anything—what is most important and interesting is almost never about me.

The work of the French, Jewish mystic, activist and philosopher Simone Weil has been important to me both personally and professionally for many years, but one of her many cryptic phrases has been a mystery to me until just recently. In Gravity and Grace, she writes that “Here below, to look and to eat are two different things. . . . The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating.” This truly made no sense to me for a long time. But as I’ve learned something about peace, silence and attentiveness over the past few years, I’ve begun to see Simone’s point. Human beings are naturally acquisitive and devouring creatures—we are seldom willing to let things be as they are. If X is attractive, I want to buy it. If Y looks useful, I want to consume it. If Z is important, I want to make it mine. We turn these manic energies on the world around us and on each other on a regular basis. Simone’s point is that not everything is here for my use and pleasure. it isThe importance of what I encounter during a given day is not to be judged according to how important it is to me. And as I learn that everything is important in its own right, I can begin to see it differently. To “let it be,” as the Beatles sang, and to remember that “it is what it is,” as Jeanne frequently says.

So in practical terms, what does reverence amount to? At the very least, it means giving each task, person, and event in my life my undivided attention. A colleague of mine defines “multitasking” as “doing several things poorly at the same time.” If multitasking is the enemy of reverence, which I’m quite sure it is, then I’m in trouble. I find it very difficult to do one thing at a time—the very writing of this essay has been interrupted, sometimes in mid-sentence, by going to a second screen to check on my blog numbers, multitaskingthen a third screen to see if my latest important email has been responded to yet. During a typical evening it is not unusual for me to be watching a television show with Jeanne, farting around on my tablet, and grading a paper or two all at the same time.

So I resolve to ask myself the following question frequently in the following weeks and months: Is what you are doing worthy of your undivided attention? And if the answer is “yes,” then the follow-up question is Then why are you not giving it your undivided attention? Learning to give my undivided attention to each thing as I encounter it is the first step in recognizing the value inherent in even the tiniest and most insignificant part of reality. Moses took the time to check out something unusual and found out that he was standing on holy ground. And so are we. All the time.tutu

We Are Not Alone

This Christmas season seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe and in our country jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.