Category Archives: movies

Is Democracy Overrated?

It is Memorial Day, a great day to honor those who have made sacrifices over the years, including the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to protect our freedoms. It is also a good day to consider how well we are living out the freedoms that these sacrifices were made for.

house of cardsJeanne and I are anxiously awaiting the release of Season Four of House of Cards on DVD in July (we don’t do the streaming thing). On this Memorial Day I am thinking about politics; in one of the early second-season episodes, then Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”

senateFrank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.

lit.aristotlepolitics.coverRepublicFrank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s and  Republic and Aristotle’s Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.

Socrates-on-trialThere are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” alexander-aristotle-grangerAristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.

Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.

bbcsmDoes it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “BullCarter Fordshit.”

I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. elephants and donkeysThe polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, jesusvotesrepublican1who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican, has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.

Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that?—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.

Do You Have What It Takes to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?

My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”

The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. JeffersonBut simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.

If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once or twice per year on Memorial Day or Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost yesterday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a church or religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

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Sheets from Heaven

VT hunting seasonI grew up in hunting country where at the appropriate times each year the males of the species took their preferred firearms and started shooting things. I remember my father returning from a day of hunting with a partridge or two or even a squirrel in his backpack (much to my mother’s consternation). Every third year or so he would hit the jackpot and get a deer, setting us up with meat for most of the upcoming winter. My older brother became a fellow hunter with Dad when he reached the appropriate age, but when my time came, problems arose. I didn’t want to do it. hunting seasonI did not know that principled objections to killing non-human animals were available to me—it just was very clear to me that this was not something I wanted anything to do with. At the time I didn’t have any trouble eating the meat my father and brother brought home; it wasn’t until many years later that I cut red meat out of my diet.

The first reading a week ago Sunday from Acts told the story of one of the most game-changing events imaginable, a “kill and eat” scenario with implications far beyond mere dietary preferences. The story of Acts, of course, is about the early Christian communities and the spread of the “good news” inexorably from Palestine toward Rome and beyond. Often lost in the midst of the story is just how disorienting and belief-challenging all of this must have been. Major debates raged about exactly what this new system of beliefs is. Is it a new version of Judaism? If so, then new Christians are subject to the same dietary and behavioral rules from the Pentateuch that all Jews are subject to; male converts, for instance, should be circumcised. Or is this new set of beliefs something new altogether, perhaps a challenge and direct threat to Judaism? Complicating the issue, at least according to evidence from the gospels, is that Jesus himself was not always clear or consistent about who his message and teaching was for. Jesus was a Jew, and at times clearly said that kill and eathis message was for the “House of Israel,” while at other times he packaged it for everyone, including non-Jews.

In Acts 10 we find Peter, the man who perhaps knew Jesus best and who, as the lead disciple, is now at the forefront of spreading the good news, hungry and exhausted after an extended prayer session on the rooftop of a friend’s house in Joppa where he is staying. And then the strangest thing happens, as Peter reports to some critics in the next chapter:

In a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet is full of all sorts of animals that, according to Jewish law, must not be eaten under any circumstances, as Peter immediately recognizes.

unclean animalsBut I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Peter knows the rules backwards and forwards; furthermore, he knows that for a Jew, strict obedience to these rules is required in order to be right relationship both with God and with his community.

But as seems to happen so often in the context of what we think we know about God and our relationship with the divine, the rule book is thrown out entirely.

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Imagine Peter’s consternation and confusion. Imagine the consternation and confusion of his fellow Jewish believers when they find out that he has been hanging out with and spreading the good news to Gentiles. For after the voice from heaven in essence tells Peter “You know all of that stuff about what not to eat in order to be in right relationship with God, the stuff that has defined the diet of a faithful Jew for the past couple of millennia? Never mind. You can eat anything you want,” CorneliusPeter is further informed that the human equivalent of unclean animals—the Gentiles—are now to be recipients of the good news that you might have mistakenly thought was just for Jews. There’s this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius who has been asking some really good questions—go to his house and help him out. Subsequent chapters in Acts pick up the theme. Cornelius and his household convert to the message of Christ, start speaking in tongues as Peter and the other disciples did at Pentecost, more conservative Jews are appalled, and eventually there is a big council in Jerusalem to decide what the hell’s going on. But Pandora’s box has been opened never to be closed again. The old rule book is out, and it’s anyone’s guess where this is going to end up.

Don’t you hate it when someone changes the rules of the game just when you’ve gotten really good at working within the framework of the old rules? Just when you think you have everything relevant and necessary figured out, it all changes. In truth, we are currently in the midst of a radical, contemporary parallel of Peter’s vision.dt and owg In politics, one major party’s presumptive candidate for President has risen to the top of the polls by ignoring or deliberately breaking just about every traditional rule for success, while at the same time resisting the best efforts of traditionalists and moderates within his own party to derail his candidacy. Pundits and talking heads are reduced to “I don’t know” and “beats me” when asked to predict what is likely to happen in the next several months. transgenderPublic attitudes concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved and shifted more quickly than anyone could have foreseen. People are talking about the rights of transgendered people. More millennials are checking “none” when asked about their religious affiliation than check the box for an identifiable religion; these “nones” exhibit little interest and find no home in traditional religious structures. Sheets from heaven filled with female priests, less-than-conservative Popes, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, and seventy-five-year-old Socialists are being lowered before the eyes of those who thought they knew what they were supposed to think about such things. What’s a person to do?hemingway

Jeanne and I saw “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” last evening, enjoying the sights of Havana that we experienced when we visited in 2003. Hemingway tells his young reporter friend on a couple of occasions during the movie that the value of a person depends entirely on how much that person is willing to risk. Sheets from heaven such as Peter experienced provide an opportunity for extreme risk—how willing am I to leave all of my preconceptions and frameworks of understanding behind in exchange for growth and change? Peter could have dismissed his experience as merely a result of overwork and hunger. But instead he helped to change the world. We are presented with similar opportunities every day.

WIN_20160315_19_17_07_Pro

Gotta Have More Cowbell

Guess what? I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell. Bruce Dickinson

This evening the Providence College Friars men’s hockey team plays in the semifinals of their league’s playoffs, hopefully yet another successful step in their defense of the national championship that they unexpectedly won last spring.

We Are the Champions!

Although basketball still trumps hockey on my list of sports preferences, I bought a hockey season ticket this year for the first time. The Friars were 16-1-2 at home this season; the only game they lost at home was the one I was unable to attend. That should tell you something about the power of a fanatic fan.

one leg at a timeLast weekend the Friars played a best-of-three playoff series at home against Merrimack College, a series in which they were strongly favored since the Friars were the two-seed in the tournament and the Merrimack a mere six-seed. Season ticket fans were informed via email that the first 1000 fans at the Friday night game would receive a free cowbell. I wanted a cowbell, of course—I’m one of those millions of people who cannot hear the word “cowbell” without remembering one of the greatest skits ever from Saturday Night Live, where the Bruce Dickinson (played by Christopher Walken)—who says that “I put my pants on just like the rest of you–one leg at  time. Except once my pants are on, I make gold records”—guides the iconic rock band Blue Oyster Cult as they record their mega-hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

But as fate would have it, the Friday night hockey game was at the exact same time as the Friars basketball team’s game against Villanova in the Big East tournament semifinals in NYC. Thanks to living only five or six blocks from our on-campus hockey arena, I was able to catch the final period of the game after watching the basketball team lose a tough one. It’s a good thing I went to the hockey game, because the team needed me. I arrived just a few minutes into the third and final period with the score tied 1-1.cowbell fever

Moving to my usual seat just a couple of sections down from the section occupied by the inordinately loud and obnoxious Merrimack students and band, I had just settled in when, during a time out, there on the Jumbotron was a brief clip from the SNL skit—Christopher Walken insisting to the band that despite Will Farrell’s best efforts to drown out the rest of the group with his cowbell playing, it isn’t enough. “Guess what?” Walken says—“I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!” The crowd went wild as they shook their tiny cowbells, which unfortunately were too small to drown out the “Let’s Go Merrimack!” cheer coming from enemy territory. But shortly after the time out one of our Friar freshmen scored on a beautiful shot between the goalie’s glove and the post and we were on our way to victory. The father of one of the Friar senior defensemen ran in front of the Merrimack section with his best Will Farrell imitation as he banged on a real cowbell with a drum stick and the crowd went wild. Add an empty netter in the last minute, and we won 3-1.cow cowbell

The “more cowbell!’ meme went viral shortly after the SNL skit first played in April 2000. In a 2007 interview, Christopher Walken reported that after ordering a salad for lunch at a Singapore restaurant, the waiter delivered the salad and said “You know what this salad needs? More cowbell!” Whenever some important ingredient is missing but you don’t know what it is, you need more cowbell. Having a bad day at work? You need more cowbell. Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic? Gotta have more cowbell. Your kids are on drugs and your spouse just walked out? You need more cowbell. Some of the most important people in the world know this.Obama cowbelloffice space cowbell

 

 

 

 

 

most interesting man cowbell

Sean Bean cowbell

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Saturday night I got to the game early enough to get my very own cowbell. It’s pretty small and not very loud, but it’s more cowbell than I used to have. My being in attendance helped once again—a late third period goal and an empty netter sent the Friars to the semis with a 2-0 victory. I will have my cowbell in hand this evening as I watch the Friars play for a spot in the league championship game. Because guess what? I have a fever, and the only prescription is another Providence Friars hockey national championship! And, of course, more cow bell.Jesus cowbell

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I have team-taught twice with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era”—we will be teaching it for a third time in Spring 2017. In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. In the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

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

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Inquiring Minds

Not long ago I had the chance to read a novel by Ian McEwan that I somehow missed when it was published a year and a half ago. The Children Act is the story of Fiona Maye, an experienced and highly respected family court judge in London. The story centers on how a particular case impacts both her professional and personal life. McEwanA seventeen-year-old boy is hospitalized with leukemia; his regimen of treatment requires a cluster of powerful medicines, including one that produces anemia. To combat the anemia a blood transfusion is required—standard procedure. But the boy and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and blood transfusions are prohibited by their religious beliefs. Fiona hears testimony from attorneys representing the interests of the hospital, the young man (three months away from his eighteenth birthday and legal majority), and his parents. In her judgment on the case, Judge Maye writes something that could have been written about me at age seventeen:

His childhood has been an uninterrupted monochrome exposure to a forceful view of the world and he cannot fail to have been conditioned by it.

Just how strongly the religious training and atmosphere of my youth influenced and shaped me was brought to my attention sharply last Sunday as InquirersI spoke with a dozen or so folks (most of them over seventy, I would guess) in an “Inquirers’” class at the small Episcopal church where my friend Marsue is currently the temporary priest. Such classes are preparation for the Episcopalian version of confirmation, capped by a liturgy involving the Bishop at his annual appearance next month. Inquirers class is open to persons who wish to join the church officially, those who wish to renew their original baptismal vows so far removed in the distant past that what the vows say—let alone what they mean—has been forgotten, persons who wish to be “received” into the Episcopal church from other churches in which they were originally confirmed (most often disaffected Catholics), and anyone who is just looking for an hour’s worth of religious entertainment on a given Sunday. Knowing that my own religious upbringing in the Baptist church included brainwashing in the Bible, Marsue asked me if I would come to this particular meeting to talk about “Bible History.”

OT worldNo problem–I’ve done this for her before at a different church, I’m on sabbatical, and I knew that just relying on my fifty-plus year old foundation in things Biblical would be more than sufficient to introduce Episcopalian-wannabes who had probably never encountered Scripture first hand in their life to the Bible lay of the land. At the class I pulled out a book I had brought from home with some relevant maps in it, while Marsue scared up a few Bibles. Directing everyone to the Table of Contents, I table of contentswalked them through the patriarchs, the exodus, the time of the judges, the unified kingdom under David and Solomon, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Israel’s captivity in Assyria followed by Judah’s captivity in Babylon a century and a half later, capped by the Persian emperor Cyrus’ allowing the Hebrews to return to the devastated Promised Land to rebuild the Temple and their communities—all in under an hour. It was fun to return to the Sunday School lessons of my youth (a Sunday School that was run like a real school—we were expected to learn things, subject to quizzes and exams). It was even more fun to come up for air occasionally and ask for questions. There weren’t many; everyone  was looking at me as if I were a mutant or some sort of trained monkey. I was working without notes—no notes are necessary when plugging into things learned in-depth at a young age. As Aristotle says, if you want people to learn things they won’t forget, get them when they are very young.

After the crash course in Old Testament happenings, Marsue made a few comments that opened the door to broader issues. I had pointed out on the maps that the centerpiece of these historical events—Canaan—is remarkably tiny in the overall scope of things. MonotheismYet in our twenty-first century this part of the world continues to carry extraordinary importance to billions of people both politically and religiously. The three great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all claim Abraham as their father and this part of the world as the central home of their faith. The violence and bloodshed of the current Middle East mirrors the violence of the Old Testament, just on a larger scale. The Palestinians of today have the same grievance against the still relatively new nation of Israel that the native people of the Promised Land had against the recently freed Hebrews of the Old Testament. We were here first.

When I did this sort of class the first time over a year ago, one of the older members of the group—one of the church’s two current sextons—spoke for the first time as he remembered various conversations with people of different faith commitments over the years. Whether during impromptu discussions with fellow soldiers during basic training or conversations with his next door neighbor, he noted how it has always struck him that people with significant faith differences actually share a great deal in common. ‘one godWhy can’t we simply understand that we can believe in the same God in very different ways?” he wondered. Why all the hatred, the violence, the suspicion and judgmental attitudes?

Her Honor Fiona Maye runs headlong into the same issue as she deliberates her decision in the case of the Jehovah’s Witness teenager. She’s not a religious person herself, but whether religious or not, the Jehovah’s Witness belief that God’s will does not include blood transfusions, even if required to save a life, seems odd, peculiar, and irrational. Such apparently arbitrary rules are cultish—something from which normal persons need to be protected or perhaps rescued. And yet, Fiona realizes, that one person’s cult is another person’s truth.

mountainsReligions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, or truer than another. What was to judge?

Fiona’s position and status requires her to make a judgment, but she realizes that it cannot be on the basis of moral superiority or certainty. For what makes sense and what is true for a person is always largely shaped by that person’s experiences, some of which—especially those of one’s early youth—one does not freely choose.

I remember a number of years ago when my therapist, after listening during yet another session to my descriptions of how the impact of my religious heritage on my adult life had been, in my understanding at that time, largely negative, suggested to me that I might want to trybuddhism Buddhism. If Christianity isn’t working, try something else. But I knew that I couldn’t do it, even if I wanted to. I’ve been working on this for a while now, and I realize more and more that although I have no basis on which to insist that my faith is the best way to package the truth, it is my truth. Each unique expression of faith, viewed from a distance, looks pretty much the same to an objective observer, which is a good thing for all persons of faith to remember as they get ready to go into religious warfare, virtual or actual, on a regular basis. But faith is never lived from a distance. It is inhabited up close. My monochrome exposure to faith as a child may have exploded over time into Technicolor, but the original imprint is still there. It is not mine to impose on anyone else, but it is mine.roses

Bored with Thinking

Many years ago I read a paragraph in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth that was the single most helpful piece of advice I ever received concerning teaching. Brittain writes thattestament of youth

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

The idea of thinking and learning as being intimately connected to the desire to think and learn has driven my pedagogy for a long time, but perhaps even more important in this passage is Brittain’s claim that wanting to think and learn is a moral issue. In our contemporary world, learning is often understood in terms of processing information and then applying it, usually with a view to becoming a more and more efficient and productive member of society. But how might the cultivation of thought and learning be transformed if we paid close attention to the moral aspects of these foundational human activities?arendt

Hannah Arendt once said that “every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them children.” We all know that part of the process of civilizing these little barbarians is equipping them with values and with a moral compass, as well as providing training in how to use these moral tools. If thinking well and being committed to lifetime learning is part of being a moral human being, then muddled and sloppy thinking, as well as the attitude that no further learning is necessary, are moral failings of the same order as lying, cheating, and stealing. We live in a world in which we are in danger of—if we have not already arrived at—cognitive immorality. Not because of the immoral contents of our thoughts, but rather because of our collective unwillingness to commit to the hard work of thinking clearly, work that takes the sort of time and commitment that modern human beings are often loathe to engage with.

I began thinking anew about the moral features of thinking and learning after listening to an interview that Krista Tippett did on her On Being radio program with Maria Popova.brain pickings

Maria Popova: Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age

Popova is a bit of social media phenomenon; she is most notable for Brain Pickings, a popular blog that began as a weekly email to seven of her friends. Now a website, Twitter feed and weekly digest, Brain Pickings covers a wide variety of cultural topics: history, current events, and images and texts from the past. In the introduction to their conversation, Tippett called Popova a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova observes that

As a culture, we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. We’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. The true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else.

I can think of no better contemporary example of this than our current political cycle. The sense I get is not so much that candidates and voters are incapable of thinking. Rather, there appears to be general agreement with violetViolet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, who once quipped that “All this thinking is overrated.” Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders telling us “I will do this” should be enough—why insist on an explanation or account of how this will be done? Most of us remember being told on a middle or high school mathematics exam to “show your work”—no shortcuts allowed, in other words. How then have we come collectively to a place where we cannot be bothered to “show our work” when it comes to some of the most important decisions we will make in the next several years?

During my childhood and adolescent years I was occasionally told, particularly by family members and people who attended our church, that “you think too much.” A corollary was often that “things really aren’t that complicated.” The truth, of course, is that there are very few times in life where more thought is unnecessary, and things really are that complicated. There is a strong tendency in human nature to want things simplified; even more, there is a strong desire to move from premise to conclusion without having to do any of the nasty and time-consuming work in between. Part of moral and cognitive maturity is to move forward with intelligence and conviction through a very complicated and messy world. We would like everything to be reducible to a bumper sticker or sound bite but, as jamesWilliam James reminds us, “Nature is not bound to satisfy our presuppositions. In the great boarding house of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean.”

The moral aspects of teaching often begin with resisting the temptation to deliver a product, to give the customer what she wants. Sometimes, Maria Popova suggests, what people want is the last thing they should get.

Giving people what they want isn’t nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need. There’s always a shortcut available, a way to be a little more ironic, cheaper, more instantly understandable. There’s the chance to play into our desire to be entertained and distracted regardless of the cost. Most of all, there’s the temptation to encourage people to be selfish, afraid, and angry. Or you can dig in, take your time, and invest in a process that helps people see what they truly need.t and f

I try to focus on the importance of “digging in” every time I’m in the classroom. But observing myself outside of the classroom, I find that I have a lot of work to do. I spend time on Twitter, even though communicating in 120 characters or less is hardly an example of in-depth discourse. I quickly block or unfriend Facebook people who clearly hold political views that are radically different from mine. I bristle when someone challenges me in the “Comments” section of this blog. If I am going to call for moral maturity in thinking and learning, that maturation process begins with me.

Carson and Hughes

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

 

As those who love Masterpiece Theater and great television know, “Downton Abbey” is in the middle of its sixth and final season on Sunday nights here in the U. S. I’ve written frequently about what I’ve learned from this show–here’s a post about my favorite Downton character from a bit over a year ago . . .

Season FourIn anticipation of Season Five of “Downton Abbey” making it across the pond to PBS next month, Jeanne and I just finished binge-watching Season Four over the last few evenings to remind us, first, of exactly what is going on in the lives of the two dozen or so characters in the middle of the 1920s and, second, just why this is probably our favorite show on television. That’s saying a lot. We love good television and have several series that we keep up with religiously, including “The Newsroom” which just finished its final season (bummer) and “Homeland” which is close to the end of its fourth season. We are anxiously awaiting the return of “The Americans” next month on FX for a new season. But “Downton Abbey” is a phenomenon in our house, just as it has been for millions of other viewers. No violence, no nudity or sex, no f-bombs—just great character development and brilliant acting from top to bottom. Who knew that people would like something like that?

I learned many months ago that if I was a character on “Downton Abbey,” I would be the stodgy and formal Mr. Carson.mister carson

Which Downton Abbey character are you?

And that’s fine with me. Mr. Carson runs the staff similarly to how I run the academic program I direct, with a firm hand and an occasional adjusting of the rules when appropriate. I’m a bit concerned about Mr. Carson’s attachment to tradition and fear of new things, but he’s loosening up a bit as the seasons progress. The main reason I resonate with Mr. Carson is his penchant for pithy and insightful one-liner comments on what is going on around him, a talent rivaled in Downton only by the Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crowley upstairs. Here are a few Carsonian observations from the early episodes of Season Four:

I always thought there is something foreign about high spirits at breakfast.

morning personHere’s a difference between Mr. Carson and me—he’s not a morning person and I am. I’m at the gym every morning at 6:00. I would much rather teach at 8:30 than at 1:30 (which is my nap time). But the kind of morning person I am is not the sort which is inclined to “high spirits.” I love the morning because it is quiet, because if there is any time during the day that I will be able to slip immediately into “centered” mode, it is when I first get up. As I read the appointed Psalm 90 this morning, I read

In the morning, fill us with your love;

We shall exult and rejoice all our days

Mercyand a reading from Lamentations at my friend and colleague’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago reminded me that the mercies of the Lord are renewed every morning. Morning is a good time to reset and, if necessary, commit to a “redo” of previous days that didn’t work out as planned, intended or wished. As Jeanne mentioned the other day, if the Lord renews mercy every morning, then there’s no reason we cannot be merciful to ourselves. High spirits are not required.

The business of life is the acquisition of memories.

One of my last classes with my Honors freshmen this semester was focused on Book Eleven of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine on timea fascinating and complex analysis of time that no philosopher matched or surpassed for a millennium after Augustine. One of his interesting questions has to do with what it is that we are focusing our attention on when we consider past events in the present. The past event is gone, but everything that we experience leaves some sort of internal impression on us, bits and pieces that we file away, consciously or unconsciously, in our “memory banks.” Each person’s history, indeed each person, is a creative stitching together of these impressions. Because we know that these internal impressions are impermanent and fleeting, we take pictures, write memoirs, and tell stories, all in the attempt to make permanent what is fleeting. Earlier in Psalm 90 this morning, the psalmist describes what we are fighting against.

You sweep us away like a dream,

like grass which springs up in the morning.

In the morning it springs up and flowers;

by evening it withers and fades.

Which brings me to one more piece of wisdom from Mr. Carson.

We shout and scream and wail and cry but in the end we must all die

HughesAs Mrs. Hughes, the chief housekeeper who is the closest thing Mr. Carson has to a best friend replies, “Well, that’s cheered me up. Thank you.” Who knew that Mr. Carson is a philosopher? Mr. Carson is the epitome of English reserve, carrying the most British stiff upper lip imaginable; if he was a philosopher, he would be an early twentieth-century incarnation of the Stoicism of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. Stoic reserve is just one of many possible responses to a brutal and inescapable fact—we all are going to die.

Impermanence and loss is a continuing theme throughout the seasons of “Downton Abbey,” through the ravages of World War I in Season Two to the tragic death of the heir to the family fortune in a car crash at the end of Season Three, a loss that is the connecting thread throughout all of the Season Four episodes that Jeanne and I finished watching last evening. By the end of the season some people are moving on, good fortune has smiled on others, but an uncertain future faces them all. This isn’t BBC drama—this is real life. One of the interesting attractions of “Downton Abbey” is that happiness and despair, misfortune and luck, triumph and defeat, are features of everyone’s lives—upstairs and downstairs, privileged and struggling, the family and the help. Violet and EdithAn extended study of life as it happens does not require spies, blowing things up, gratuitous torture and dismemberment, or naked boobs and butts every week. All it requires is noticing how life actually happens to us. As Violet, the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham tells her struggling and star-crossed granddaughter Edith, “Life is a series of problems that we need to solve—first one, then another—until we die.” Ain’t it the truth.Carson and Hughes

Holy Family Values

Each week, Garrison Keillor tells “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake WobeLake-Wobegon[1]gon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an attraction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Even though I am on sabbatical, reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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