Category Archives: literature

Slightly Improved

I have no idea why or how Miss Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard School of Music2139064083_fa0e5dd401[1] with a degree in organ performance, came to spend most of her adult life teaching piano to kids in central, rural Vermont. She was my first piano teacher, from age five (or was it four?) until age eleven. I spent forty-five minutes per week with her in the piano studio attached to her small apartment. While many of her students found her intimidating, she reminded me a bit of my imperious but loving paternal grandmother. But she could have been the Wicked Witch of the West and I would have put up with it, because piano was my life.

Music is in my genes from both sides of the family. I don’t remember when my older brother started piano lessons, but some of my earliest memories involved my mother forcing him to practice his lessons as well as my jealousy that he was getting to do something I wasn’t old enough for yet. He was an indifferent musician—he could play the notes but had no love of it. I was a different matter. I recognized the piano as a soul mate as soon as I started lessons. As I got old enough for school, I would rush to our old uprightimagesCAQOJENP as soon as I got home and play until my mother forced me to leave the bench for supper. The piano was my best friend.

Miss Munn recognized immediately that she had a “true believer” on her hands and allowed me to progress through the standard lesson books at a much faster pace than most. She was a member of a national organization of certified piano instructors, meaning that once per year representatives of this group would visit, listen to her students play assigned pieces and sight-read new ones, grading the students (and presumably Miss Munn) in any number of categories. I remember the two judges as Kafkaesque,Kafkaesque[1] austere, unsmiling, unmoving, seated primly next to each other about five feet away on the left side of the piano, silently making checks occasionally on a sheet in front of them. Come to think of it, they looked and acted pretty much as I figured God looked and acted all of the time.

Miss Munn shared the judges’ scores with her students once she received them from the central authorities in the mail. I recall as if it were yesterday when she reported to me the results of my first judging: Twelve positive checks and zero negative checks. I was thrilled—I had set a goal of being perfect, and I had been. Miss Munn’s comments on my perfect score, however, were unexpected. She said, I’m very pleased with the number of positives, but I’m concerned that you had no negatives. What? What could be better than perfection? She continued by pointing out that my zero negative score was reflective, not of perfection, but of a strong sense of perfectionismPerfectionism[1] that is not desirable in an aspiring pianist (or anywhere else, I suspect). By being so concerned with not making any mistakes, I had closed off the possibility of additional positive checks only available if one is willing to take risks. I don’t remember exactly how I processed Miss Munn’s unexpected reaction to my perfect score, but I must have taken it to heart. My score on next year’s judging was twenty-seven positive checks, three negative checks. At least at the piano, I’d begun to learn that growth and excellence begin with embracing imperfection.

As Jeanne said when I told her this story, that’s a pretty difficult lesson for a five-year-old to learn. Indeed—it’s a lesson that I still struggle with. Miss Munn may have convinced me that perfection is not to be sought at the piano, but Jesus said “Be Ye PERFECT![1]Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (when he was speaking in King James English). That’s an even tougher lesson for a five-year-old, but it stuck. Not as something to strive for, but as an eternal impossible guilt-producing standard whose roots went deeper every year. As I grew older, I knew that this was an impossible standard. I even have said in class, to the nervous discomfort of my students, “What the hell kind of a moral standard is that”?

imagesCA6KS6YVIn  The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch asks “What of the command ‘Be ye therefore perfect?’ Would it not be more sensible to say ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved?’” Three decades earlier, she built this tension into one of her novels. The central structural pillars of The Belln43712[1] are the dueling Sunday sermons of James and Michael, rivals for the leadership of a lay religious community. James, on the one hand, is convinced that moral perfection is well within any human being’s reach—we know what is required of us and just need to stop thinking and do it. Perfection is measured by the external standard given to us by God through Scripture and tradition. We fail to be perfect through weakness of will. Throughout the novel James is also revealed as judgmental and self-righteous, rigidly insensitive to the nuances and realities of other people.

Michael, on the other hand, preaches that moral behavior begins with an honest assessment of one’s limitations and imperfections—“one must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.” Although Michael’s position is far more humane and embraceable than James’, his life is a series of continual missteps for which he seeks and expects immediate forgiveness from himself and others. When, due to his moral blundering, a member of the community commits suicide, Michael himself becomes suicidal as he realizes that his lazy acceptance of his own limitations has poisoned his relationships and caused him to blindly miss the importance of continually striving for perfection. Contentment with “slight improvement” has become identical with self-absorption and stagnation.

So there’s the problem. How am I to embrace imperfection while at the same time avoiding complacency? My best clue, which I borrow from Jeanne who is far wiser than I on these matters, has to do with “the law of love.”imagesCAH78QB6 Perfection is a deadly burden as long as it is a standard of judgment. But through the lens of love, it becomes something different. As long as my image of perfection is avoiding judgment by making no mistakes, I live in fear and am doomed to failure. Miss Munn, however, wanted to show me that the growth inspired by taking risks and making mistakes without fear is directed toward a perfection of a very different sort. The wise Abbess in The Bell tells Michael toward the end of the book that “The idea of perfection moves, and possibly changes, us because it inspires love in the part of us that is most worthy.” As First John tells us (once again in King James English), “perfect love casteth out fear.”mural perfect love with cars[1]

Candle in light

Books that Changed my Life: Gilead

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Gilead is as close to perfect as any book I have read.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. dillardYou don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

There is that “seeing” thing again, the same attentive awareness that was on display in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last week. For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.

Facts, Words, and the Word

TheHobbit_Sdtk_Cover_1425px_300dpi1[1]The day after Christmas a few years ago I went with my son to see Peter Jackson’s movie version of “The Hobbit,” Part One. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I knew I would. I have been a Tolkienphile since my early teens, when The Hobbit was assigned by Mrs. Lord (a great name for a teacher) in my high school honors freshman English class. I loved it, and innocently said to Mrs. Lord “I like this—has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact he has,” she replied, and turned me on to the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. It set off a love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien that has lasted for over forty years. Although I have strayed in the past few years, my first encounter with hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and humans in Middle Earth caused me, going forward, to religiously read all four books once every three years. And I suspect that had Mrs. Lord not assigned The Hobbit, I might not have discovered Tolkien for many years after, if ever. It was one of my first examples of the joys of unexpected literary discoveries. It probably also explains why I have never read a word of the “Harry Potter” series”–the next generations Tolkien, I suppose.

muriel_barbery_personnalite_une[1]I still enjoy the unforeseen pleasures of a new literary find. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked myself, upon finishing, a Mrs. Lord question: “I wonder if she’s written anything else?” Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, I found out in less than a minute that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is gourmet-rhapsody3[1]Barbery’s second novel, that she studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and worked for a number of years in France as a philosophy teacher. I immediately ordered her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, to read during the break between semesters.

It’s a short novel—a novella, really—that can easily be read in one day, especially if you have a cold and are resisting the siren call of work-related emails that you want to ignore until after New Year’s Day. In the midst of the story about a world-famous food critic who has been told that he has no more than two days to live, I read a sentence that has stuck with me over the past several months, even as the details of Barbery’s story drift away. “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis between words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress.”

As I get older and become more able to put years of teaching experience and continuing personal transition and process into some semblance of context and perspective, I find myself placed often at the intersection of words and facts. Facts, the one damn thing after another that provide the stuff of reality, are naked and uninteresting until shaped by a context, energized by a story, or illuminated by narrative light. Yet we live in a world which often insists on just the facts. As the insurance investigators tell Pi Patel in Life of Pi, after listening to his story of survival involving a hyena, an orangutan, a tiger, and a carnivorous island, “for the purposes of our investigation we want to know what really happened.The-Life-of-Pi[1] We want a simpler story for our report, one the company can understand and that we can all believe.” But the notion that the truth is nothing more than facts properly assembled in appropriate order is itself the result of a particular narrative structure, a structure guaranteed to produce stagnation and mediocrity. “I know what you want,” Pi responds. “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

If I have become convinced of anything in the twenty-five years that I have been teaching, it is that true learning only happens in the company of the desire to see higher, further, or differently. Accordingly, in the narrative of teaching and learning the atomic facts of reality are dressed up in various styles. Sometimes the dress is formal, sometimes casual, sometimes liturgical, and sometimes humorous. Occasionally learning happens best when facts are dressed as for a masquerade, deliberately seeking to conceal what is underneath. Almost never are facts served up naked, except to illustrate how dull and lifeless facts in the raw are, compared with what we might find in the word wardrobe to dress them in.

story_iStock_000015344866Small[1]Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that humans are story-telling animals, and as such we package the facts of our lives for ourselves and for each other in word-woven stories. But just as facts are, of themselves, incapable of conveying truth, so also it is often impossible for even the most skilled storyteller and communicator to encompass the highest truths with words. Human beings know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever tried to express the depths of real love finds that the reality always exceeds what can be expressed in words. As Reverend Ames says in Gilead, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.“ “Actions speak louder than words” is more than a truism or sound bite—it is an acknowledgement that the truth often must be shown rather than spoken or written about.

The inadequacy of both naked facts and the words we dress them in is shockingly apparent when entering the realm of religious conviction. This is especially the case when the religion in question involves sacred texts, words that supposedly carry divine weight in some fashion or another. inerrancy_Gerstner[1]I am a product of a version of Christianity that treats the Bible as literal fact—this leads to shallowness, agnosticism, atheism, or at worst, rigid self-righteousness. When the “facts” are dressed up in ornamental dress, the product is stories, metaphors, doctrine, or dogma, depending on the style and the word-fashion designer. But embedded at the heart of the Christian narrative is a challenge both attractive and provocative. As with all of the greatest truths, the most dynamic aspects of the relationship between the human and the divine cannot be reduced to words.

ChristmasB-in-the-beg[1]There is a reason why the writer of the Gospel of John begins by considering divine wordplay. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What sort of ceremonial dress is this? Alfred Korn puts it this way: “God is spirit, but at some point in history God became Word. This process of finding words for what cannot be expressed is incarnation.” As the Gospel writer tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The depths of divine love cannot be exhausted by words, by speech, by texts, by facts dressed up in even the fanciest garb. www-St-Takla-org--Coptic-Saints-Saint-Athanasius-03-01[1]These depths must be lived in and inhabited. And so the story goes—we are the continuing incarnation. As Saint Athanasius provocatively said, “God became human so that we might become God.” The Word continues to become flesh and live with us, because the Word is us. The life of faith is the life spent exploring what that amounts to and living it out.

Home for Each Other

Twenty-seven years ago my father said a few words over a beautiful redhead and me–to celebrate the day in words, I can’t do better than what I wrote for Valentine’s Day a few months ago. Celebrate with us!

small victoriesIn her recent book Small Victories, Anne Lamott includes a hilarious chapter describing her year as an early sixty-something on Match.com. Four years after her last serious relationship ended, she decided to go high-tech and find some dates on-line. If she had asked me, I would have advised against it. I know a handful of people who have gone the Internet dating route and ultimately wished they hadn’t, matcheither because they failed to find anyone close to acceptable or, even worse, because they actually found someone and are now living to regret it. As she put her Match.com profile together, Anne asked herself what she was really looking for. Fun? Adventure? Sex? As it turned out, she realized that she was really looking for something better than all of the above.

Union with a partner–someone with whom to wake, whom you love, and talk with on and off all day, and sit with at dinner, and watch TV and movies with, and read together in bed with, and do hard tasks with, and are loved by. That sounds really lovely.

“Wow,” I thought as I read her description. “That sounds like Jeanne and me—except that Anne forgot about the three dogs in bed part.” And Anne is right—it really is lovely.

As we both inch closer toward six decades on this planet (Jeanne’s there–I will be in a few months), it is a surprise when I realize that we have now spent almost half of our lives on earth together. A surprise, because in some ways it seems longer than that—I have to concentrate to remember details of my life before we met over twenty-seven years ago. People in their early thirties have a lot of history behind them and are carrying a lot of baggage—mine included a failed marriage and two young sons—Trudy and Bruce June 1982but in many ways I feel as if my life truly began when my parents introduced the two of us the day before Thanksgiving so many years ago. I suspect that  knowledge of everything the ensuing twenty-seven years would hold might have given us pause. But lacking such knowledge, we did what people who have fallen in love frequently do—we decided to give it a shot. As Kierkegaard once said, even though life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forwards.

And as they say, life is what happens while you are making other plans; or, I might add, what happens when you are too busy with the details of the daily grind to notice. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about Jeanne’s and my relationship came from a very wise friend in the middle of a particularly challenging time a number of years ago. “You and Jeanne are home for each other,” my friend said. And she was right. Homes need repairs on occasion, need sprucing up at other times, require regular infusions of resources, and should not be taken for granted—it is a terrible thing to be homeless. That applies to the physical structures we live in as well. But the space that Jeanne and I inhabit has truly become what Anne Lamott was looking for (and didn’t find) on Match.com—a place to comfortably live.

I think many of the people who knew us individually before we met wondered how two people who are so different would be able to make a long-term relationship work. We still are very different, but have built our days and nights around the things that we love and appreciate together. 100_0712Our three dogs. Great television. Going to the movies. Going to Friars games (that’s a new one). Texts more often than phone calls. A shared commitment to trying to figure out what faith means and what God is. And the simple but profound joy of having one person in the world who knows me better than I know myself, a person who I don’t need to try to impress or to convince of my value and worth on a daily basis, who knows both the best and the worst I can be and is still there. And the pleasure of returning that favor of love.Jeanne singing

Jeanne and I occasionally argue about who is going to die first—she says that she is and I say that I am. It’s not that I am uninterested in living as many years as possible—I’ll take as many as I can get as long as I’m accompanied by all my faculties. It’s just that I don’t want to be homeless. Happy Anniversary to the person who agreed to build a home with me many years ago when we were too young and in love to know what we were doing—thanks for twenty-seven years of finding out together what love really is!The lovely couple

Books that Changed My Life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Not long ago I posted the following on Facebook: What books have changed your life? I don’t mean which books do you think are “greatest” or at the top of the “Great Books” canon, but which books came along at just the right time in your life and changed something significant? The response was fascinating, with dozens of my Facebook acquaintances (and theirs) listing interesting and eclectic offerings from Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of my own life-changing titles—please share yours and let’s keep the conversation going!patc

At a writer’s workshop several summers ago one of the writing coaches gave us writer wannabes a terrific question to ask every time we write. “With Middlemarch and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the world, why would anyone be interested in this?” Over the twenty years or so since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time, I have occasionally mentioned to friends whose opinions I highly respect how the book has influenced me. More often than not, my friend has replied that she read it years ago and didn’t finish it, or he confesses that “I just don’t get it.” One said “I didn’t like it much when I read it, but I’ve never been able to forget it.” I understand these reactions—Dillard’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner is odd, quirky, eclectic, and one-of-a-kind. And it has helped me to see the world around me and myself differently.

leaf minerOur life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Annie Dillard is an intense observer of details, capable of seeing things that escape the notice of just about everyone. She finds worlds of complexity and interest in the tiniest matters—I often think of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who when I read Dillard. But I have encountered skilled natural observers before—Hortonwhat makes Dillard different is that she invites the reader into a new kind of seeing altogether. Given, as she writes, that most of us “waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves,” how do we learn to get out of the way and see what is actually there instead of what we expect to see?

There is another kind of seeing, which involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

And what Dillard sees is that “Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” Dillard Frog and Bug 3From the slow-train-wreck horror of watching a giant water bug paralyze a small frog then suck the frog’s insides out through a puncture hole to the gratuitous beauty of a mockingbird free-falling from a five-story roof only to swerve and land light as a feather just a couple of feet before crashing into the earth—just because it can—Dillard finds that we are surrounded by endless details that belie our constant attempts to categorize and “figure out.”

Dillard is not the least bit hesitant to ask the big questions that arise from her intense attention to detail. As she describes it in another of her books, she continually participates in “unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” tea cupOur attempts to understand the big picture, however, must always begin with what is the case rather than what we would like to be the case. This requires learning how to see unfiltered.

What we know, at least for starters, is here we—so incontrovertibly—are. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die. In the meantime, in between time, we can see. The scales are fallen from our eyes, the cataracts are cut away, and we can work at making sense of the color patches we see in an effort to discover where we so incontrovertibly are. It’s common sense: when you move in, you try to learn the neighborhood.

Practicing this sort of seeing was an “eye opener” for me (pun intended), opening previously undiscovered pathways I had always longed to follow. They led to ways of thinking about God that blew me away.

We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet. praying mantisThere is not a people in the world who behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is packed with page after page of excruciatingly detailed observations of violence and ugliness in the natural world, to the extent that my students sometimes wonder why Dillard finds it necessary to pound her readers over their heads with a basic fact: Nature is both violent and beautiful, deadly and life-giving. “Enough already!” they complain. Dillard’s point is not to fill up pages but rather to force us to face the implications of what we are seeing, including what these truths tell us about what is greater than us. What sort of being or process is responsible for this?

How many people have prayed for their daily bread and famished? They die their daily death as utterly as did the frog, people, played with, dabbled upon, when God knows they loved their life. AlgonquinsIn a winter famine, desperate Algonquin Indians “ate broth made of smoke, snow, and buckskin, and the rash of pellagra appeared like tattooed flowers on their emaciated bodies—the rose of starvation, in a French physician’s description; and those who starved died covered with roses.” Is this beauty, these gratuitous roses, or a mere display of force? Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

Dillard knows full well that such Job-like challenges to the Divine are “out of bounds” in many circles, but she isn’t having it. “We are people,” she writes, “we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!” As she asks elsewhere, “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” The fact is that what we are seeing is not what we would expect to see in a natural world created and overseen by a benevolent deity. dome of heavenSetting aside traditional constructs and concepts, Dillard freely explores other possibilities.

Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?

I had wondered about this since my early years as a young Baptist boy, but this was the first time I found it in print. And it inspired me to fearlessly track what I see to what might be behind the scene—regardless of where it might take me.

But as Dillard regularly reminds her readers, terror and beauty are intertwined in our world, so intimately that our attempts to separate them will invariably fall short.

No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax—how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek? . . . Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

When I remember to get out of my own way, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek serves as a standard for me, a standard of how to see differently. pearlThis theme of learning how to truly see weaves through many of the texts that have influenced me over the past several years—Annie Dillard was the first to introduce me to it.

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. . . . But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

angels

Prey of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

testament of youthIn her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made into a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

During these first days of sabbatical I have enjoyed getting back in touch with the work of Iris Murdoch, one of the greatest philosophers and novelists of the twentieth-century. In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Murdoch’s characters grapple directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

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

story telling animal

How to Educate a Story-Telling Animal

Man is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I suspect that all academics who can still remember their graduate school days will recall books in their disciplines that were all the rage, books that all of the graduate students talked about but that no one had read. after virtueDuring my graduate years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two of these books were Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I don’t recall exactly when I finally read Rorty’s book (I promise I did), but I recall very clearly the circumstances surrounding my first reading of After Virtue. My teaching assignment for the fall semester of my second year at my first teaching job after my PhD included two sections of “Ethical Theory.” Although according to my vita my systematic area of specialization was ethics, this would be my first opportunity to actually teach an ethics course.

In the early part of the summer, I constructed a typical introductory ethics syllabus, a cafeteria-style tour through relativism, egoism, divine command theory, utilitarianism, and Kant, followed by an applied topic or two. Shortly afterwards, I happened to come across After Virtue as I was rearranging a bookshelf in my office, and decided that it was about time I read this book that everyone had been talking about. I expected it to be my “fun” reading for the summer. It absolutely blew me away—I story telling animalsat up late at night and finished it in less than a week. I could not get out of my head the possible implications of MacIntyre’s claim that human beings are “story-telling animals” for ethics and teaching. As soon as I finished the book I immediately went to my office computer—we had no computer at home—located my newly constructed ethics syllabus, and deleted it. Reading After Virtue changed the way I think about ethics. I have taught upwards of forty sections of introductory ethics in subsequent years; virtue ethics eats up more and more of the syllabus each time. But the most important pedagogical question After Virtue raised for me struck deeper than “How should one think about the moral life?” Because if it was truly the case that the dozens of students in my classes each semester are “story-telling animals,” the most important question for me became “What is the best way to invite/seduce such an animal into the life of learning?”

Over the almost twenty-five years since that summer of MacIntyre, I have become convinced that students flourish most often in a learning environment when the teacher is willing to place her or his own narrative on public display, particularly the portions most intimately related to her or his own life of learning. VM Ruane 9It’s a strange but true fact that my students know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my immediate family, simply because I put myself—my foibles and fears as well as my certainties and successes—on public display every time I enter a classroom. I get my students to start thinking about themselves in narrative fashion by showing how my own narrative has been written and shaped by what I have read, studied, and experienced. They learn that Aristotle is on our ethics syllabus because thinking about virtue and moral excellence as habits to be cultivated rather than rules to be obeyed has made a profound difference in my own moral journey. They learn that the relatively obscure Simone Weil is the syllabus because a seemingly random encounter with one of her essays changed my life many years ago. And so on.

Stories are not only the natural context within which human beings understand themselves and each other, but often are also vehicles of inspiration. What is it about stories that grabs the attention of co-learners in ways that facts or objective descriptions cannot? carseTheologian James Carse writes that “The way an audience is visibly awakened by a narrative example during an otherwise precisely factual lecture shows that stories touch closer to a listener’s center than accurate descriptions of objective states of affairs.” In my experience, students care less at first about what a text is saying than about what this text is doing on the syllabus. More directly, they want to know “Why does this text matter? What difference has it made in your life?” And the only possible answers in response to such questions will of necessity be narrative in structure. According to Richard Rorty, the classroom must be a place where “the teachers [are] able to teach the books which have moved them, excited them, changed their lives,” inspired by

An encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the [teacher’s] conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.

The only way that there can be “joy in the work,” to use Simone Weil’s phrase, is if there is an example, a lived story, of such joy on display. Over the many years of seemingly endless core curriculum reform debate on my campus over the past decade, I often argued that the true point of what we are doing in the classroom has, first and foremost, little to do with content. What we are doing is facilitating and nurturing the attitudes and skills of lifetime learning. macintyreSuch attitudes and skills must be shown in embodied form.

Telling a story is a creative activity—telling one’s own story is perhaps the most important creative activity a human being ever encounters. As MacIntyre tells us, it is through paying attention to the narrative structure of human reality that we begin to fashion the disparate, fragmented aspects of our existence into a unified, morally responsible whole.

To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one’s birth to one’s death is . . . to be accountable for the actions and experi­ences which compose a narratable life . . . in what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life.

And telling a story is more than getting the facts straight. A life lived with only the facts in mind is a life subjected to “just one damn thing after another.” As James Carse points out,

No matter how carefully we line up the historical data or how honestly we report the actual events through which we have lived, these do not by themselves tell the story of our lives. To tell all is not to tell a tale.facts Getting the facts straight is not enough to find the story to which they belong. In fact, getting the facts straight is a very different activity from that of finding a story that can be “faithful” to the facts.

Good story telling, like good pedagogy, is attractive and seductive. Each individual human story is endlessly hopeful; there is an inherent joy in shaping the classroom experience within narrative parameters. Because the stories being told are the ones that matter most—the stories of our lives.

Someone with Skin On

afraid-of-the-dark[1]The story is told of a little girl who was afraid of the dark. After trying any number of strategies to allay her fears, one night the girl’s frustrated mother said “there really isn’t anything to worry about—Jesus is always with you.” “But I can’t see him!” the little girl wailed. “I know you can’t,” the mother replied, “but he’s there all the same.” This did not help the little girl, who said “sometimes I just need someone with skin on.”

I thought of this story in the wake of an interesting round of seminars with two groups of nineteen freshmen in the interdisciplinary course I  teach in. Our seminar text was anselm[1]Anselm’s ontological argument—the very title is sufficient to cause nineteen-year-olds (or perhaps anyone with common sense) to shut down or at least to glaze over. The proof is a highly cerebral, rational attempt to prove the existence of God first made famous by Anselm, an eleventh century Benedictine monk who rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury for the last fifteen years of his life. It is called the “ontological” proof because it focuses on a logical analysis of the concept “to exist” or “to be” (ontos in Greek). Here it is in its simplest form.

1. I can think of a being than which no greater can be thought (a Perfect Being). 

2. Since I have this thought, the Perfect Being exists in my mind. 

3. It is greater to exist both in the mind and in reality than it is to exist just in the mind (ex: a unicorn that existed in reality would be greater than the unicorn that just exists in our imaginations). 

4. The Perfect Being must exist in reality as well as in my mind; if it existed only in my mind, I could imagine a greater being (which is contrary to #1). 

5. Therefore, the Perfect Being (God) exists in reality.

Here’s a cartoon version that gets the gist of the argument. Jesus and Mohammed are having a beer . . .

2006-09-11[1]

Confused? So were my students. My literature colleague and teammate, a medievalist, had done a first run through the argument in a lecture early in the week, but when I asked my seminar students how many thought they had a handle on what had happened in that class, not a hand was raised.

So-What[1]I took the opportunity over the next ninety minutes to walk through the steps of the argument with the students as slowly as needed and was convinced, at the end of the exercise, that each student in the room at least understood how the argument worked. But as I frequently tell students, the most important philosophical question one can ask is “So what?” Who cares? This led to the most important part of the seminar, as I asked them to role play:

1. Choose one of the following roles: a person who believes in the existence of God or a person who does not.

2. Once you have chosen your role, ask yourself the following:

a. If you are a believer, would the ontological argument help strengthen your faith, or would it basically have no impact? Why or why not?

b. If you are a non-believer, would the ontological argument convince you to become a believer or not? Why or why not?

dividing-wall[1]Each person wrote from the perspective of their chosen role for ten minutes, then compared what they wrote  in groups of three or four with others who had chosen the same role—believers with believers and non-believers with non-believers.

The students choosing to be believers and those choosing to be unbelievers were roughly equal in number. But the message that emerged from the group discussions—believer or non—was consistent: The argument doesn’t work. Believers agreed that although the argument might be “interesting,” that’s all it is. The argument does nothing to bolster, support or clarify already existing faith. Neither did the argument move any non-believer an inch closer to belief.

Why? Is there a fatal flaw in the logic of the flow from premises to conclusion? Many philosophers and theologians over the past millennium have sought to poke logical holes in different parts of the argument, with varying levels of success. But the ontological argument is still here, dragged out and dusted off in hundreds of philosophy of religion classes across the world every semester, godel ontological[1]stubbornly staking its claim that from the mere existence of an idea about a Perfect Being one can establish with certainty the actual existence of an actual Perfect Being that matches up to the idea. I have a colleague in the philosophy department, a Dominican priest, who not only is convinced that the ontological argument is sound, but who will proceed upon invitation to demonstrate it using symbolic notation and modal logic. Trust me, you don’t want to know.

The argument’s failure to impress my students, however, had nothing to do with its logical triumphs or failures. As different groups of believers and non-believers weighed in after we reconvened, a common theme emerged:

Maybe God exists, but this doesn’t tell me anything about how to relate to God or where God is. 

Faith for me is not about arguments.

This argument doesn’t tell me anything about what God is like or what God wants.

If I already believe that God exists, I don’t need a proof to tell me that.GodPuzzle[1]

I don’t think God is a puzzle or a problem to be solved.

How is this going to help me be a better person?

Bottom line: My students were in almost unanimous agreement that the God of Anselm’s argument is not someone who can be related to on a human level. Anselm’s God is not “somebody with skin on.” And sometimes—perhaps most of the time—that’s what we need God to be.

RUBIKS GOD[1]The good news is that according to the Christian narrative, God knows this. It sometimes shocks my students to hear that “incarnation” literally means “to become meat.” Carnivore, carnivorous, chili con carne, carnal. Or to put it differently, “incarnation” means “to put skin on.’ God’s response to human need, hope, sorrow, desire, pain, joy, and suffering is to wrap the divine up in flesh. On a given day, in a given situation, that incarnated God might be you. It might be me. This is how the divine chooses to be in the world. It’s much more possible to relate to someone with skin on than to a mathematical formula or a logical construct. God is not a Rubik’s Cube. God is a person with skin on. Embrace it.

imagesCASSRX85

Face to Face with the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Without God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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