Category Archives: literature

Something Rather Than Nothing

One of the most reliable ways to deaden a lively conversation in class is to ask a “philosophical question.” indexNothing is more certain to produce blank stares, then uncomfortable silence, than questions like “Is the world we experience primarily a matter of what we perceive or of what we create from what we perceive?” or “Is the truth something we find or something we invent?” Jeanne read one of these sorts of questions—“Is the self assembled from my memories, and if so, what if my memories are inaccurate?”—in a book she was reading not long ago. “This person sounds like you,” she said. “The problem is, I just don’t care about this question.” I know. The fact that in twenty-eight-plus years together I have failed to get Jeanne to understand the importance of properly splitting philosophical hairs is a constant source of disappointment.

For most of my years of teaching philosophy, I have managed to ask such questions, which are the bread-and-butter of my discipline, in ways that actually have some relevance to the lives that my students live. But there’s one philosophical question, perhaps my favorite, which is close to perfect in the form that it has been asked for thousands of years. 100030303-the-mystery“Why is there something rather than nothing?” That doesn’t grab you? Try this version: Assuming that the world (and us in it) could have been different, or not have existed at all, why is it the way that it is? And what might we learn about ourselves and the larger reality within which we find ourselves by pursuing possible answers?

These were the guiding questions behind the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium I will spend with a dozen Honors juniors and seniors next semester. It’s odd to be thinking about next semester when I am buried under grading this semester, but the Honors Program director asked me for a course description of the colloquium a couple of days ago, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed it the last two times I taught it. One of the authors we will study is P2P_sphysicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne, who once said in an interview that Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. In other words, the creator might be more like Ella Fitzgerald than Ludwig van Beethoven. Many people carry a model of the natural world around that we inherited from the Scientific Revolution, the model of an intricately and finely tuned machine, designed and created by a cosmic being whose favorite things are precision, order, economy and control. If we speculate about the personality traits of this “designer God,” characteristics such as “powerful,” “rational,” “logical,” “rule-making” come to the fore, which are but a short step to “judgmental,” “controlling,” “aloof” and “distant.”

The problem is, we don’t live in that sort of world. If our world was designed with precision, order and economy in mind, the designer was having a teilhard-1-sizedpretty bad day. Darwin opened the door wide to speculation that the world we live in is vastly more messy and open-ended than ever imagined; a century and a half of further investigation in all of the various sciences has con-firmed Darwin’s insight. It’s very possible to investigate the messy, inefficient and spectacularly fascinating universe we inhabit without reference to anything greater than ourselves, but I find it impossible to do so. If we are in fact part of a creation that is unfinished, in which in Teilhard de Chardin’s memorable phrase, “God does not make: He makes things make themselves,” where does intelligent speculation about such a creator lead? In directions both stimulating and iconoclastic.

We spent a number of weeks the last time I taught the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium teasing out some of the differences that understanding the world in this way might have for how we think about God. For some of my students, the implications were fascinating and liberating, while for others they were disturbing and paradigm-shifting. Two of the traditional characteristics attributed to God, for instance, are omniscience and omnipotence. God knows everything and has the power to do anything. These “omni” characteristics have been problematic for centuries when thinking about human choice and freedom. 20080626_kristatippett_2When thinking about an open-ended universe that continues to be created by the creatures that inhabit it, such characteristics are more than problematic—they need to be jettisoned entirely, as many cutting-edge scientists and theologians suggest. Here is the full John Polkinghorne quotation, taken from an interview with Krista Tippett:

The act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love. Kenosis-school-of-art-and-creative-services_11310_imageIt is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word. God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world involves God accepting limitations, and, I believe, accepting limitations such as not knowing the future.

Rather than a tightly controlled and designed universe, this is a universe in which power and knowledge on the part of the divine are sacrificed for—something. Freedom? Choice? Beauty? At thegod_created_risk_postcard-r1d8ae1c777454aa29480a38b805f6646_vgbaq_8byvr_324 very least, the motivations for such an ongoing creative process are something other than control and order. A world in which creatures are empowered to create in novel and unique ways sounds less like a universe energized by ordering power and more like one embedded with creative love and emerging beauty, a beauty that theologian John Haught defines as “ordered novelty.” Only a universe structured on the edge of order and chaos could generate such results.

A God who intentionally created a partially finished, non-economical and messy universe that is still a project in the making is not a God who knows everything that will happen or inserts divine power into every organizational detail. This is a God who has taken a significant risk—on us. In an intellectual notebook entry, one of my students captured this idea concisely and beautifully.

God is only truly taking a risk if He has a desired intention for us—a purpose, so to speak—that could either be fulfilled or unfulfilled through our free actions and the way in which we live our lives. God is gambling on us because He has allowed for the opportunity of failure. God has fixed His hand by giving us everything we need to fulfill our purpose. He is actually no less omnipotent, he is simply using His power to limit His power, a theory that if true would be the noblest of all divine endeavors. If we deny our egos, we are to be awakened by His silence and transformed by the realization of our limitations.

This, of course, raises many more questions than it answers. But they are better questions in my estimation than the traditional ones, in keeping with my favored definition of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions.” Yet another confirmation that Socrates was right when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”quote-the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living-socrates-174068

Silence and Submission

trump-and-bushDuring the past two weeks, reports concerning the attitudes and actions of one of the major party candidates for President of the United States towards women over the past few decades has dominated the news cycle. The attitudes and actions of the husband of the other major party candidate for President towards women have been part of the news cycle for lewinskydecades as well. It’s difficult to imagine that there is a person in this country who either finds such attitudes acceptable or wants to hear yet another person’s opinions about them—so I won’t dig further into the details. Instead, I’m interested in why so many people, from every political and religious persuasion imaginable, has been surprised by the offensive, demeaning, and degrading attitudes and actions that have been illuminated over the past two weeks. Misogyny and prejudice toward women has been part of our social structure for centuries—one if the most powerful sources of these attitudes and actions is the dominant religion in our culture: Christianity.ancient-other

In the team-taught, interdisciplinary course that I teach in, we recently completed a unit called “The Other,” focusing on how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood and treated those who were different. During one seminar we considered ancient views of gender, with two of Aristophanes’ comedies and an assortment of excerpts from other authors as our texts. Some were remarkably equitable, including Plato’s insistence that both males and females are equally capable of being rulers of his idealistic and imaginary perfect community, and hence should be educated in the same ways. Other ancient voices were not as complimentary toward women. From Aristotle, for instance, we learned that women are “deformed males,” arguing that “as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” And in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we read thatpaul

I wish you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is her husband . . . a man is the image and glory of God, but a woman is the glory of her husband. For man was not created from woman, but woman from man. And man was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the sake of man . . . In all the churches of the faithful, let women be silent in the congregation, for it is not appropriate for them to speak. If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home . . .

But wait . . . that’s not all. A couple of Sundays ago, one of the readings was this from the Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.silence-and-submittion

After the lector finished I leaned over the back of the pew in front of me and whispered to the couple sitting there “Wow, I guess Paul was having a bad day when he wrote that!” “No shit!” the guy whispered back. I’ve often wondered what the experiential and/or psychological sources of Paul’s obvious problems with women might have been—I’m still wondering. But whatever the sources were, such attitudes, fully resonant with the majority of philosophies of his day with which he was fully familiar, had a powerful influence going forward—an influence that afflicts Western culture to this day.

I found that many of the dozen-and-a-half eighteen-year-old freshmen in each of mif-onlyy seminars on ancient perspectives on gender assumed that the attitudes toward women they were exposed to in the readings they prepared for seminar are no longer with us. We moderns are, fortunately, respectful of all and treat everyone equally, no matter what gender or sexual orientation. If only. I wish. It didn’t take very long or much encouragement, however, for a few female voices to start providing plenty of evidence that we not only have not moved that far from ancient attitudes on gender, but in many cases are arguably very much the same.

female-priestDuring that seminar I asked the students to start thinking about the ways in which we use gender to organize social structures by asking them to identify a job description for which one’s gender is truly relevant. They had a difficult time coming up with one, despite our culture’s history of making gender relevant to decision making in everything from wages to educational opportunities, until someone said “I know one—priest!” I pointed out, first, that one of my best friends is both a woman and an Episcopal priest, so clearly it is only priests of a certain sort (Catholic) who can only be male. The rules and traditions of the Catholic church notwithstanding, however, none of my students were able to identify any specific thing a Catholic priest does that could not be done equally well by a qualified male or female.gmm

Given that it is difficult to find anything in the actual reported teachings of Jesus to support either treating men and women differently or assuming that men are superior to women, it is truly remarkable to observe just how thoroughly such attitudes and actions became entrenched in the religion that grew out of Jesus’ teachings. There is plenty of evidence that many members of Jesus’ inner circle were women and that women were important leaders in the early Christian communities. But the documents containing such evidence did not make the cut when the New Testament was officially assembled, and such evidence was suppressed and ignored as a male-dominated ecclesiastical hierarchy emerged. After two millennia there are signs that biases against women are changing in some Christian circles, but there remains much to do and a great deal progress needs to be made.

When misogyny and Neanderthal attitudes toward women rear their ugly heads, as they have with a vengeance during the past couple of weeks in the context of the Presidential campaign, we should not be surprised. This is the natural outcome of centuries of history in Western culture, a history in which Christianity has been a central driving force. Christians are in nearth-and-heaveno position to take the high road and respond to such ugliness with moralistic tut-tutting and judgments. The truth of the matter is that Christian churches of all sorts have contributed to the embedded misogyny and sexism that still infects our world in many ways. If Christians truly intend for God’s will to “be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as we recite in the Lord’s Prayer every week, it is incumbent on us to put our house in order before casting stones elsewhere. There is a great deal of work to be done.

hello october

October Musings

Autumn in NEAutumn is my favorite season of the year, and October is my favorite month. This is not surprising for a native New Englander, since turning leaves together with crisp, sunny and cool days are an attractive combination. Even on this particular middle-of-October day as I write, when it is unseasonably warm and humid with a threat of heavy rain later, a few typically beautiful fall days in the past week and the promise of more to come keeps me weather-happy. I know that autumn bums many people who live where the seasons change out because it means that winter is coming. But I like winter as well, or at least the idea of it. The older I get the less I enjoy the actual fact of shoveling snow on occasion and having to warm the car up every morning, but I’ll take it over the Florida summer humidity and heat that my son and daughter-in-law profess to love for some unknown reason.halloween birthday

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is my brother’s birthday in a few days; I am several months older now than the age at which my mother died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-eight years ago; amazingly, sometimes it seems more like twenty-eight weeks.

October is a centrally important month every year for both students and faculty on college campuses—the first big papers and often the first significant exam of the semester (or perhaps the midterm exam)midterm are usually October events. For students this means even more stress than usual; for faculty it means that the first few weeks of the semester that have pleasantly been free of tons of grading are now at an end. Faculty love to bitch and moan about grading—I used to be great at such complaining until Jeanne asked me once many years ago at the end of my latest grading whine-fest “Isn’t that part of your job?” Well yes, I guess it is. It’s the one part of my job that I hope I don’t have to do in my next life (because I still intend to be a college professor—there’s nothing better). Now I tend to think of October grading as a great opportunity to learn new things from my students.

For instance, my colleague on an interdisciplinary faculty team informed me by email a few days ago that she just read the following in one of his freshman papers: “As Mr. Morgan talked about in lecture, during this time and culture, obeying god was the priority of every man, even if that means sacrificing your own son, which happened a lot in olden times.” Google UMy colleague wrote “I guess I must have missed that lecture.” I responded that “Mr. Morgan is my evil twin who gives lectures on off days for students who don’t come to the regularly scheduled lectures. I take no responsibility for anything Mr. Morgan says.” In one of my own papers (the same assignment that produced my colleague’s paper) one of my freshman began as follows: “According to Google, happiness is defined as . . .” I’m glad that I’m old enough that I won’t have to fully adjust to the brave new educational world that is just around the bend.Kathleen

October also often brings important speakers to campus. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a rock star in Jeanne’s and my estimation, speaks in ten days. I remember a couple of years ago when my friend and best-selling author Kathleen Norris was resident scholar on my campus and gave a late afternoon talk. At the beginning of Q and A , Kathleen mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Last Sunday we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the Animals.” I went to the early show with Frieda, who along with five other dogs held center stage and generally behaved themselves.

Three years ago

Five years ago

This year

Two years ago

For several years running I was lector for Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who was rector of our little Episcopal church for those years, made sure I was scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always brought Frieda to the lectern so she could stare people down while I was reading.

During October the weekly readings are still stuck in Ordinary Time, where we have been since Pentecost. This year the readings from the Jewish scriptures have wandered through various prophets yelling at whoever would listen about various shortcomings.  Last year we were walked through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. In Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll begin again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life not long ago in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act:

Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Autumn is a time when I feel, at least a little bit, that such a life might be possible. Thanks, october

A Grownup Faith

If we’re grownups about faith, then why can’t we all get together and lament the fact that there is no God? Christian Wiman

Recently my ethics students and I have been discussing the dangers of moral certainty. For many of them, this has been a counterintuitive conversation, given that moral principles are commonly thought to be only as good as they can be proved to be universally applicable and unassailable. Why wouldn’t we want certainty in our moral beliefs? one might ask. Because, as several of the authors assigned for class discussion have noted, many of the worst atcritchleyrocities that human beings have done to each other over the course of human history have been done in the name of various claims to certainty. The Holocaust. The Crusades. Terrorism of all sorts.  In an article assigned for a recent class, Simon Critchley writes that “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty. Insisting on certainty leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.”

Nowhere is certainty more problematic than in the life of faith. As poet Christian Wiman said in a recent interview,wiman

Doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can’t be separated. I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all of this energy that’s going on, all of these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief, I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.

If my own experiences and struggles with faith are at all typical, Wiman is on to something. There are times when I find it very difficult to tell the difference between faith in God and faith in a figment of my imagination. This is why, as I wrote last Friday, a person of faith can learn a lot from atheism.

Evangelical Atheism

This is not an unusual idea. For centuries, voices from within the camp of Christianity have called for something sounding very close to atheism. eckhartMeister Eckhart wrote that “We pray to God in order to be free of God,” from his prison cell Dietrich Bonhoeffer predicted that the future of faith would be found in a “Religionless Christianity,” and Simone Weil wrote that “the absence of God is the most marvelous testimony of perfect love.”

In each of these instances, the person of faith is asked to move beyond the traditional notion of God as something outside ourselves, a picture of the divine that for many has lost its meaning. I often find myself thinking, as I listen to various descriptions of God being thrown around in different venues, that “if that was what God amounted to, I would be an atheist.” This is where the passage from Christian Wiman quoted earlier comes in. The only way for faith to evolve and take new forms is for old models and paradigms to change. As Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss, “This is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.”paradigm-shift

This can be very disconcerting, because old paradigms change only with great difficulty. When life gets even more challenging than usual, the person of faith is often tempted to fall back on “tried and true” methods of getting the divine’s attention. More prayer, more church attendance—but there comes a time when such methods are regularly met with deafening silence. This silence can lead either to a deepening crisis of faith or an entirely new faith altogether, a new faith that is infused with healthy doubt, and an openness to possibilities from sources that one never even considered as places where truth might reside. Wiman again:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.

A grownup faith is one that is both strong enough to look for God in places that have traditionally been off-limits and honest enough to realize that certainty is the greatest threat to faith of all.

One of the traditionally strongest arguments from atheists against belief in God is particularly effective against a supposed God who lives outside the reach of human investigation, effectively immune from supporting evidence and critical argumentation. When non-theists mock disagreements among religious folks as simply being various competitions about whose imaginary friend is better, it is this sort of God whose existence is being questioned. immanenceAn evolving faith, however, tends to move from the “out there” model to the “right here” model when looking for the divine. If God’s immanence is at least as important as God’s transcendence, then we should expect to find glimmers and traces of the divine in the most mundane features of reality, although it takes a great deal of patience and imagination to perceive these traces. Persons of all faiths, in moments of doubt and uncertainty, can honestly share their faith experiences without the burden and bondage of doctrine and dogma, since in the trenches of faith, pristinely certain articles of faith tend to be irrelevant and meaningless. And atheists can join in the conversation, because trying to live a life of meaning and purpose without a safety net is a challenge for all of us, regardless of whether God is or is not a piece of the puzzle.evaporating-dew

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions. Christian Wiman

Evangelical Atheism

A couple of weeks from now I’ll be starting a new unit in my General Ethics classes with fifty juniors and seniors: Does ethics have anything to do with God? pc-catholicOn a Catholic college campus, where a significant portion of the students are products of many years of parochial school education, this is a big issue. Religious folks have been known to argue that the only possible reliable foundation for moral absolutes is belief in God, implying either implicitly or explicitly that atheistic non-believers lack any reason to be moral. Yet my students know either intuitively or through personal experience that it is entirely possible for a dedicated atheist to be a highly moral person. How does that work?

I have been a person of faith, sometimes reluctantly, for my whole life—the very existence of this blog is due to my continuing commitment to grappling with issues of faith in writing. Yet I have always been fascinated by atheism. Four years ago, my second blog post ever used Simone Weil’s comment that “Atheism is a purification” as a jumping off point, imagining how a season of atheism might be a healthy exercise for a person of faith.

A Practicing Atheist


Daniel Dennett

Several years ago when I was chair of our philosophy department I was responsible for the two-semester capstone seminar required of all our senior majors. Each year during the summer I would send the rising senior majors a list of three or four possible topics to spend the fall semester working on—one year they chose “Philosophy of Religion,” not surprising since half of the eighteen seniors were Catholic seminarians (required by the diocese to major in philosophy in their undergraduate years). Some of the seniors, particularly the seminarians, were probably surprised to see texts from avowed atheists such as Sigmund Freud, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins on the semester syllabus, but as a new professor in the theology department commented at the time, such works are “good for them” (the seminarians) to grapple with. Atheists, after all, struggle with the same issues as theists—they just do it a bit differently.

Last Sunday’s early morning episode of “On Being” with Krista Tippett on our local NPR station was an hour-long discussion of these very issues. The show was a repeat of a 2012 interview with Alain de Botton. De Botton is trained as a philosopher, but is best known as a sort of Renaissance man whose popular books include The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and Religion for Atheists. I knew I was going to enjoy the interview when it began with the following from de Botton: The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether it is true.

Alain de Botton and the School of Life

De Botton was raised in “a devoutly atheist family,” a Jewish family fully aware of the enormous suffering Jews had suffered historically and particularly in tdevout-atheisthe twentieth century, often in the name of religion. De Botton experienced in early adulthood what he described a “crisis of faithlessness,” during which he learned that there were a number of things tangentially associated with religion, including music, art, architecture, and moral guidance, that he found “incredibly interesting, fascinating, beautiful, [and] inspiring.” What’s an atheist to do?

De Botton’s story is a familiar one, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning God. While stories of people who were raised in a religious household and became atheists as adults, as well as of people raised as atheists who became religious believers as adults, are out there, the more common story is of those who are so shaped by their early years that they find it impossible, in spite of good reasons to do so, to radically change that framework as adults. De Botton occasionally implies that he wishes he could become a theist—but if there is something like a “religious gene,” he is lacking it. Knowing that the foundation of religious belief for many people is a feeling or experience, he notes that

I’ve not had this feeling . . . all I can report is that many of these bits of religion do impact me greatly. If I was different, I would be a believer, is all I can say. I can only speak from a non-believing position . . . I really don’t feel a belief in a divine being is something that rings bells with me. I’m happy to be in the atheist box, but it’s a much broader box than we might have allowed for.

The power of how one is raised cannot be overestimated. De Botton has no more natural access to what it is like to be a person of faith than I, raised in an all-encompassing religious atmosphere, can pretend to know what it would be like to frame important issues as an atheist would.

And yet, de Botton continues, atheists and persons of faith have much in common. Neither atheists nor theists are necessarily happy to hear this—each side is taught that the other is the enemy, a phenomenon encouraged by popular writers from the atheist camp such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam De Botton reports that he is occasionally accused in emails or print of having “betrayed atheism,” professing that “I didn’t know that’s what atheism was supposed to be about, being mean to religion . . . I think there’s an image of the fierce atheist who has faith in science and ridicules all religious moments and religious impulses. I couldn’t be further from that point of view.” Instead, he argues, religion has offered and continues to offer too much of importance to be rejected out of hand even if one is an atheist.reality-and-religion

An awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them . . . I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment . . . And suddenly, that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

Even if one sets arguments awrestlingbout the existence and nature of God as well as speculation about what happens after we die aside, religion has much to offer even to the most secular person. “Religion is this long tradition of deep thinking and wrestling with the complexity of the human condition as much as about the nature of God.” How then should we live? is a human question, not a religious question. We do not come into the world knowing how to navigate the minefield of human existence—de Botton is more than happy to poach on the ideas offered by religion, just as religions have “hoovered up” the best that the secular world has to offer since the beginning. De Botton’s “School of Life,” now situated in many cities across the globe, “picks up on the idea that we need guidance, that learning how to live is not something we just do spontaneously.” At this thoroughly secular school one will hear sermons, experience what feels all the world like liturgy, and even perhaps sing some hymns, all intended to be in service to human needs that are far deeper than what religion  one belongs to (if any).  As Krista Tippett says in the interview, “What I see you doing is carving out what has been traditionally, religiously called ‘sacred space’ in secular culture.”evangelical-atheism

Toward the end of the interview, Tippett also comments that “I do feel that another religious and particularly Christian impulse that you are taking up as an atheist is that of being evangelical, which is about spreading the good news that you’ve discovered.” The good news is that “there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars we may differ about what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.” Just as many other supposedly incompatible binaries—Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, and more—atheists and religious folks need not be at permanent odds with each other. Each of us is human, sharing the same needs, hopes, and dreams that all human beings possess, no matter how we package them.

Horton in a Nutshell

geahDr. Seuss was a regular in our house when my sons were young—my thirty-something sons still occasionally mention how much they both loved Green Eggs and Ham in particular. Theodor Geisel’s creatively madcap work has occasionally made it into this blog over the past four years, from the star-bellied Sneetches in an early essay on heresy

Dr. Seuss and Heresy

to the environmentally-minded Lorax during an on-campus controversy over the demise of a 150-year-old oak this past summer.

I Speak for the Trees

The most recent Dr. Seuss classic to cross my radar screen involves a gentle elephant who believes that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” a couple of kangaroos with bad attitudes, and other jungle animals dedicated to making the elephant’s life difficult. Early last summer someone at a conference Jeanne was attending told her that she should read Horton Hears a Who; by late summer a large orange-covered copy had arrived at our house. I paid no attention to it until a couple of weeks ago.nutshell

As I drove across town headed for minor oral surgery (a phrase that has turned out to be oxymoronic), I listened to an interview on Boston Public Radio with Ian McEwan, one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

Ian McEwan on Boston Public Radio

McEwan was in town on a book tour promoting his new novel, Nutshell. On the basis of the interview, I ordered the book on Amazon as soon as I got home. It is a reworking of Hamlet with a few twists, including that it is narrated by an unborn child hanging upside-down in its mother’s uterus. A la Hamlet, the unborn child knows that his mother is having an affair with its uncle and that they are plotting to kill its father. The fetus is urbane, sophisticated, listens to music and podcasts vicariously through its mother, has developed a connoisseur’s picky tastes in wine, and wonders whether there is life after the uterus. This is going to be fun.

Toward the end of the segment, the two interviewers asked McEwan to read a passage from Nutshell.

Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies to be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some: courtship among the 18th century gentry, life beneath a sail, talking rabbits, sculpted hares, fat people in oils, dog portraits, horse portraits, portraits of aristocrats, reclining nudes, nativities by the millions, and crucifixions, assumptions, bowls of fruit, flowers in vases, and Dutch bread and cheese, with or without a knife on the side. Some give themselves in prose merely to the self. In science, too, one dedicates his life to an Albanian snail, another to a virus. Darwin gave eight years to barnacles, and in wise later life, to earthworms. The Higgs Bosun, a tiny thing, perhaps not even a thing, is the lifetime’s pursuit of thousands. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things? And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. So, why not be an owl poet?horton

In the wonderfully random way that things often connect together, this passage made me think of the book that had been laying on our coffee table for the last couple of weeks: Horton Hears a Who.

Horton the Elephant, while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. He comes to realize that the voice is coming from a small person who lives on the dust speck; indeed, the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, the home of microscopic creatures called Whos. the-whosThe Whos know that they are vulnerable and exposed to possible harm in a dangerous world; the mayor of Whoville asks Horton for protection, which Horton happily agrees to provide. He places the Who-planet on a clover that he proceeds to carry in his trunk as carefully as a waiter carrying a tray of crystal champagne glasses. Horton has come to the same realization as the pre-born narrator of Nutshell: Each existing thing is the center of its own universe of interests, desires, and concerns—but each existing thing is “bound in a nutshell,” “just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

The apparent insignificance of human existence prompted seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal to write that The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Yet in Psalm 139 we are told that

You have formed my inward parts;

You have formed me in my mother’s womb . . .

My frame was not hidden from you,

When I was made in secret

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

As both Horton and McEwan’s upside-down narrator realize, everything is at the same time both insignificant and unique. The challenge is to keep both of these in mind simultaneously.success

As Horton’s story proceeds, his fellow jungle animals refuse to believe that the Whos exist, believing rather that Horton is nuts. In scenes reminiscent of grade school playgrounds, various animals ridicule Horton, eventually managing to steal his Who-bearing clover and hide it from him in a large field of clovers. After a long search, Horton rescues the frightened and shaken Whos; at his prompting, they finally prove their existence to the still skeptical jungle animals by making as much collective noise as possible until everyone can hear them. Now convinced of the Whos’ existence, all the animals vow to help Horton protect the tiny community.

Each of us is both insignificant and infinitely precious, no matter what current circumstances might indicate. From within the confines of his mother’s womb, McEwan’s narrator gains insights into a world he’s not sure he will ever reach. The Whos, upon discovering just how vulnerable and fragile their world is, are discovered by someone greater than themselves, someone willing to put himself on the line again and again to preserve their special existence. It’s a wonderful retelling of a story that generations have embraced. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” after all.a-persons-a-person

It’s Not a Holy Relic!

Amadeusmov[1]In Milos Forman’s 1984 Academy Award winning film Amadeus, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, played by Jeffrey Jones of Ferris Buehler’s Day Off fame, is most of the time an enlightened ruler who makes his decisions after considering the advice of his cabinet entourage who accompany him wherever he goes. Yet he is an Emperor, after all, so there is often uncertainty about how to interact with this very powerful “first among equals.” Those who enter the Emperor’s presence often drop to their knees and kiss his hand, to which (after an appropriate few seconds of kissing) the Emperor often responds by withdrawing his hand and saying “Please, please! It’s not a holy relic!” supported by the sycophantic chuckles of his surrounding posse.

The Emperor is right—his hand isn’t a holy relic—but it also isn’t just a hand. When does a normal, everyday object become something more? When does the mundane become something special? Examples and possible answers abound. I have spent my professional life as a non-Catholic teaching at Catholic educational institutions of higher learning, so have had frequent exposure to various aspects of the holy relic racket. I call it that because the whole idea of holy relics messes with my Protestant sensibilities, even though in the church of my youth we treated the Bible, which appears to be a mere book, with a reverence not to be outdone by the most dedicated Catholic holy relic aficionado. gillespie_kathy_-_st._anthony_s_swing_with_xw_roof_by_lake_1_[1]I remember, for instance, one summer  when my cousin got turned in to the Bible camp authorities for moving a Bible from the seat of a glider swing and placing it on the grass nearby so he and I could operate the glider. I still remember the tone of voice with which the owner of the Bible yelled “YOU PUT THE WORD OF GOD ON THE GROUND!!!” before making a beeline for the director’s office.

Other faith traditions cast a much wider net when considering what might be a holy relic. I was reminded of this just a couple of days ago as I was reading the final entries in an intellectual notebook submitted by one of the students in my Honors colloquium entitled Tucson_000000798345[1]“Beauty and Violence” two or three semesters ago (I will be repeating it this spring). One of the continuing themes of this colloquium was how to have a dynamic and mature faith in the face of all sorts of features of the world we live in that threaten to make such a faith impossible. It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying classes I have ever taught for many reasons, largely because I had the opportunity to facilitate the often uncomfortable but always fruitful process of challenging one’s beliefs with a dozen honors juniors and seniors. One of these students put it best during her oral exam at the end of the semester when she said “This class really messed me up!—in a good way.”My course syllabi have always included that “my job is not to tell you what to think—it’s to get you to think.” In addition to that I will now include “my job is to mess you up—in a good way.”

The author of the intellectual notebook in question revealed herself early on in the semester, both in writing and in class, as a “devout Catholic.” Yet I could detect from the start that she had both the courage and the willingness to press her faith boundaries, which she did regularly in all sorts of ways. Santa_Croce_in_Gerusalemme[1]So I was a bit disappointed when in one of her last entries she described in some detail a visit to a holy relic site while studying abroad in Rome last spring.

I had the chance to visit Santa Croce in Gerusalemme where my class and I saw several Holy relics. Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, was sent to Jerusalem to bring back the holy relics of the passion of the Christ. She found parts of the cross that Jesus was crucified on but she wasn’t exactly sure which cross was His. Saint Helena brought the crosses to an old, sick woman and placed each cross on top of her to see if she could identify the cross of Jesus. The woman was suddenly cured by the third cross. This cross now lies in Santa Croce as the cross of Jesus Christ along with several other holy relics such as PHOTO-Rome-Crx-4[1]the finger of St. Thomas which was placed in the wounds of the risen Christ, two thorns from Jesus’ crown, a nail, and a nameplate which was nailed to the cross stating “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Please, I thought. Are you fucking kidding me? How can anyone take any of this seriously? I was reminded of Martin Luther, an extremely vocal critic of the relic racket, who reportedly said that there were enough pieces of the true cross of Christ in the Europe of his day to have exhausted a German forest.

I was somewhat pleased to read further and discover that my student apparently had not needed to take my colloquium to at least think a little bit critically.

How much of these stories do I believe 100% to be true?  . . . Who wrote this story down and why should they be a credible source?  . . . Maybe someone planted all of these relics. Maybe they knew that as human beings we need concrete proof to believe. Maybe it was God planting these relics for us to find as the ultimate concrete proof that Jesus is the messiah—I don’t know. I don’t know.

Well I know, I thought. This stuff is all bullshit. I grew out of the idea that the Bible is a holy relic and the inerrant Word of God. You’ll grow out of this.

My student concluded her notebook reflection with this:

What I do know is that there was a feeling that came across me that is very hard to describe. There was a silence amongst all of us in the small room of Santa Croce as if the Holy Spirit was present right in front of our eyes. My heart dropped. I knew I was breathing but did not feel like I was in control of my breaths. I was frozen and soon felt a rush come over me like I wanted to cry. I did not ask myself “Is this real?” I knew it was real. This must have been my faith taking control of my body. It was exciting. I cannot say whether the historical facts of what I learned that day are accurate or not. It doesn’t matter, because I took away more than just a history lesson. I believe this is what the Holy Spirit wanted when guiding the writings of the gospel—a personal and unique experience.

In my comments I wrote “This is a very powerful paragraph, describing what my family would call a ‘Big Bird moment.’ This is something to remember and embrace. Don’t ever forget it.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus compares the activity of the Spirit to the wind, which “blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” IMG_4527[1]There is a wonderful, holy randomness to all of this, unpredictable so that it cannot be packaged or formalized, and so powerful that it cannot be mistaken or forgotten. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “the earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” Sacredness infuses everything, and anything can become a direct channel of the divine wind. Even random pieces of wood and bone.

Two Plus Two Makes Four

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

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

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

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

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerance on Steroids

What happens when a perfectly good virtue gets turned into not only the most important virtue, but in many cases the only virtue? I have come face to face with this question in the signpostsearly weeks of this semester with fifty juniors and seniors in two ethics classes. I chose this past summer to organize my General Ethics course, usually a tour of several of the notable moral theories in the Western philosophical tradition (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Sartre, etc.) that are then applied to the details of human experience, by starting instead with those messy details themselves. We find ourselves in a world of competing religious, moral, and political claims shouting at each other across various divides, claims that are both incompatible with each other and resistant to compromise. How in the midst of diverse perspectives that too often lead to violence are we to find a place of stability from which to plot the way forward?

I have discovered both from early class discussion and student writing reflections what I suspected—most of my young adult students have been taught for as long as they can remember that the “go-to” virtue that must be cultivated in order to wend one’s way through the minefield of incompatible beliefs and commitmaristotleents is tolerance. It’s interesting that the granddaddy of virtue ethics, Aristotle, did not include tolerance in any of his lists of virtues—apparently such a virtue was not particularly useful in fourth century BC Athens. Tolerance is also rejected by many contemporary people as a sign of weakness, of lacking commitment to one’s beliefs, and of a willingness to compromise too quickly. But for many in our culture, particularly those who might consider themselves as “liberal” in some sense, tolerance is the proposed remedy for many of the things that ail us.

Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with tolerance as a virtue. As a matter of fact, it probably plays as regular a role in my life on a daily basis as any virtue you could name. My concern about tolerance arises from intimate facebookfamiliarity with how it often works in my own life. When I remove myself from an email list on campus because I’m sick to death of being inundated with what I consider to be the often petty concerns of my colleagues, it feels like tolerance. “Let them continue emailing about anything they want,” I think. “I just don’t want to be part of it.” When a Facebook conversation wanders into areas that I find either offensive or seriously different-strokesmisguided, my tendency is to withdraw from the conversation rather than insert my concerns. Tolerant, right? Not really.

I find in my own life, and I suspect I’m not unusual or unique in this, that “tolerance” is an umbrella term for “whatever.” “Different strokes for different folks.” “I disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” (although I almost certainly wouldn’t). In other words, one of the best safeguards against being judgmental and ethnocentric, a check against our natural human tendency to negatively judge those who believe, think, and act differently than we do simply because they are believing, thinking, and acting differently than we do, turns into a placeholder for laziness and a reticence to engage even with what one most strongly disagrees with. When writing on topics related to diversity and difference, my students regularly include phrases such as “we all just need to accept people as they are” and “the world would be a better place if everyone would simply be more tolerant of differences.” Tolerance is not only the first virtue that gets mentioned in class discussion and assignments, but is often the only virtue in play. But is tolerance suitable as the primary virtue in a moral framework or ethic? And what if there are some things that must not be tolerated?

herodotusA brief but familiar story from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus provides a useful jumping off point for asking uncomfortable questions about tolerance. In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of King Darius of Persia, a (somewhat) enlightened ruler who was fascinated by the various customs of the different groups of people from the far-flung reaches of his empire who were part of his extended court. Darius noted, for instance, that two different groups of people—the Greeks and the Callatians (a tribe of people from what is now the Indian peninsula)—had strikingly different methods of dealing with the body of a person who died in their community. The Greek practice when someone died was to burn the dead body, while the Callatian practice was to eat the dead body.

Intrigued, Darius first asked representatives of the Greek community what he would have to pay or give them, what honors he would have to bestow on them, so that the next time someone died in their community they would eat the dead body instead of burning it, as was their custom. Appalled, the Greek representatives told Darius that no amount of riches or honors could possibly convince them to do such a horrible and immoral thing. Darius also asked a similar question of the Callatians—could I convince you to burn the next dead body you have to deal with in your community rather than eating it, as is your custom? Hell no! the Callatians said, insisting that nothing could convince them to do such a disgusting and immoral thing. Herodotus’s conclusion? callatians“Custom is king.” What a person or group of people considers to be “right” or “moral” is what they are accustomed to, the practices of their family, their community, or their culture that they have been taught since their youth. Humans nature causes us not only to embrace what we are most familiar with as morally right, but also to assume that it is right for everyone.

If “custom is king” and moral values are culturally defined, then the most important attitude to cultivate, the habit most likely to put up a firewall against unwarranted projection of one’s parochial practices and values on others, is undoubtedly tolerance. As Herodotus’ story is intended to illustrate, the best answer to the question “Who is right about the best way to dispose of a dead body—the Greeks or the Callatians?” is “Both, within the parameters of their culture.” Furthermore, there is no way to step outside one’s own culturally defined moral stance and be “objective.” There is no such objective standpoint. The only proper response to differences between groups, or perhaps even between individuals, is tolerance—the habit of accepting differences without judgment.tolerance

The problem, as a student quickly pointed out in each section of my ethics course, is that tolerance as an exclusive or primary virtue is not sufficient to account for many of our strongest moral intuitions. What if, for instance, the difference is about something more serious than the difference between eating or burning a dead body? What if the difference is between a culture that practices female circumcision and our culture that does not? Is tolerance appropriate in this instance? Are we to say “wow, I’m glad I don’t live in that culture, but for them that practice is morally right”? If our intuitions say that some practices cannot be tolerated, no matter what cultures adopt them, is this because our intuitions have been shaped by our own culture or because our intuitions are resonating with a moral absolute that transcends cultural differences?moral-values

Of such questions a great General Ethics class is made. But it appears that if we raise tolerance to primary virtue status, we at the same time take any commitment to moral principles that transcend cultural differences off the table. And that may not be a price worth paying. As I told my students the other day, a moral theory that does not account for our strongest moral intuitions is like trying to cover a queen-size mattress with a twin-size fitted sheet. It covers some of what needs to be covered, but not all of it. I, for one, am not ready to tolerate a theory like that.

Invading the Impossible

A couple of Sundays ago the gospel reading from Luke prompted our rector and my friend Mitch to suggest that Jesus is not someone you would ever want to invite to dinner. Why? Because Jesus’ behavior and the stories he told indicate that he had little interest in or patience with the way things are “supposed to be done.” For instance, he suggests that when you throw a dinner party, everyone is welcomeyou should not invite your best friends and closest family, the people who you know and love the most and whose presence is guaranteed to make the evening a success (they also are the people who are likely to extend a return invitation to you in the future). Rather, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind . . . because they cannot repay you.” In Providence, and I suspect in many locations, it has seemed over this past summer that every busy intersection has a person or two standing with a container and a homemade sign that says something like “Homeless—anything helps. God bless you.” There has been a lot of chatter in various places about where all these people came from, are they really homeless or is this actually an organized scam, and so on. Jesus not only would not ask those questions, homelessbut he would also bring all of these folks along to your house for a meal if you invite him to dinner. So think carefully before you invite him—there’s no telling what he might do or say.

A few days later at the opening of the semester mass that also officially kicked off my college’s 100th anniversary year, the gospel for the day was from earlier in Luke. This time Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a high fever, Jesus heals her, “and immediately she arose and served them.” The word gets around town, of course, that the healing man is here and as evening falls everyone with anything wrong with them either makes their way or is brought to Jesus. Throughout the night he heals them all. As one might expect, he’s exhausted by the time morning arrives and, as introverts will do, “he departed and went into a deserted place.” But showing a typical lack of respect for an introvert’s need for solitude and battery recharging, “the crowd sought him and came to him, and tried to keep him from leaving them.” Just a normal twenty-four hours in the life of the Son of God.

So what are we to make of such stories if one professes to be a follower of Jesus and to at least be on the fringes of Christianity? My natural and immediate reaction from my earliest years has always been twofold. First, this guy was strange. Second, his being both human and divine equipped him to do stuff that normal human beings can’t do. Neither of those reactions is profound or unusual; it’s difficult to know what one is supposed to make of the gospel stories, particularly if they are intended to provide us with guidance for how to live a human life. global awakeningsBut not long ago I came across an “out of left field” observation about Jesus in action that jerked me up short.

Jeanne spent three weeks in June at an extended conference and workshop in Pennsylvania at a place called “Global Awakenings,” returning with much to be thankful for and much to share. All of the speakers and teachers she spent the weeks with can be listened to on-line, so over the summer I spent a good deal of time listening to and becoming acquainted with what these folks are up to. I’ve enjoyed and learned a great deal from my listening, but I resonated particularly with one fellow named Bill JohnsonBill Johnson. A few days after we listened together to one of his talks, Jeanne said “I have something from one of Bill’s books that I want to read to you.” Here’s what she read:

Jesus could not heal the sick. Neither could he deliver the tormented from demons or raise the dead. To believe otherwise is to ignore what he said about himself, and more importantly, to miss the purpose of his self-imposed restriction to live as a man. Jesus said of himself, “the Son can do nothing.” He had no supernatural capabilities whatsoever. He chose to live with the same limitations that man would face once he was redeemed. He made that point over and over again. Jesus became the model for all who would embrace the invitation to invade the impossible in his name. He performed miracles, signs, and wonders as a man in right relationship to God . . . Johnsons booknot as God. If he performed miracles because he was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if he did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue his lifestyle. Recapturing this simple truth changes everything.

“Wow!” I said—“Holy shit!” I thought—“That’s really out there.” One of several endorsements at the beginning of the book describes the author, Bill Johnson, as “one of the nicest persons I know, and one of the most dangerous.” That’s not an overstatement. Because if what he writes about Jesus is true, then there is no place for those who profess to follow Jesus to hide.

One of the great theological and doctrinal debates in the early Christian church had to do, not surprisingly, with how we are supposed to understand Jesus. Human? God? Both? The winner in the debate, as embedded in the Nicene Creed that Christians in many churches recite every week, was “Both.” Which is, of course, very confusing. Various groups have tended to emphasize one aspect over the other ever since. nicene creedMy own tendency has always been to embrace the human side of Jesus rather than divinity, a tendency that over the past several years has evolved into a strong resonance with incarnation, the divine choice to be in the world in human form. I’m convinced that this was not a one-time deal. God continues to be in the world in human form, in you and in me. The passage from Bill Johnson’s book resonates fully with a strong embrace of incarnation. So far so good.

But as many, I tend to waffle when it comes to the miracles of Jesus. Amazing things happen in his wake everywhere he goes; all he has to do is show up. It’s easy simply to say “Well of course—he was the Son of God.” Bill Johnson’s argument is controversial, first and foremost, because it takes this “out” off the table. His argument also makes a lot of sense—it’s just that most followers of Jesus, including me, aren’t ready to hear it. AthanasiusAthanasius provocatively once said that “God became man so that man might become God,” exactly what Bill Johnson is arguing. Jesus is an example and model of what a human being attuned to the divine is like, of what is possible for those of us who take our faith seriously. The idea of incarnation, of God working in the world in and through human beings, is a beautiful one—but it is also intensely challenging. Jesus told his followers that they would do greater things than he did, and that includes us. Are we sure that we are ready to “invade the impossible”?