Category Archives: love

Christians in the Public Square

At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? This was the question I was asked to respond to in a 500-1000 word essay for an online publication three or four weeks ago. To get my thought process going, I sent the question to a couple of Facebook groups I am part of to get their input–I wrote last week about their responses as well as my preliminary thoughts about the question.

It’s the Message, Stupid!cross and flag

I found the final draft challenging to finish–such a topic in 500-1000 words is similar to teaching the history of the French Revolution in fifty minutes (which I have done a few times). Yesterday was my deadline–here’s what I submitted (minus the pictures).

I recently reconnected on Facebook with a guy who was my best friend during a year of Bible school in my late teens—we had not been in touch for four decades. During an online conversation about some political/social issue, I mentioned that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “I’m a conservative because I’m a Christian.” Neither of us, wisely I think, pursued the matter further.

Answering the question “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” requires first thinking about “the Christian message” itself. capitalismAs my exchange with my friend on Facebook shows, well-meaning people of Christian faith can disagree sharply about the implications of their faith as it is lived in the real world on a daily basis. For instance, Susan might be thoroughly confused about how a professing Christian like Jim can whole-heartedly and full-throatedly worship at the altar of American capitalism despite the devastation it leaves in its wake for millions of our fellow citizens, while Jim is just as confused about how a professing Christian like Susan can be pro-choice and completely supportive of same-sex unions. As progressive Christians and conservative Christians go to war in the public square over whose beliefs and principles are more faithful to the true “Christian message,” progressive vs conservativewe are an offense and stumbling block to those who do not claim to be Christian. And Jesus weeps.

The parables and stories of Jesus consistently stress a central feature of faith that contemporary Christians tend to forget or ignore—the heart of Christianity is subtle, secret, and hidden. Followers of Jesus are likened to yeast and salt, the publican’s private petition for mercy is raised above the Pharisee’s public pronouncements of righteousness, we are told to pray alone behind closed doors to our Father who is in secret, and Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity. The secret of lived Christian faith is that it is a way of life, not a set of principles or doctrines. Nor is it a social or political agenda. Given that Christianity is a way of life energized by love, it is to be expected that individual Christians will be as unique and various as human beings themselves are.

micahOne way of describing Christianity as a way of life begins with the prophet Micah’s directive to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” joined with Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But justice, mercy, humility and love incorporated in a human life are likely to look quite different depending on who the person is. We are not provided with ways to judge which manner of lived Christian faith is more faithful than another to the “Christian message,” because faith is always interior. I am the product of a conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical Baptist upbringing, so I often wonder how I came to be as politically and socially liberal on most issues as I am, particularly since people like my friend from Bible school and many of my relatives are products of conservative Christianity and remain closely aligned with its accompanying leanings on political and social issues. My faith journey has been informed by many factors over several decades, including many that I did not choose. I have no reason to believe that I have now arrived at a place where my ever-evolving understanding of what the Lord requires of me is more faithful to the “Christian message” than the often very different understanding my brothers and sisters in faith share whose histories and journeys are very different from mine.flag and bible

The ever-present danger of Christian political advocacy is that, due to the necessarily public nature of such advocacy, it is very possible for the advocate to mistake a set of political positions or the elements of a social agenda as necessary and universal hallmarks of being truly Christian. It is very easy for the advocate to confuse her or his own purposes and agendas for the message of Christ. The “true message” of Christianity then quickly becomes something to be argued about in the public arena by persons equally convinced that their own agenda best matches up to the demands of Christian faith, entirely undermining the description of early Christians in the Book of Acts as remarkable because of how much they loved each other. The best firewall against this is to always keep in mind that the “message of Christianity” is the lives lived by those persons who profess the Christian faith in their daily private and public lives. christian communityChristianity is a way of life that is not reducible without distortion to a political or social agenda. We are the Christian message.

By all means Christians should be politically active—this is both a right and privilege of citizenship. But do not give the impression or be under the delusion that the right sort of political positions or social policies are what Christianity amounts to. I recommend that Christians distinguish carefully between Christian political advocacy and Political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. The former is to be avoided at all costs, as no person should understand herself or himself as the spokesperson for all Christians or for God. I highly recommend the latter; if my Christian faith is serious, it will have a daily and direct impact on how I engage with others and my society. Do not advocate in the name of Christianity, but advocate as the person that you have become because of your Christian faith.

Confessions of an Ocean-Hater

As I’m reviewing various posts for a current large writing project, I came across a reflection on beauty from a couple of years ago that I had forgotten about. It all starts with cognitive dissonance–I live in the Ocean State and I don’t like the ocean.

The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper. I cannot quite make it out.  Annie Dillard

Windows Live Photo Gallery WallpaperI live in the Ocean State. I really don’t like the ocean. Yet another opportunity for cognitive dissonance—what else is new? The strange thing is that this has turned out to be an ocean summer for me. First, a week early in June at a Benedictine hermitage on a steep mountain overlooking Big Sur and the vast Pacific Ocean (and I mean vast). Day after day of not being able to clearly distinguish the horizon between the brilliant blue sky and the equally brilliant blue ocean (when the hermitage was not in the clouds, that is). 041Then during Jeanne’s and my twenty-fifth anniversary week in July, we checked one thing off our bucket list and went on a whale watching expedition out of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fortunately one whale decided that the ninety-five plus degree weather was not a reason to stay submerged and showed off for our boat for forty-five minutes. Finally, Jeanne and I spent some time visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Florida in August. 100_1931They love the beach, so I found myself doing ocean-related things and meeting ocean-related creatures once again.

I am well aware that many people, including perhaps a number of you reading this blog post are ocean worshippers and can’t think of anything more attractive, peaceful and fulfilling than a day either at an ocean beach or on a boat on the ocean. I’m not a member of your club. Some look at or experience the ocean and are struck by feelings of peace and beauty. The ocean is indeed beautiful, but for me its beauty speaks of power, vastness, and a certain amount of fear. During the week in June that I woke up every morning with the Pacific at my feet, I always felt a bit tense and edgy, as if I was in danger of being swallowed up. The beauty of the ocean puts some people in a peaceful place, but it makes me nervous. As she often does, Simone Weil nails this:

images[1]What is more beautiful than the effect of gravity on sea waves as they flow in ever-changing folds, or the almost eternal folds of the mountains? The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that ships are sometimes wrecked. On the contrary this adds to its beauty.

Immanuel Kant had this tension in mind when he distinguished in his philosophy between the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” The Beautiful refers to things that are, well, beautiful—Wanderer[1]in the sense that they produce aesthetic pleasure and feelings of happiness. Things that are Sublime can also be beautiful, but tend to overwhelm us, disturb us, or even frighten us. The Sublime is “awesome” and “terrible” in the original senses of these words—it inspires awe and terror. Are you attracted and repelled by the same thing or experience? Do you consider something to be both beautiful and terrifying in its awesome, often destructive power? That’s the Sublime—and that’s how the ocean impacts me. It is both beautiful and disturbing, attractive and frightening. The ocean is sublime.

Just so that you ocean-lovers out there don’t think I’m nuts, the authors of the Old Testament Psalms agree with me. Over and over again, the Psalmist reminds us of the awesome power and terror of the sea; even more provocatively, these reflections are frequently used as a bridge to talking about God, the ultimate example of sublimity. Sometimes the Psalmist describes the power of the sea, assuring us that God’s power is even greater. Psalm 33 tells us, for instance, that “God collects the waves of the ocean; and collects the waves of the sea,” in control of even the most terrifying force imaginable. This can be source of comfort–rough-seas[1]

Psalm 46—God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand in time of distress, so we shall not fear though the earth should rock, though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea, even though its waters rage and foam, even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.

or of a petition for rescue from the often ocean-like overwhelming power of human reality–

Psalm 69—Save me from the waters of the deep lest the waves overwhelm me. Do not let the deep engulf me, nor death close its mouth on me.

Of most interest is when the Psalmist begins to attribute the very sublime, fearsome aspects of the ocean directly to God.

tsunami[1]Psalm 42—Deep is calling upon deep, in the roar of waters; your torrents and all your waves swept over me.

It is one thing to seek divine protection from the terrible and awful contingencies of human experience; it is another to attribute that very terrible and awful beauty to the divine itself. If what is greater than me is the epitome of the sublime, meaning that it not only is inexpressibly beautiful but also is unpredictable and terrifying, how do I respond? Is it possible for a mere, non-sublime human being to be in relationship with something like that?

If I am disturbed and made nervous by the ocean, there is a simple solution—stay away from the ocean. Good advice, but for me at least similar advice does not work concerning God. I’ve described myself at times as “God-obsessed” (as the poet Novalis once described Spinoza), meaning that no matter how unpredictable and disturbing the divine might be, I can’t turn away. That being the case, I find the following simple observation from Rowan Williams helpful: “If you want to swim, you must begin to understand the sea.” The Jewish mystics go so far as to suggest that if God is like the ocean, we are the waves on that ocean. That’s a bit esoteric for my taste, but the point is clear—055God invites an intimacy so close that at times the horizon between the divine and human becomes as blurry as the horizon between the ocean and sky at Big Sur. And isn’t that the promise of incarnation—the fusion of divinity and humanity?

The older I get, the more time I spend trying to stay afloat in the divine sea, the more I am convinced that this is not a problem to be solved or an issue to be sorted out. It is rather something to be lived. I agree with the author of Psalm 84—“My soul longs and thirsts for the living God.” And according to Antonie_saint[1]Antoine Saint-Exupery, that is a good start.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

It’s the Message, Stupid!

As he shepherded Bill Clinton’s successful run for the Presidency in the early 90s, James Carville famously used to keep the candidate and all campaign spokespersons on task bycarville reminding them frequently that “It’s the economy, stupid!” Don’t let yourselves get sidetracked by shiny objects along the way—keep focused and on message. If we keep reminding people about the state the economy is in and what a Clinton presidency will do about it, we’ll win. And they did. In politics, the message is everything, something that the dozen and a half or so persons seeking to win the 2016 Presidential election had better not forget. The person who best crafts a convincing message and sticks to it is likely to be our next President.

I was reminded of James Carville the other day when I received an email asking me to contribute a 500-1000 word essay to a national publication reflecting on the following question: At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? A timely question, to be sure—my essay (which I have yet to finish) will be one of four commissioned essays the magazine will be publishing in consecutive weekly editions this fall. A sure sign that I am inexorably being drawn into the social media orbit is what I did shortly after I agreed to write the essay—practical christiansI sent the question out to a couple of Facebook groups I am a member of and simply asked for ideas and opinions. And I got some.

Mind you, these Facebook groups were carefully selected; both are loose collections of persons similar to me. Members are self-identified persons of faith, politically liberal, and willing to press the traditional boundaries of Christian religious orthodoxy regardless of where the orthodoxy comes from. At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? Here are selected unedited comments and ideas:

  • When the advocacy stops helping others or putting others first. When the message is in conflict with the words of Jesus. church and stateWhen people feel excluded. When the message lacks love.
  • Honestly, to me, the message is compromised any time the focus is on the “letter” of the law – rather than the “spirit” of the law. And, (to me) one of Jesus’ main messages was to love God – it wasn’t to fear God – so, whenever fear (or control) is the foundation, it’s distorted. And, whenever a faith-path is used to deny people rights, suppress, etc. it’s a distortion. I had to really think about your question – because I don’t think Christianity or any other religion/faith path has a place in politics. People are free to believe & practice whatever works for them – but, I don’t like seeing or hearing it talked about – and, believe that laws should not be proposed or based on someone’s (or a particular groups) beliefs…
  • When the use of cherry picked scriptures are used to govern others and make them feel “less than” in any way.
  • Where it seeks to limit the liberty of others.

These suggestions seem eminently reasonable to me. We live in a society where church and state are deliberately and constitutionally kept separate, for the mutual protection of both. Religiously motivated advocacy runs afoul of theconstitution Constitution when it seeks to limit the freedoms of those who do not share the advocator’s religious principles. More specific to the question asked, most Christians would agree, I think, that at the heart of their faith is a spirit of love, of focusing on others rather than oneself, of concern for the least among us, and of inclusion. Policies advocated in the name of Christianity that violate this foundational spirit are a distortion of the Christian message.

Yet I have no doubt that I would have received radically different answers had I posed the question to a group of persons of faith who do not share myliberal progressive liberal/progressive convictions and commitments. Anyone with the slightest awareness of what is going on in the public sphere knows that political advocacy in the name of Christian principles happens on a daily basis that at least on the surface seeks to infringe on the freedoms of others, to draw lines of exclusion rather than blurring or erasing them, as well as ignoring or underemphasizing the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. In seeking for possible explanations for these apparent contradictions, I found the following observation from a Facebook friend to be particularly helpful.

  • People who disagree on “what is the Christian message” may also disagree whether it is compromised by political advocacy.

The philosopher in me resonates with this. The question as presented to me (and presented by me to my Facebook acquaintances) is misleading because it refers to “the Christian message” as if this message is something agreed upon by all person who profess the Christian faith. This obviously is not the case. christian messageSo before we start asking about how far political advocacy can go before it distorts the Christian message, we need first to figure out what that message is. Good luck.

I honestly despair of agreement between Christians concerning what the Christian message is. The message I was taught as a child is very different than the message with which I resonate now—yet I was just as much “Christian” then as I am now. What I was taught then is extraordinarily different from what I believe now. The bridge across this disconnect, and across the disconnect between Christians now, cannot be constructed from dogmas, principles, rules, or political action. My Christian faith prompts me to endorse policies and perspectives that directly conflict with the very policies and perspectives endorsed by fellow Christians whose understanding of the implications of their faith is entirely different from mine. So what is to be done?

On one level of understanding, I don’t know. But I am reminded of the story in the gospels of the Publican and the Pharisee. publican and phariseeThe Pharisee’s prayer was public, self-righteous, and confident in his conviction that he understood the mind of God. The Publican’s prayer was unobserved, private, and repentant. And guess whose prayer Jesus endorsed? Samuel Coleridge once wrote that Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The Christian who advocates politically should not be promoting a rule of law but rather exemplifying a way of life. I wonder whether Christian political advocacy might not be an oxymoron. Who I am, what I advocate and fight for in the public square, should not be a matter of principles and doctrines. It should rather be a natural reflection of the person my faith has caused me to become. And since faith works in radically individual ways, the expressions of lived Christian faith will be as various and unique as the persons within whom that faith has made a difference.

giraffe mother

Her Children Rise Up

Last Sunday I was lector at church for the first time in many weeks. The first reading from the Jewish Scriptures was from Proverbs and included a passage that brought tears to my eyes: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed.” These are the verses I used when dedicating my first book to my mother over twenty years ago, just a few years after she died far too young. I wrote about her about a year ago on this blog . . .

I learned something interesting about giraffes from one of my colleagues the other day. He was lecturing on Roman art and architecture; when discussing the Coliseum, he mentioned that Roman audiences loved to watch novelty battles—between a woman and a dwarf, or a dog and a porcupine for instance. The voracious Roman appetite for more and more exotic beasts and contests produced a variety of combatants from all corners of the empire, including elephants, apes, the great cats, and rhinoceroses. fighting giraffeAnd giraffes.

Imagine the scene: a fighting giraffe towers above its opponent, then with one swift motion lowers its large jaws and bites the head off its human or non-human combatant. And the crowd goes wild. Except that giraffes turned out to be rather disinterested gladiators, preferring to lope lazily around the arena, look for vegetation to munch, and take naps rather than fighting to the death. Pacifists in the arena aren’t very entertaining, so giraffes in the Coliseum gave way to slightly more aggressive creatures. None of this surprised me, because although I have no direct experience with giraffes other than admiring them at the zoo, I gained intimate knowledge over the years of giraffe-like gentleness and peace, channeled through beloved human form—my mother.

Although I would have denied it vociferously as a boy or adolescent, I was a classic momma’s boy. untitledMy older brother loved my mother but was all about Dad, while my attachments were the exact opposite. My brother and I were a twentieth-century version of Esau and Jacob. My mother was a 100% Swede, with the appropriate accompanying last name (“Thorsen”—son of Thor), stature, and stoic personality. She was the stable center of my universe, while my father, an itinerant preacher and fund-raiser for his small Bible school, was on the road as often as he was home. We lived out in the country and my brother and I rode the bus a half-hour each way every school day. rapture and tribulationMy mother’s loving presence when I entered the house after a long day at work was so predictable and expected that on the rare occasions when she was not where I expected her to be I assumed the worst. I imagined that the rapture I had heard about so often in church and was so afraid of had occurred and my mother had been snatched up into heaven, leaving my brother and me, sinners that we were, to fend for ourselves during the tribulation to come. Be careful how much Baptist theology gets packed into Sunday School for the youngsters—someone will probably take it seriously.

Flashing forward several decades, shortly after we met (introduced by my parents), Jeanne mentioned to me that she had always thought of my mother as a giraffe—Jeanne knew my parents well for ten years or so before the two of us ever met. I had never imagined my mother as a giraffe, but once Jeanne said it I realized that it was a perfect comparison. giraffes can't danceMy mother had the temperament, grace, and even the long neck of a giraffe. Jeanne pulled out a children’s book the other day entitled Giraffes Can’t Dance—with my mother in mind, there should also be books called Giraffes Can’t Go To Movies and Giraffes Can’t Drink Alcoholic Beverages. Baptist giraffes, at least, did not do such things and neither did my mother.

My mother was in many ways a typical 1950s homemaker, cooking, cleaning, knitting, sewing, and generally making the place run. My father was charismatic and volatile; my mother was neither. But she provided a foundation and safety net so secure and reliable that on the few occasions that she was sick, away, or for some other reason unable to play her usual roles my inner world would temporarily descend into chaos. My father had a great sense of humor; my mother couldn’t tell a joke without either forgetting a crucial part of the setup or screwing up the punchline. Bruce and Trudy's wedding picture (2)She had no enemies and disliked no one. That’s not entirely true—I know of a couple of people over the years about whom she actually said something negative. I’ve often noted that the definition of a total asshole is someone that my mother would not have liked.

The word that most immediately comes to mind when I think about my mother—which I do frequently—is peace. She was the embodiment of parental love, setting a standard that I seldom if ever lived up to when I became a parent. But her presence and demeanor surrounded those around her in an atmosphere of calmness. Last Sunday during the All Saints liturgy, as both my mother and father were present to me even more than usual, I noticed how many times the word “peace” has a central place in the Episcopal service: “In peace we pray to you, Lord God,” “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” “The peace that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ.” The deep center of peace that I’ve discovered within over the past few years is where I believe God is—it is also where I am most deeply connected with my mother.

I am an interesting mixture of elements inherited from my parents. My sense of humor, what skills I have as a teacher, my love of books and the life of the mind, my intellectual restlessness and constant questioning of my faith, and my relatively low tolerance for being sick or for pain I get from my father. I remember many years ago a couple, B and N, who had known my parents for years before I met them were telling Jeanne and me stories about various times that my parents stayed at their house. These stories frequently featured my father being demanding, temperamental and self-centered as he often was. N said to me “in many ways, you remind me a lot of your father. But you’re a lot nicer.” Trudy and Bruce summer or fall of 1979If so, it is only because I inherited my mother’s natural concern for things and people other than herself, her Swedish even temperament, and her ability to empathize deeply (perhaps too deeply at times) with others. Of course I could also write about my negative characteristics that I also inherited equally from my parents, but I’m running out of space in this essay.

My mother was born on Halloween and would have been eighty-six years old last Friday. I shudder to think of what a handful my father at that age might have been, but I imagine my mother at eighty-six as just an older and smaller version of the loving, peaceful giraffe-like person that she was. She died far too young of cancer only three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday; I am just one year younger now than she was when she died. I recall receiving phone calls and cards from friends of my parents whom I never had met in the weeks after she died—the gist of most of them was that while my father the preacher and teacher was the ostensible draw and star of the meetings he held across the country, giraffe mother 2my mother was the real attraction. “We came to hear Bruce, but we really wanted to spend time with Trudy.” I dedicated my first book, published six years after she died, to my mother with the following verses from Proverbs: She opens her mouth with wisdom . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Mom lived just long enough to play matchmaker and facilitate the meeting and budding romance between her little boy and the person whom she somehow knew had the potential to be the love of my life. Jeanne and I met at my parents’ condominium the day before Thanksgiving in 1987; I was accompanied by my seven- and five-year old sons, just five months after the end of a difficult eleven-year marriage. Things clicked, our relationship developed with nightly telephone conversations between Santa Fe and Laramie, and when Jeanne joined me in Laramie and we returned with the boys to spend the Christmas holidays with my parents, we stayed at the local Motel Six (no room at my parents’ small condo) where my mother had properly reserved separate rooms—with an adjoining door. Thanks, Mom.

Mom and her sisters

Mom and her sisters

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

One of the required performances for a professor returning from sabbatical is a public talk on campus related to her or his research and writing during the months away from the classroom and campus.most interesting man During the first weeks of my current sabbatical, I’ve been looking at some of the results of my Spring 2009 sabbatical, including the talk that I gave in Fall 2009 once I returned. Here is the beginning and end of it—a reminder of where I was then and where I have been going since then.

Introduction: The student of Western philosophy confronts a series of either/or dualisms which apparently demands that a side be taken on a number of matters, ranging from metaphysical through epistemological to ethical. Although contemporary philosophers have frequently and successfully attacked dualism in all areas of philosophy, surface level dualistic descriptions of the playing field are sometimes helpful in getting oriented to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy. After more than twenty-five years as a student and teacher of philosophy, I find that my own orientation on the dualistic playing field reveals some important patterns.

In no particular order of importance, I lean toward Heraclitus rather than Parmenides, Aristotle rather than Plato, Locke rather than Leibniz, school of athensAquinas rather than Augustine but Ockham rather than Aquinas, Hume rather than Kant but Kant rather than Hegel, empiricism rather than rationalism, realism rather than idealism, virtue ethics rather than rule oriented ethics, plurality rather than unity, Darwin rather than any of his multifarious opponents, Nietzsche rather than the majority of his opponents, the late Wittgenstein rather than the early Wittgenstein, and, in most cases, the particular rather than the universal. I can make intellectual arguments in favor of all of these inclinations, but I can also make arguments in support of the other side of the dualism in each instance—that’s what philosophers do. I simply know that I am philosophically most “at home” in a framework within which knowledge is constructed piecemeal from the bottom up through sense activity and experience rather than top down through the intuition or imposition of universal principles and truths. under construictionIf there is such a thing as human nature apart from particular human beings, I believe it is, to use Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful phrase, “something under construction” rather than a fixed form. These preferences incline me toward doubt and open-endedness in epistemology, toward suspicion in metaphysics, and cause me to both embrace pluralism and venture close to the kingdom of relativism in ethics.

These preferences are also, at least at first look, in direct conflict with the religious worldview within which I was raised. In my conservative and fundamentalist Protestant upbringing, I was taught to believe in the literal inerrancy of the Bible, to accept dozens of statements and claims concerning God and His relationship to human beings as factually true and immune to challenge or question. To ask questions or to doubt, or at least to do these things publicly, was to reveal the weakness of my faith. born againThe primary reason for being a Christian, for being “born again,” was to be saved from hell and to go to heaven. The faith I was taught was largely a faith motivated by fear, resulting in a great deal of exclusivity toward and judgment of those who did not believe as we did.

I’m quite sure that one of the primary reasons I ended up in academia and the vocation of teaching was the working out of a very poor fit between the religion I was taught and the person that I naturally am. My natural resonance with questioning and doubt, as well as with what is particular, open-ended, provisional, “this-worldly,” and contingent prepared me well for the academic life and the vocation of teaching philosophy. It is, at the same time, at odds with the faith of my youth at almost every significant point. Yet my Christian faith is part of my heritage, my history, my tradition. It is not an item of clothing given to me as a child that I was free to take off once I “put away childish things.” It is part of my fabric, my DNA. And I have carried it uncomfortably for many years.

the nice and the goodA friend’s question from long ago—“How can you be both a philosopher and a Christian?”—has lurked below the surface waiting to be addressed. One of the characters in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Nice and the Good speaks of “the faculty of colouring and structuring [one’s] surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense.” Many of the tools used to build a moral habitation come from one’s tradition and history, including one’s religion. A few years ago, I began the exhilarating but uncomfortable process of bringing the details of my faith up from below the surface where they had lain dormant for years, in the hope of finding for the first time ways to use the tools of my faith along with the tools of my vocation in constructing my moral habitation. How is that project going?penguin sabbatical Conclusion Outside the windows of my sabbatical apartment, windows which stretch from floor to ceiling along the entire width of the south side of the apartment, is a beautiful lake. 1836660_604566519623279_291098012_oOver the months I lived there, I watched hundreds of birds of dozens of sorts alight on this lake, stay for a while, and then move on. Sometimes they just floated for a while before flying away. Sometimes they plunged beneath the surface for an uncomfortably long time, then popped up way on the other side of the lake. A few I saw only once; maybe they found a better, more private lake where people aren’t staring at them all the time. But the people who are permanent Minnesota residents rather than a visitor as I was say that there are some pairs of birds—all sorts of ducks, loons, grebes, Canadian geese, eagles—who come back every year. For at least a part of every year, Stumpf Lake in Collegeville, Minnesota is their home.

These days I think of faith as being like this lake. I spent time on this lake as a young child, and had no idea it was this big. The portion I thought was the whole world turns out to be the shallow part of one corner of the lake. Upon return, I’m discovering depths that no one’s ever found the bottom of. I’ve never been a big fan of the water, and I’m not a very good swimmer. water wingsBut I’m getting better at it, and I don’t need blow-up water wings to stay afloat any more. I’m not sure what I want to call this place where I’ve landed. It’s disturbingly new, yet absolutely familiar. I believe I’m entitled to call it Christianity; as my wife told me a few months ago, I can put whatever label I want on myself. The following from Annie Dillard describes this place pretty well.

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

If the stories in the Bible have any truth to them, apparently God has an inexplicable love for “purblind and clumsy amateurs”—amateursjust look at the disciples and others who followed Jesus. Just look at me and everyone else I know who is trying the Christian incarnational narrative on for size. The only people who regularly annoyed Jesus were the people who professed to be something other than clumsy amateurs in matters of faith. But the root of “amateur” is “amator,” the Latin word for “lover.” And that’s what I find here—a love that will not let me go. I find that to be amazing.

And I still do. Thanks to those of you who have been sharing this journey with me on this blog!

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]

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 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 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—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.

Achieving Disagreement–in real time

God is in favor of same sex marriage because God placed a rainbow in the sky when the Genesis flood was over. QED. Me on Facebook

On the day before Independence Day I posted an appeal for a patriotic commitment to learning how to achieve disagreement on controversial issues.

Patriotism and Achieving Disagreement

I wrote that post a week earlier; little did I know that the very next day I would have the opportunity to work on this myself! I have often told anyone who would listen that the only reason I am on Facebook is that it provides an excellent vehicle for the dissemination of my blog (as do Twitter and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn). But on the Saturday after writing about achieving disagreement I was having Facebook fun. scotusIn the wake of two Supreme Court decisions in which the majority of the justices had the good sense to agree with my own beliefs, and with only three days remaining before the official beginning of sabbatical, I was feeling good. With a bit of time on my hands I started throwing some things out there for Facebook consumption. Here are a few:

      • I’ve been reading a lot of bad arguments today in which people use the Bible to support their position on same-sex marriage. noah rainbowNot wanting to be left out, here’s mine: God is in favor of same sex marriage because God placed a rainbow in the sky when the Genesis flood was over. QED.
      • I think the President enjoyed being President this week–perhaps for the first time in six and a half years.
      • For anyone still worried that same-sex marriage threatens the institution of marriage, meet two of those threatening people. Buster and Donna
      • As usual, I am proud of my Episcopal Church. I offer this statement from the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island as an alternative to the religious outrage over yesterday’s SCOTUS decision being expressed by Catholic leadership and conservative Evangelicals. Episcopal Bishop welcomes Supreme Court’s decision on marriage
      • I posted a link to this very cool map: States where same sex marriage is legal
      • I put rainbows on my Facebook picture:11148764_894263030653625_8472445222747219276_n
                And finally:

For those who are inclined to quote (or misquote) the Bible to support their anti-same sex marriage position, one of my all-time favorite television scenes:

This one produced one of the most interesting Facebook conversations I have ever participated in on Facebook, BINEa conversation with a man I knew as a teenager during a year at Bible school more than four decades ago and with whom I connected on Facebook just a few months ago. Here is that unedited conversation.

  • XXX: The important emphasis should never have been and shouldn’t now be Gay or not Gay but rather Saved or not Saved. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Emphasis should always be Jesus Christ. The rest will sort itself out.
  • ME: I agree with your sentiment about the emphasis on Christ. I find the Evangelical “saved/not saved” language to be as problematic as the Roman Catholic “extra salus nulla ecclesiam [no salvation outside the church].”
  • XXX: Saved/not saved problematic? Is there a third option? Perhaps the mark is missed when the saved forget 1 John 1:6….” the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”
  • ME: The obvious third option is to refuse to use the “in/out” binary altogether. Christianity is one way to seek God–one of many. As a good friend of mine who is also a fine Catholic theologian says, “I fully expect to see my Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers in heaven.” Assuming there is a heaven, that is.
  • XXX: Hmmm what we expect and what we get are two very different things. So either the Gospel of Christ is true or it is false and thus the plan of salvation is either true or false and thus the words of scripture are either true or false. Yes there are many perceived ways to seek God. Death will bring the true answer for each one of us.
  • ME The good news is that God loves us and has made it possible for us to have relationship with the divine. above my pay gradeMaking definitive judgments about which ways of seeking that relationship are legitimate and which ways are not is well above any human being’s pay grade.
  • XXX Really?.. even when scripture says that the only way to the Father is through Jesus Christ? How does the Muslim get around that? Allah? Seems scripture is very easy to follow and understand unless as I said above that the scriptures are false to begin with.
  • ME You and I are working within very different frameworks, XXX. You’re assuming that I accept the Bible as the exclusive word of God, God’s only way of communicating with human beings. assumeYou are assuming that I accept the judgmental, narrow version of Christianity that I was raised in and that my father spent his adult life breaking free of. You are assuming that a God who is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance is willing to send the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived to eternal damnation. And you assume that “scripture is very easy to follow and understand.” I share none of those assumptions.
  • XXX I do appreciate you being very candid. You are correct–two very different frameworks of thought. And I apologize– Yes my assumptions were incorrect. We all choose the roads we travel on. Only death will prove whether or not those roads were the right ones.
  • ME I have appreciated the exchange, XXX, and agree with your final sentiment. I’d like to continue the conversation in the future.
  • XXX agreed.

I congratulated my friend on the birth of his latest grandchild a couple of days later when he posted the news on Facebook and we promised to continue the conversation soon. I’m looking forward to it.

achieveAfter our exchange, which spread over a couple of hours, was finished I thought “wow—maybe we just achieved disagreement!” It’s most unlikely that either one of us will nudge the other very far away from our very different frameworks of thought and belief relevant to same sex marriage, engagement with the divine, or what happens after we die. But it was a civil, even friendly, conversation between two people who significantly disagree on important issues because we began by finding some places where we agree. Imagine that.


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]