Category Archives: philosophy

anchor

Accept the Anchor

Is it ever right to hold a grudge? Is resentment or unforgiveness ever justified? These questions were front and center in a seminar with my freshmen last week; their answers revealed one of the most important and ubiquitous moral divides of all—the divide between what we think we should believe and what we actually believe. And behind the discussion loomed an even larger moral issue: moral compassWhere does a person’s moral compass come from, and is there any way of determining whether that moral compass is accurate?

I’ve been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and there are few areas of philosophy or philosophers that have not shown up somewhere in my classroom over those years. Ethics is my favorite systematic area of philosophy to teach on an introductory level, because ethics is where the often esoteric and abstract discipline of philosophy intersects immediately and directly with real life. And in the world of ethics, no philosopher ever got it better than Aristotle. Aristotle RaphaelHis framework for thinking about and trying to live the moral life is flexible, dynamic, creative and practical in that it provides broad but identifiable boundaries for the life of human excellence within which each individual human being has the opportunity to make many important choices about what sort of person she or he will be. Aristotle’s ethic avoids both the Scylla of absolute and rigid moral rules and the Charybdis of “anything goes” relativism by continually reminding us that there is a point to a human life, that some lives are clearly not worth living, and it is up to each of us to identify the purpose of our lives as we live out the process of shaping and defining that purpose.

The most important feature of Aristotle’s ethical vision is the virtues, which he identifies as “good habits,” habits that will more often than not facilitate the living of a flourishing human life. These he contrasts with vices, bad habits that tend to hinder the living of such a life. habitsThe notion of the key to the moral life being habits rather than obedience to rules is often both intriguing and confusing to eighteen-year-old freshmen; last week in seminar I focused my students’ attention on the “virtues as habits” idea by first brainstorming with them to produce a list of a dozen virtues, then providing them with a list of Aristotle’s examples of such habits scattered through the portions of his primary text on ethics that we had read for the day.

There were many virtues on our list that are not on Aristotle’s list. Where, for instance, are humility, honesty, patience, love, faith and hope? Perhaps even more confusing are some of the items that Aristotle does include on his list that were not on ours. There were several such items—wittiness, high-mindedness and right ambition, for instance—which raised eyebrows and provided an opportunity to consider just how different Aristotle’s definition of virtue is from our own. But the item on Aristotle’s list that bothered my students the most was “just resentment,” the idea that one of the good habits that will facilitate the life of human excellence is being able to tell when forgiveness is appropriate and when is it better to hold on to one’s resentment.forgiveness Aristotle did not list forgiveness as a foundational virtue but, as many of my students pointed out, we know better. Or do we?

“How many of you think that forgiveness is a virtue?” I asked my students—every hand went up. “How many of you can think of a situation in which it would be natural not to forgive?” Most hands, but not all, went up. I gave my own example of the latter. In the earlier years of my teaching career I often taught applied ethics courses, which usually turned out to be a crash course in various moral theories for a few weeks, which we then applied to four or five tough moral problems for the rest of the semester. capital punishmentThe issue of capital punishment, which I consider to be one of the toughest moral nuts to crack without making a mess, was often on the syllabus. I told my students that in the abstract I believe the best moral arguments are against capital punishment, starting with the simple point that to respond to harm with more harm reduces a society to the level of the person being punished. “But,” I quickly added, “I know that if someone killed my wife or my sons and was found guilty, if I lived in a state where the death penalty was on the books I would want to be the one to administer the lethal injection or pull the switch.” There’s a place where even if I have developed the habit of forgiveness, the habit of just resentment seems more appropriate.

Several students vigorously nodded their heads in agreement, but others pressed back. One student had learned an important lesson well from Socrates two weeks earlier when he told a friend why, even though he has an opportunity to escape his prison cell and execution, he will not do so. “Who are you damaging if you don’t forgive?” my student asked. “Not the guy who’s being executed. He’s dead. just resentmentBut you will never move on and will never get past what has happened if you carry resentment around for the rest of your life.” “What if I don’t want to move on?” I asked. “Then you’ll never be able to live Aristotle’s life of human flourishing,” she replied. Touché.

But most of my students agreed that to forgive indiscriminately is not natural to human beings, despite the psychological damage that accompanies lack of forgiveness. “So where did we get the idea that we must forgive regardless of the situation?” I wondered. “We certainly learned that long before we considered that not forgiving might hurtful to ourselves.” “I learned it in church,” one said, while another said that she had learned it in school (which, since it was a parochial school, is pretty much the same as learning it in church). That strikes me as the real truth. I learned that universal forgiveness is a virtue because I was taught at an early age that a first century Jewish carpenter said that we must love our enemies and told one of his followers that he should forgive his neighbor not the very challenging seven times but the impossible seventy times seven. Aristotle and JesusAristotle perhaps doesn’t put such a habit on his virtue list because he lived more than three centuries before the Jewish carpenter and was not inclined to include on his list habits that are humanly impossible.

Truth be told, we all have the foundational pieces of our moral lives given to us long before we develop the capacity to challenge them—and often we never get to the challenge part. I usually urge my students to question and challenge what they have never questioned and challenged. But on this given day it struck me that in addition to questioning, it is equally important to first identify what we have been given. The fact that my students thought Aristotle was wrong about just resentment because they had been carrying around the directive to forgive their whole life was not mistaken—it is just a fact. The Jewish carpenter will be on display in a few weeks in seminar and when he is, we’ll remember Aristotle.

Ileopardn The Leopard, the Jo Nesbo Norwegian crime drama I am currently reading, the main character, an extraordinarily complex person in every way imaginable, is berating himself because he can’t seem to move past some inhibitions he has carried his whole life. A colleague suggests that he should relax.

You can’t just disregard your own feelings like that, Harry. You, like everyone else, are trying to leapfrog the fact that we are governed by notions of what’s right and wrong. Your intellect may not have all the arguments for these notions, but nonetheless they are rooted deep, deep inside you. Right and wrong. Perhaps its things you were told by your parents when you were a child, a fairy tale with a moral your grandmother read, or something unfair you experienced at school and you spent time thinking through. The sum of all these half-forgotten things. “Anchored deep within” is in fact an appropriate expression. Because it tells you that you may not be able to see the anchor in the depths, but you damn well can’t move from the spot—that’s what you float around and that’s where your home is. Accept the anchor.anchor

not your friend

I Am Not Your Friend

If it’s Friday, it’s time to think once again about interactions between various constituencies in academia. Today I am not thinking about faculty-administration relations. I’m wondering instead about the dynamic between professors and students.

One of the challenges and joys of team teaching in an interdisciplinary program—something I have been doing for twenty years—is that you get to teach with all sorts of people. Young and not so young, introvert and extrovert, high maintenance and low maintenance, mount rushmorecollegial and not-so-much, colleagues who belong on the teaching version of Mount Rushmore and others who have a difficult time avoiding embarrassment in the classroom. And everything between these various extremes. The various three- and four-person teams I have been part of have ranged from forever memorable to eminently forgettable. My team last fall was one of the most memorable, largely because one of my teammates was someone who really didn’t want to be there.

I have been directing the interdisciplinary program I teach in for the past three and a half years. Scheduling twenty three-person teams out of the rotating faculty that staff the program from four large departments from semester to semester is one of, if not the most challenging part of the job. Negotiating the time constraints while attempting to honor various faculty “requests” (I want to teach with these people, I do not want to teach with this person, I cannot teach before 9:30 or after 2:30, Rubiks cubeI cannot teach more than three days per week and definitely not on Fridays) is like trying to solve a 36-sided Rubik’s cube. The only accompanying perk is that I get to choose who I will teach with each semester. Last fall, one of my teammates was a colleague from history in his last year of teaching before retirement. J had taught in the program I direct in the past, but not for a dozen years or more. I was sure J was not thrilled to be sent back for the first semester of his last year before retirement. Known for his curmudgeonly and crusty demeanor (as well as his expertise in military history), I thought it might be a good idea to put him with me—both because we have been friends for several years (we are frequently at the gym at the same time) and because I wanted to protect unsuspecting colleagues from what J might bring to the table on a bad day.

J is in his early seventies; teamed with T, old white guysa classicist from Art History who is in his late fifties as I am, our triumvirate was the “old fart”/”old white guys” team let loose on 100 or so unsuspecting freshmen. It was a blast. It turned out that each of my teammates shared my ironic and sarcastic sense of humor, so we spent the first several weeks laughing in class at each other’s cracks and side comments while the children wrote them down dutifully in their notebooks in the off chance that such information might be on the next quiz or exam, all the time wondering what planet they had landed on.

At one of our first weekly team meetings, the topic of office hours came up. T (a complete rookie in the program) wanted to know whether there was a required amount of office hours a faculty member teaching in the program had to hold per week (there isn’t), prompting J to mention what he had told the students in each of his seminars the first time they met.

These are my office hours. If you have questions or need help, this is when I’ll be in my office. But don’t just drop in to “shoot the shit” or hang out. I am not your friend. I’m in my early seventies and all of you are eighteen years old. If someone my age wants to be your friend, you should call the police.not your friend

I wouldn’t have put my office hours policy quite that directly to my students, but I know exactly what J was talking about. There are many faculty colleagues who have students lined up outside their door every day, often just to chat or get life advice (the person whose office is next to mine is one of these people). I am not one of those faculty—nor do I want to be one.

I have written frequently about the interesting challenges and opportunities presented to an extreme introvert by the teaching life. I learned to channel what few extroverted neurons I have directly into my teaching first by treating the classroom like a stage on which I am acting (some of the best thespians I have ever met are naturally introverted). Over the years I not only have internalized these energies so that I no longer feel like I am performing, but also have become far more personal and transparent in the classroom than I used to be. I share so much about myself and my life in the classroom that in some ways my students probably know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my sons. INFJA willingness to be transparent not only breaks down the formality that is inherent in the classroom but also gives me an endless supply of illustrations for difficult philosophical concepts. I think I have become a more naturally open person over the years because of my profession, which is a good thing for a 19-1 introvert on the Myers-Briggs scale.

But I am still a dedicated introvert, which causes a bit of confusion when my students encounter “Out-of-class Morgan” and find him to be quite different from “In-class Morgan.” I know that almost everyone’s first impression of me before they get to know me (if they ever do) is one of formality, aloofness and perhaps superiority (none of which are actually true—it’s just how introverts are often read by non-introverts). I can live with that and actually make good use of it on occasion. But my students’ first impression of me is in the classroom, where I am extroverted, loquacious, inviting and often funny. my caveThere’s a moment of cognitive dissonance when one of them shows up in my office and finds out that my natural state of being is quite different. I never have been able to make my office an extension of the classroom—my office is first my space, a space out of which I take great pains to create a “Morgan cave.” And in that natural habitat I am my default self. An introvert. That means that my face does not necessarily light up with joy when a student or colleague pokes their head in the door—SONY DSCit often feels like an interruption.

I’m working on it. Since my office is a cave reflecting my interests, it is full of items as eclectic as the things I love, including tons of books, pictures of the family, penguin paraphernalia and a small stuffed Big Bird, a shot glass that says “I heart Jesus,” and a large coffee cup that says BFD“I’m a BIG Fucking Deal.” Come to think of it, my Morgan cave is probably a den of cognitive dissonance for the unprepared or uninitiated. Students find out very quickly that I am excellent with and often more helpful in email communication rather than face to face, which is fine with me. Email is an introverts dream; phone calls are not, and unannounced visits definitely are not.

I love my students, but I am their professor, not their friend. Some develop into friends over time—my office is full of cards and pictures of former students with whom I have a continuing friendship long after they graduated. I’m looking forward this evening to seeing two of them for the first time in a year and a half. They were students in one of my freshman classes a number of years ago, each took several more classes with me (different ones) over their four years at the college, they started dating as seniors, were married a couple of years later—a happy couple and I take full responsibility for it. bday fairyThey will be attending a dinner tonight on campus that Jeanne and I will also be attending—they call Jeanne the BCF: “The Birthday Cake Fairy.” It’s a long story and probably the centerpiece of a new post soon.

I was reminded when reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act last week that, even though I naturally keep a distance between myself and my students outside of class, I have invited them into something intimate in the classroom that I cannot ignore. McEwanA young man says to the central character in the novel that “I feel you’ve brought me close to something else, something really beautiful and deep, but I don’t really know what it is.” That’s what I love about teaching—I get to open the door to a wonderfully beautiful and profound world for my students on a regular basis. Often the person who opens the door becomes a placeholder for what lies beyond the door. I have to remember that the invitation does not end when I walk out of class—I need to keep the door of the Morgan cave open—at least a crack. Even J learned something during his semester teaching with me. At one of our last team meetings of the semester, J said “Vance, I’m really pissed!” “Why?” I wanted to know. “Because I’m really beginning to like my students.”

monochrome exposure

Monochrome Exposure

October is often the month that the best new movies of the year are released and the best books of the year are published—this year is no exception. Jeanne and I saw “The Judge” last night; although it did not crack my “top” anything list, it was very good, especially the lead acting performances by Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., and Vera Farmiga. On the novels front, two of favorite novelists’ latest were published within a couple of days of each other—Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. I was in the middle of my latest Scandinavian mystery when these two novels arrived from Amazon, so Jeanne grabbed Lila and I read The Children Act last week as soon as I left Denmark.

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 just a few days ago as InquirersI spoke with six folks ranging in age from fifteen to seventy in an “Inquirers’” class at the small Episcopal church that Jeanne and I attend. 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 Wednesday evening. Knowing that my own religious upbringing in the Baptist church included brainwashing in the Bible, my good friend and rector of the church Marsue asked me if I would come to this particular meeting to talk about “Bible History.”

October and November are by far the busiest and most stressful months of the academic year for me as director of a large interdisciplinary program on my college campus, so I unashamedly admit that I hadn’t thought for more than five minutes about what I was going to say to this class as I walked into church on Wednesday evening. OT worldBut I was not at all worried—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. I even forgot to bring one of the dozen or more Bibles at home with me. Upon request, Marsue produced a book with a few maps relevant to Old Testament events from her office, while the church secretary (who is one of the Inquirers) 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 a bit over a half 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 any, because everyone (especially the teenagers) 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.

In the midst of making these contemporary connections, one of the older members of 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

hello october

October Musings

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

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is actually my brother’s birthday today as I write; he has now lived two years longer than my mother did, and I’m within two years of the age at which she died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-six years ago; last week Jeanne was in Brooklyn for a week to be with and help her sister after the October death of her sister’s husband of more than forty years.

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

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

October also often brings important speakers to campus. At the beginning of Q and A at her on campus talk the other day, best-selling author (and resident scholar for this year at my college) Kathleen Norris mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Two Sundays ago we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the animals.”

Three years ago

Three years ago

This year

This year

Twenty-one dogs, a hamster and a turtle were in attendance (twice as many dogs as were present the previous year), but no cats. That confirms my long-standing suspicions that cats are agnostics or atheists. I was lector for the fourth straight Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who is rector of our little Episcopal church, makes sure I am scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always bring my dachshund Frieda to the lectern so she can stare people down while I’m reading.

Last Sunday we returned to the regular cycle of readings, which during this liturgical year in ordinary time has been walking us through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. On Sunday in Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll start over again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life in Ian McEwan’s latest novel (an October release just a few days ago), The Children Act:

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

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

imagesCAD3WBK2

The LTFTU Committee

I have recently been thinking a lot about faculty-administration relations, particularly about the various reasons why they might go bad. There seem to be a lot more of those reasons than there are reasons that they might work. I was reminded of when, just a year ago, a classic case of faculty/administration dysfunction erupted because of the actions of a particularly problematic committee: the LTFTU Committee.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]I have learned many things from my good friend Marsue, who is the rector of the Episcopal church that Jeanne and I attend. She’s a great story-teller; in the midst of one of her entertaining and inspiring sermons not long ago, she brought us into the world of the Quakers. Apparently when a couple is thinking of marriage, or a person believes she or he is called to ministry, they come before a committee of fellow-Quakers charged with the task of helping the persons in question discern in which direction the divine wind is blowing. IMG_2604[1]This committee is called the “Clarity of Thought Committee.” The WHAT???? I thought to myself as I sought to keep from busting out laughing in the middle of church. That’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. In my experience, committees are many things—but never centers of clear thinking.

Committees abound on my campus, as they do just about anywhere human beings congregate for any purpose whatsoever. 579x255xScreen-Shot-2012-08-22-at-12.01.29-PM.png.pagespeed.ic.-5iB-2PbbE[1]Many of these committees go by acronyms. There’s CART (Committee for Academic Rank and Tenure), the CCC (Core Curriculum Committee), CCAT (pronounced “see-cat”, the Core Curriculum Administrative Implementation Team), and many others. These are powerful and influential committees, designed to invade and mess up the lives of unsuspecting faculty when they least expect it. But all of these pale in comparison to the most powerful committee of all, the LTFTUC–the Let’s Totally Fuck Things Up Committee.

first_edition_tp[1]No one is sure of the origins of the LTFTUC; but I’m convinced its origins precede every human institution. Lots of LTFTUC origin myths are out there; my favorite is contained in Books One and Two of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan and the rebellious angels have fought a valiant war against God and the obedient angels, and upon losing the war have been cast into hell. Everyone is lying around on the ground more or less stunned, wondering “What the fuck just happened?” and “Where the hell am I?” as they begin to stir. As soon as everyone gets their bearings, Satan starts a conversation that is strangely reminiscent of an academic department meetingGustave Dore Paradise Lost Satan takes his throne in Hell[1]. The topic under consideration is “Now what do we do?” Moloch makes an impassioned “we may have lost the battle, but we can still win the war” speech, urging an immediate reengagement of God’s forces in combat. Belial advises otherwise, arguing that it’s clear that they are not strong enough to prevail, and anyways this new spot—“hell,” you call it?—isn’t so bad. A bit of paint, a few throw pillows, we can make this place more than okay. Finally Chair Satan speaks, offering a third possibility. “I’ve heard that God has a new project,” he says, “a project that includes creating some neat new creatures that God seems really obsessed with. I say we send someone to check it out and do whatever they can to totally fuck God’s plans for his new toy up. I even volunteer to be the one to go.” And thus the LTFTUC was created. I’ve heard it said that when Satan fell from heaven he fell into a church choir. I can see that, but according to Milton, he created the LTFTUC.

The LTFTUC is alive and kicking anywhere human beings make plans and try to make stuff work. It is alive and kicking on my campus. I’ve been a member of the LTFTUC before, although I don’t ever remember having volunteered or even being assigned to be on the committee. There I am, one of a group of usually 6-10 equally sincere and hard-working people with an assigned task. pigcloseup1636.standalone[1]Sometimes it works, and sometimes despite our best intentions and efforts we turn into the LTFTUC, turning every purse we can find into a pig’s ear and bars of gold into hunks of lead. I was a member of committee XYZ for a couple of years, the hardest working and most regularly productive committee I’ve ever been involved with. The year after I left the committee, XYZ all of a sudden started cranking out decisions that, in light of their usual product, seemed random and mean-spirited. There was lots of discussion on campus about what was up with XYZ—the most plausible was that, at least for a semester or so, XYZ had turned into the LTFTUC.

A few years ago, my home department was conducting a national search for a new tenure track colleague. We discussed and voted on the area in which we were searching—we decided that we would search for someone specializing in the philosophy of X. My department is sharply divided ideologically on almost every important issue; in this case, there was disagreement about what exactly we were looking for. There were several options:

1. Hire the best philosopher of X we can find.

2. Hire the best philosopher of X who happens to be a Catholic.

3. Hire a Catholic who appears to know something about the philosophy of X.

4. Hire a Catholic; whether he or she knows anything about philosophy of X is irrelevant.

header_committee[1]

The search committee was formed and in short order turned into a subcommittee of the LTFTUC. The non-search committee members of the department assumed we were looking for 1, at worst 2, while the majority of the search committee members decided we were looking for 4 but would settle (maybe) for 3. All hell broke loose (remember the origins of the LTFTUC), starting with a six-hour long department meeting. Really—this has become legendary on campus, along with the ensuing virtual bloodletting and nastiness that has yet to heal. imagesCAD3WBK2The LTFTUC did its job, and the Philosophy department passed the English department in the contest for “Most Dysfunctional Department on Campus.”

Just when one might think that the LTFTUC has disbanded, it reconvenes on a different topic, as they did at the college a bit over a week ago. A speaker was scheduled to give a talk on campus on same-sex marriage, a topic more controversial on a Catholic campus than many other places. A problem with the format arose, the problem was apparently solved, then the LTFTUC convened. I wasn’t at the meeting, but my guess is that it went something like this:

Chair: Here is our charge: Cancel this event in such a way as to totally fuck things up. Any suggestions?

Committee Member 1: Let’s be sure to alienate all of the students by not letting them know that the event is being cancelled or why.

Member 2: Let’s find ways to make several elements of the student body unsure about whether they are welcome.

Member 3: Let’s make sure that the communication of the cancellation to the faculty and staff is filled with both confusion and obfuscation.

Member 4: Let’s make sure that we specifically and seriously insult and belittle several members of our own faculty.

NBC News CorrespondentsMember 5: Let’s make sure that the whole story goes viral to national news outlets, starting with the NY Times, the Huffington Post, the Atlantic Monthly on-line, and let’s see if we can get Laurence O’Donnell to make it a lead story on his MSNBC show.

Member 6: When we receive pushback from various constituencies, let’s make sure that we double down091913_popenewgaycomments[1] on the obfuscation and confusion even more, adding some half-truths and outright falsehoods.

Member 7: Let’s make sure that we do this a couple of days after an interview is published in which the Pope says that Catholics should lighten up on the obsession with abortion and homosexuality. This way, we can let everyone know that we are literally more Catholic than the Pope.

Member 8: And let’s be sure to piss off hundreds, if not thousands, of alums.

Chair: Our work is done here. You all have your marching orders—go for it!

SNAFU[1]And they did—mission accomplished on all fronts, and the LTFTUC’s work is done until reconvened at an unknown date and location in the near future. As their motto says: “SNAFU.” Situation normal, all fucked up.

Last Thursday, at the time when the cancelled lecture would have taken place, a student-organized meeting in response to the cancellation took place instead. As I watched 200+ students, along with a number of faculty and alums, express both their anger and disappointment phoenix_rising_from_the_ashes_by_keithmaude-d3cs5iv[1]with the college they love in ways both respectful and constructive, I thought “maybe this time the LTFTUC isn’t going to have the last word.” Sometimes phoenixes rise from ashes and order emerges from chaos, despite the best LTFTUC efforts. This committee shares something in common with vampires—it doesn’t operate well in the light. But that’s where open discussions and honest disagreement thrive.

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

I just finished spending a week with over one hundred freshmen spread across three classes immersed in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

pickett

Academics in No-Man’s Land

This is the second in a projected series of occasional Friday reflections on what I have learned as a faculty member who has frequently had to play administrator over the past three-plus years. Mars and VenusMen are from Mars, women are from Venus, but maybe faculty and administration are from the same planet after all.

I have had the opportunity over the past three-plus years to spend time occasionally in the no-man’s land between faculty and administration—simply writing about it from a faculty perspective with a few positive things to say about the other side a couple of weeks ago drew several pointed and critical comments from fellow faculty members.

Faculty/Administration War Games, or How I learned to appreciate (or at least tolerate) assessment.

Spending too much time in academic no-man’s land is similar to Pickett’s charge across no-man’s land on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863—a spectacular failure that arguably turned the tide inevitably against the Confederacy in the Civil War. 350px-Pickett's-ChargeAfter two days of bloody stalemate, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered an intense bombardment of Union forces, under the command of General George G. Meade, aligned on Cemetery Ridge from Confederate artillery positions on Seminary Ridge. This bombardment was intended to soften up Union positions sufficiently to ensure a successful infantry charge across the “no man’s land” plain between the ridges by Confederate troops led by General George Pickett and two other generals.

Bad idea. The bombardment was ineffective and the charging Confederate soldiers were sitting ducks, mowed down long before reaching Cemetery Ridge as they charged unprotected across the field. the chargeThe Confederate troops suffered casualties of more than 50%, marking the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, the northernmost thrust of the Confederate Army into Union territory, and arguably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. When asked years later why his charge had failed, General Pickett replied “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Warfare is a favored metaphor when discussing the interactions between faculty and administration on a college campus. Both sides consider everything to be a “zero sum” game—whatever is gained on one side is automatically assumed to have been taken from the other. Each assumes the worst both in motive and will on the other side. Yet the two sides are required, at least on occasion, to interact with each other. When the need arises, the tactics and procedures are reminiscent of the Battle of Gettysburg. One side tries to soften up the other side with distractions, deflections, apparent “peace offerings,” or simply preliminary committee work—all in the hope of setting the stage for a successful frontal attack when the time is right.

Administration Ridge

Administration Ridge

Case in point: a seemingly innocuous foray by the administration into perceived faculty territory that I was in the middle of over the past few weeks.

I direct a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores on my campus, a program so central to what we do that the classroom portion of the beautiful, brand new humanities building we moved into just over a year ago was designed, then built with the classroom specifications and needs of this program as the driving force. meThe program is in its fourth decade of existence, but in only the second year of a re-energized and reconceived version that was the first ever serious revision of the program’s aims and pedagogy. I was approached early in the summer by some important administrators with a proposal for a “Wall of Honor” to be placed in a large, prominent location on the main floor of the building. The purpose of the Wall of Honor would be to celebrate in portrait and plaque the contributions of retired faculty (some deceased) whose contributions to the program over the years were especially noteworthy. The proposal contained a detailed description of nomination and selection processes; I was asked to first gather input from my advisory group, a small hand-picked committee of persons from the academic departments that largely staff the program, wall of honorthen to run the proposal past the faculty in attendance at the first full faculty meeting of the fall semester.

The proposal seemed both benign and well-intentioned—who could possibly be opposed to honoring both excellence in teaching and former colleagues? Doesn’t the faculty often complain that the administration does not sufficiently recognize faculty achievement? The six members of my advisory group agreed that in general it was a good idea and helpfully identified some easily fixable problems in the proposal, adjustments made by the proposers as soon as I identified them in an email following the advisory group meeting. As is my custom, I sent the program faculty at large the amended proposal by email attachment a week before the first scheduled full faculty meeting of the semester,asking them to be prepared to talk quickly about the proposal before we moved on to the more important business of the day. What could go wrong?

Faculty Ridge

Faculty Ridge

You would think that after several years of being first a department chair, then a program director that I would realize how stupid the question What could go wrong? is when anticipating a faculty meeting. In military terms, the preliminary bombardment of the faculty through contact with me, then indirectly through the advisory group, meant nothing to those present and lined up on Faculty Ridge at the department meeting. As if organized by an invisible hand, several faculty members spoke clearly and directly in quick succession about how much they hated the proposal; furthermore, they backed up their opposition with good arguments.

  • The idea of singling out individuals for recognition is contrary to the spirit of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching that we are seeking to establish and strengthen in this program.
  • old white guysThe first dozen or so retired faculty, perhaps more, to be honored on the wall will be old white guys, hardly a helpful image on an already too-white campus seeking to diversify both its student body and faculty. In such a highly visible place, we need to show that we are moving forward, away from an older, more patriarchal version of ourselves and towards a more inclusive, and a more welcoming, college.
  • The excellence that will be honored is primarily teaching excellence, while many good but less-than-excellent faculty whose contributions behind the scenes have been immense will never be nominated or honored.
  • This proposal does not facilitate the new program’s goal of reaching out to faculty across campus and incorporating them into what has, until now, been largely the domain of four large departments in the humanities.

And so on. Some of the arguments were so clearly presented that they convinced me and a couple of members of the advisory group who had entered the meeting as supporters of the proposal.pickett If the analogy of Pickett’s charge is appropriate, the Wall of Honor proposal never made it out of no-man’s land before it was ripped to shreds by the artillery on Faculty Ridge.

With faculty and administrators continually suspicious of and at war with each other, it’s amazing anything ever gets done on campus. The administration proposes that we all agree that the Pope is Catholic (even the current one); the faculty wonders what the real motive behind this proposal is. blue skyThe faculty senate resolves that the sky is blue; the administration wonders what they really want. In a world in which the faculty and administration by definition have radically different agendas but also arguably share many important goals, concerns and dreams in common, can we do better?

In the aftermath of his proposal’s evisceration by the faculty, one of the administrator proposers and I had an interesting conversation in my office a week after the faculty meeting. We have gotten to know each other well over my three years of being program director—from our shared work on an important committee I have learned that he (as well as the other administrators on the committee) are remarkably human, while I believe that he (and they) have learned something similar about me. In the same room we can get many things done, even though they still roll their eyes at the faculty’s resistance to what appears to the administration to be “no brainer” common sense, while I continue to explain that the world viewed through faculty eyes is a very different world than the one perceived in the offices of Harkins Hall.

conf and unionMy administration colleague and I agreed that a different strategy is called for, starting with a beginning faculty discussion and vote on whether any sort of process to honor faculty is desired. If not, then we’ll move on to other more important things. If so, then I’ll try what I did last year—putting some faculty and administrators in the same room to create a joint proposal. A handful of folks from Faculty Ridge will meet halfway across no-man’s land with a handful of folks from Administration Ridge, and we’ll see what happens. Collaboration instead of suspicion? Conversation instead of bombardment? Cooperation instead of cold (or hot) war? Impossible. Ludicrous. Or is it?

imagesCAY02GPZ

Reading the Fine Print

As predictable as the change of seasons is the point in any given semester when students will approach me for the first time and ask for out of class help. Usually it’s after the first exam or paper has been returned. Students with dreams of an “A” dancing in their heads tend to make an appointment when their first major piece of graded work has a “C” or “D” on the top of it. I’m a user-friendly professor and am more than happy to meet with any student; when first approached, I usually raise the student’s eyebrows when I direct the student to be sure and bring the appropriate texts along for the appointment.

When Jane comes to my office, conversation begins with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why I did so poorly—I’ve done all of the readings and haven’t missed any classes.” I know whether the latter claim is true already, and will be checking on the first claim shortly. First, however, I tell Jane that “whatever I suggest in terms of strategies or help is going to require more time and more work from you. If you’re looking for a way to do better in the class without working harder than you have been already, there is no such way.” This is undoubtedly a disappointment, since the reason Jane made the appointment was to get the “magic bullet” that will slay the dreaded “C” or “D” and make room for the “A” to which she believes she is entitled. Learning that there is no such magic bullet is never good news.

And it gets worse, as I next ask to see her texts. They look as if they had just been taken off the bookstore shelf—no dog-eared pages, no scribbled notes in the margin, no underlined passages, no highlighted texts—and Jane’s name isn’t even in it. Handing my heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of the same text to Jane, I remark that “here’s problem number one. Your text should look like this.” I even go so far as to provide her with the key to my quirky markings, according to which I highlight in yellow the first time through, focusing the second time through primarily on the highlighted areas and underlining with a black pen those part that appear most crucial. Then after class I return a third time to write notes and comments from class discussion in the margins. Not only will following something like this procedure lock the material into the student’s memory by requiring something more than simply looking at words, but it will also condense the material for reviewing purposes when exam time comes.

I lost Jane’s attention as soon as she saw my copy of the text. Even though Jane doesn’t know what the colors and markings mean, she at least knows that they mean a lot of work. You mean I have to read more than once? That I have to read and think critically? That I have to read it again after class? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s going to take a lot of time and effort! And indeed it will. Jane has been introduced for the first time to the fine print in the life of learning—it’s hard. It requires building good reading and study habits. True education isn’t for lazy people and it isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t for anyone who wants to cut corners, to get to a desired outcome without taking all of the necessary steps in between. Every one of them.

In Mark’s gospel, we read of a classic “fine print” experience. In Mark 10, a young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments. Jesus lists a few for the guy, just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more. He’s thinks that he’s ready for the fine print.

We all know Jesus’ response—he reads him the fine print. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” We also know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” The fine print demanded the one thing the young man could not do. But what precedes Jesus’ reading of the fine print is even more interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But that damned fine print—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s about the fact that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “ when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of all disturbers of the peace. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

This is a disturbing story because it absolutely runs roughshod over our idea that human dealings with God are transactional. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z not to die?” is the question we so often want answered, and this sort of question is always wrong when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical I heard the poet Michael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything, in ways I’m not sure I’m fully ready to think about yet. But the following from Rainer Maria Rilke gives me hope:

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.

 

But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.

 

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

lifes-a-bitch[1]

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

FSM

Knowing the Unknowable

babelI just spent a week with over one hundred freshman exploring the familiar but challenging stories of Genesis and Exodus. I do this just about every year, but each time I’m in a different place and the students have different interests, backgrounds, and prior experience with the texts, so once again “all things are become new.” This time the focus most frequently was on the problem of how to make contact with the most important force in the universe in a meaningful way when, virtually by definition, that force is unknowable. The God of the Old Testament stories wants simultaneously to have an intimate relationship with apparently random groups of human beings and individuals, yet frequently falls back on the “I’m God and you’re not” position when things get dicey (such as when human beings start asking tough questions).

a wild godA friend of mine from church who also is a regular at the monthly seminars I lead afterwards asked me several weeks ago whether I had ever read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God. I had not, and honestly had never heard of the book (although the title alone made me want to read it immediately). “Put it on your list,” said my friend. “I want to know what you think of the end of the book.” That was at the beginning of the summer; I only got to my assignment in the last two weeks of August, right before the beginning of the new semester.

I found the book to be equal parts interesting, annoying, and incoherent. As Ehrenreich, best known (to me, at least) for her best-seller nickeled and dimedNickeled and Dimed, wanders back in time to her dysfunctional childhood and tries to pick up a thread of investigation now that she is in her early seventies that she dropped many decades earlier, she frequently gets lost in the jungle that threatens everyone who writes about themselves—the temptation to believe that just because it happened to me, it’s interesting and important to someone else. The fine line between fascinating memoir and suffocating self-absorption is often close to invisible. I should have loved the book, given that it is (roughly) the story of an atheist trying to come to grips with what can only be described as a series of  “mystical experiences” that occurred over a few years in her late teens and early twenties. Right up my alley—sounds exactly like what God would do, send mystical experiences to an atheist while giving well-intentioned believers the silent treatment. But it wasn’t until the final chapter when I realized why the whole thing just wasn’t clicking with me. Ehrenreich writes:

I have no patience with Goethe when he wrote, ‘The highest happiness of man is to have probed what is knowable, and to quietly revere what is unknowable.’ Why ‘revere’ the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?

“Aha!” I thought. She’s trying to play the “seeking after God” game using a set of rules that guarantees that she will lose the game. balticThat’s like playing Monopoly using rules that guarantee you’ll not proceed past Baltic Avenue. Never a good idea.

Ehrenreich was trained as a scientist and came from a family with no regard for religion, so her categories of explanation for everything are objective evidence, provable fact, and calculating reason. She lacks the common vocabulary for even beginning to communicate about experiences that apparently do not fit into these categories, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. And it is a heroic effort throughout, regularly teasing the reader with impending breakthroughs in understanding—when she’s not spending page after page telling us about her love affairs, her immersion in sixties radicalism and a variety of stop-and-start careers, that is. But I hung in there because I was hoping for a big payoff of some sort—Barbara Ehrenreich meets the Divine.

In her final chapter, the one in which I hoped she would tentatively draw a line between the knowable and the unknowable as her experiences have led her to draw it, Ehrenreich instead unfavorably quotes the above passage from Goethe, then proceeds to speculate randomly about the “wild God” who has been lurking around the fringes of her rational and logical life ever since her mystical experiences as a teenager. Maybe God is the Presence we occasionally found ourselves in the middle of while experiencing natural beauty. FSMMaybe God is a creation of the “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” that cognitive scientists say our human brain comes equipped with, a device that predisposes us to project consciousness onto things other than ourselves, including rocks and trees. Maybe God is like a germ or a virus, not really alive but pervasively invading the various cracks available in living things. Or, I might add, maybe God is a Flying Spaghetti Monster, since apparently once one starts speculating beyond the boundaries of logic any guess is as good as any other.

“Why revere the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?” In the end, I find these questions to be sad, simply because the continuing assumption behind the questions is that everything, and I mean everything, is subject to not only logical scrutiny (that’s fine) but also the assumption that only those things that are at least in theory within the range and scope of human reason are worthy of even a moment of human attention. facebookIt is as if we have no other tools available for engaging with and trying to shape a meaningful life within the world we find ourselves so unexpectedly placed.

The other day I made the rare choice to get involved in a Facebook discussion. In response to my resistance to his universal claim that “Religious faith is bad,” a Facebook acquaintance (whom I’ve never met) said “Faith is belief without evidence. What else does it mean? Why else would it be needed?” My quick and inadequate response was “Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” As long as faith opponents are rejecting a definition of faith similar to TwainMark Twain’s “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true,” I’m with them. But that’s not what real faith is. Rather, it is applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” wrote the author of Hebrews. The relationship between faith, evidence, knowledge and hope is one worthy of extended investigation—perhaps a sabbatical?? But to assume that faith and evidence have nothing to do with each other is to define the game out of existence—or to guarantee advancing no further than Baltic Avenue.