Category Archives: philosophy

Insufficient Evidence

russellBertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. He was one of the most important and recognizable public figures in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century. He was also an avowed atheist. The story is told that at the end of one of his public lectures in which his atheism was on full display, a furious woman stood up during the question and answer period and asked, “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied, “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’”

I was reminded of this story when the author of an article I assigned in my ethics classes the other day included it at the beginning of his discussion of how people use evidence to support the different sorts of things we claim to be true. For instance, the author claimed, verifiable and objective evidence serves as the foundation for truth claims in the sciences, but in religious belief—no so much. Indeed, the author continued, religious belief is easy and available to everyone because evidence is not required—just faith (whatever that means). atheismThe author identifies himself as an atheist who is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious belief—his conclusions make me wonder if he has ever actually met a person of faith.

As I am working with fifty students in two sections of General Ethics through our current unit entitled “Does God have anything to do with ethics?’ I have found regularly that my junior and senior students—the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education—are often no more informed about the relationship of evidence to faith than the atheist author of the article for this given day. A few weeks ago I provided them with my “go to” definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the hebrewsevidence of things not seen. Some were surprised to learn that this definition, which does not refer to either God or religion, is from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Whatever else faith is, the author of Hebrews is claiming that evidence has something to do with it.

I decided, as I often do, to get at this tricky issue obliquely and through the back door. “How many of you have ever been to Japan?” I asked. No hands went up in either class section, including mine. “How many of you believe in the existence of Japan?” I asked next—all hands went up. “How does that work?” How do we come to believe in the existence and/or truth of something when we lack direct supporting evidence? Because clearly the preponderance of things that each of us believes to be true—thousands upon thousands of items of all sorts—are beliefs that lack direct empirical evidence to support them.“How many of you believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in 1865?” I aslincolnked next. All hands went up. “How many of you were there when it happened?” No hands went up—I assured them that even I was not old enough to have been an eye-witness. So once again we have an example of a claim that everyone believes to be true even though we lack “concrete evidence” (as my students like to call it) to support our belief. Or do we?

Upon being asked to list what sorts of evidence we do have to support our beliefs concerning the existence of Japan and what happened in Ford’s Theater in April of 1865, my students came up with several suggestions:

  • Testimony—The word of others, eyewitnesses when possible, counts as particularly strong indirect evidence. Even though I have not been to Japan, I know people who have visited there and have even met people from Japan. It is, of course, possible that all of these people are lying to me, but the more that the testimonies I gather are consistent with each other, the more likely it is that they are pointing toward something true. This doesn’t work, of course, when considering events where no eyewitnesses are available, such as what happened at Ford’s Theater, but fortunately the spoken word is not the only way in which we are able to gather relevant testimony.
  • Texts—Those who have not been to Japan have seen pictures of it and have read descriptions of it. These are indirect and second-hand, but become part of accumulating indirect evidence. Textual evidence for historical events for whom there are no longer any eyewitnesses is the bread-and-butter of the historian’s trade. goodwinThe great Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a talk on campus a couple of evenings ago—when she spoke of Abraham Lincoln, it never occurred to me to wonder if what she was saying was true. As she described the meticulous ways in which she gathered evidence for her book Team of Rivals from letters, diaries, newspapers, and other first-hand accounts from over a century-and-a-half ago, I was reminded of how the only evidence we have of the truth of anything occurring more than a hundred years ago requires both investigative strategies and an inherent trust in the results of such investigations.
  • Traditions—Often all we have to rely on to bolster various beliefs is what has been passed down from generation to generation as stories and traditions intended to capture the essence of an individual, a family, or a culture. We use such stories and traditions as evidence to support our best guesses concerning what might have happened; they form an important part of the foundation of belief that gets passed from generation to generation.

It was clear as the discussion proceeded that in some of the most important parts of our daily lives, both as we engage with the present and as we consider the past, our “certainties” are built on a foundation of uncertainty, a foundation that we eventually depend upon as if it were certain as our collection of indirect evidence reaches an imaginary tipping point.

We are now half-way through the semester and my students are familiar with my teaching strategies, so no one was surprised when I stepped back from the board where I had listed their examples of indirect evidence and asked, “How might these types of evidence work in another area of belief where we have a difficult time accessing direct evidence—belief in God?” As it turns out, the same sorts of indirect evidence that we use on a daily basis to bolster our belief in all kinds of things are available when we enter the arena of faith. sacred-textsSacred texts are used as sources of evidence of all sorts; regardless of whether a person considers such texts to be divinely inspired or not, they contain evidence of how people have engaged with issues of God and faith over the centuries. Such texts purportedly contain testimonial evidence to the existence and nature of God as the divine reportedly interacts with human beings, and interpretations of these testimonies become centerpieces of traditions that develop into religions.

We also have the same sort of indirect testimony concerning faith-related issues that my students used when identifying the sources of their belief in the existence of Japan even though none had ever been there. For instance, I know many people who report personal experiences that they believe can only be explained by an invasion of or intervention into their life by something greater than themselves. Often such reports can also be accounted for by explanations other than a direct encounter with God, but in such cases one must always consider both the reliability of the person giving the testimony and whether other similar reports have been given by other reliable sources. testimonyAnd as always, whether or not a person believes such reports is going to be a direct function of her or his predisposition to believe anything. How much evidence is enough? What sorts of testimony will I never believe, no matter who it comes from? To claim that evidence is ever free of all sorts of psychological and personality-driven biases is to ignore how we actually gather and use evidence in real time.

My answer to Bertrand Russell’s complaint that “you didn’t us give enough evidence” is that perhaps Lord Russell needed to consider what sort of evidence would have counted as “enough,” as well as what even counted as evidence for him at all. If his claim is that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to establish the existence of God, I might agree. But I would remind Russell that the vast majority of the many things that we believe to be true are not supported by such evidence either. When considering issues as important as faith, there is no need to change the rules of the evidence game—faith is, after all, “the evidence of things not seen.”

Something Rather Than Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

how convenient

Sorry for the Inconvenience

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m writing to let you know that I won’t be in class today at 11:30. Our lacrosse match on campus that was scheduled for yesterday was rescheduled for today at 3:30. Our pre-game prep starts at 12:00, so I won’t be able to make class. I know that I have already missed a couple of classes this semester [four, as a matter of fact], but I’m hoping this won’t be a big problem. snoopyMy academic advisor’s email address is if you have any questions. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m very sorry, but I won’t be able to make Friday morning seminar. I’m in a wedding on Sunday back home; I had a Friday afternoon flight home, but my mother changed it to Thursday afternoon because she was able to find a better fare on that day. I’ll contact you next week to see if there’s anything I need to make up. Sorry for the inconvenience.

My response to each of the above student emails that I received last week was something along the lines of “Dear Student: It is your responsibility to do whatever is necessary to account for missed classes (check the syllabus for the course policy on attendance)—you are also responsible for whatever we work on in the class that you miss. Your missing class is not an inconvenience to me at all—the inconvenience is entirely yours. Dr. Morgan.”

In student/teacher communication, “Sorry for the inconvenience” has become the “go to” email comment with which to close a communication containing information that you don’t want to take responsibility for. inconvenienceThe sender is saying “I hope that maybe a half-hearted apology for making your life difficult will cause you to be merciful, even though I know that you don’t have to and that I should have handled the situation differently.” On the level of effectiveness, the “sorry for the inconvenience” strategy ranks just slightly above the ostrich strategy which requires pretending that the situation never even happened. Used more broadly, “sorry for the inconvenience” could mean “I know what I just did or failed to do messed your day (week, month, year, life) up. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do anything about it or try to set things right—but I wanted you to know that I am aware of the inconvenience I just caused you.” Sort of like “I just wrecked your car—sorry for the inconvenience,” or “I am sleeping with your significant other—sorry for the inconvenience.”

convenience storeHuman beings do not like being inconvenienced. Although we might not admit it, we love “convenience stores” and have made them a ubiquitous part of the American landscape, simply because they are “convenient.” Early in the 2000s, shortly after the Supreme Court decided to appoint George W. Bush as the 43rd President of the United States, Al Gore wrote a book as well as both starring in and producing a documentary about the dangers of global warming with the wonderful title “An Inconvenient Truth.” I have often wondered why millions of people worldwide, but particularly in this country, are so vehement in either their denial that global warming is real or in their insistence that if it is real, human beings are not responsible, given the mountains of evidence and data that prove its reality and our complicity. an inconvenient truthThe title of Gore’s documentary and book directly answers such questions—people often go to extremes in their efforts to avoid anything that, if accepted as true, would force them to adjust their attitudes and actions in uncomfortable ways. I’m reminded of what Vera Brittain once said that teachers should never forget—learning is an uncomfortable process and “above all, human beings desire to be comfortable.” In addition, above all they desire not to be inconvenienced.

Which is what makes a familiar gospel reading from Mark so problematic. In response to Peter’s insistence that he is not going to go to Jerusalem to die, Jesus first puts Peter in his place in Jesus’ inimitable style, then issues this attractive invitation to his would-be disciples:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

To which Jesus might have added, Sorry for the inconvenience. Because what Jesus is describing is more than an inconvenient truth. He’s warning his would-be followers then and now that, as bonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s an inconvenient faith.

There is another story in Mark’s gospel that caught my attention in one of my first posts on this blog almost two and half years ago. 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, listing 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.

We all know Jesus’ response—he tells him the inconvenient truth. “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.” rich young rulerWe also all know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” Jesus had inconvenienced the rich young man beyond his toleration level. But what precedes Jesus’ sharing this inconvenient truth is very  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 this is an inconvenient faith—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 a story about being called to come and die. The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of dispensers of inconvenience. “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.

These gospels are “hard sayings” because they run roughshod over our desire that our dealings with what is greater than us be similar to a convenience store transaction. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z to get a break?” are the sorts of questions we so often want answered, but they are always wrong sort of question when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical several years ago I heard the poet browneMichael 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. The inconvenience of trying to believe in a God who never calls, writes, or tweets is transformed into the challenge of being God in the world.

Silence and Submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hello october

October Musings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three years ago

Five years ago

This year

Two years ago

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

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

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

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

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

A Grownup Faith

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Atheism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Atheism

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

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

A Practicing Atheist


Daniel Dennett

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

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

Alain de Botton and the School of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horton in a Nutshell

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

Dr. Seuss and Heresy

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

I Speak for the Trees

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

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

Ian McEwan on Boston Public Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have formed my inward parts;

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

My frame was not hidden from you,

When I was made in secret

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

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

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

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

Two Plus Two Makes Four

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

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

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

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

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West of What?

ruaneThe heart of Providence College’s core curriculum is the Development of Western Civilization (DWC) program, a sixteen-credit, four-semester, interdisciplinary and team-taught series of courses required of all freshmen and sophomores regardless of major. From its origin in the 1970s, DWC (or “Civ,” as many call it) has been both a regular source of pride and occasionally of controversy, both of which have been the case recently. I have taught in the program for sixteen of the twenty-one years I have taught at the college and directed the program for the four academic years before my 2015-16 sabbatical. At the end of August on the first day of the current semester (my first day back in the classroom in fifteen months), my colleagues and I chose to spend our first ninety minutes with our new freshman students by raising the question that many of them were probably thinking but were too afraid to ask: Why study Western civilization at all?

The very existence of a program such as ours is controversial in many quarters where many wonder, in an increasingly diverse and globally connected world, whether the study of dead-white-guys“dead white guys” is anything more than a lame and outdated exercise in cheerleading for white folks. But others seek to defend the primacy of Western civilization over all others. One of my colleagues began the class with a clip from the Republican National Convention a couple of months earlier. A talking head panel was filling up air space waiting for the first speaker of the evening. After one person mentioned that the hall was filled with lots of angry white people, Iowa Congressman Steve King took offense.

King: This “old, white people’ business does get a little tired. I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about — where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Panel moderator: Than white people?

King: Than Western civilization itself. It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Unites Stated of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.

King’s comments astounded a couple of people on the panel and outraged a third—as the table exploded into shouting, the moderator wisely broke for a commercial.

The congressman’s comments reminded me of something brought to my attention a few weeks earlier. A person who gave a talk at my college over fifteen years ago remembered it in a recent column on a conservative website, recalling that some of the people present were not happy with the content of his talk.

 I am sure I noted the fact that some cultures are better than others and I might well have quoted (with enthusiastic approval if I did) William Henry’s observation, in his book In Defense of Elitism, that “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.” I am very fond of Henry’s native prosuperior-civiliztionsboscis image, not least because, like Saul Bellow’s question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”, it is so reliably productive of rage among pampered left-wing academics.

These comments could have been written or said by some of my colleagues on campus who often defend the existence of our DWC program by asking “Why wouldn’t we want to focus close-to-exclusive attention on Western Civilization? It’s the best civilization ever!”

After Congressman King’s clip from the RNC, my teaching colleagues began a conversation with our students by asking basic questions such as “What is Western Civilization?” The students seemed unsure how to answer other than to say “we are!” After a few minutes I made my first contribution. “This is going to sound like a stupid question,” I said, “but I’m sitting over here listening to all of you talk about ‘Western Civilization’ and I’m wondering: West of what? Are we talking geography here? What is Western Civilization west of?” None of us had thought to load a map onto PowerPoint, so I just asked the students to picture Europe, Asia, and Africa in their imaginations. “If we draw a dotted line from north to south to divide the East from the West, where would we draw it?”drawing-the-line

The first suggestion was that it would go through the Middle East, in a way that would perhaps include Israel in the West but perhaps the rest of the Middle East in the East. “What about Turkey?” one of us asked. They weren’t sure. Of course if the dotted line continues straight south from Israel, another question arises. “What about Africa? Is it in the West?” I asked.funny-africa “No,” just about all of the students answered, meaning that our dotted line needs to take a sharp turn left from Israel, bisecting the Mediterranean Sea so that Europe to the north stays in the West (as everyone knows it should) and Africa to the south stays non-West (as everyone knows it should). Remembering Congressman King’s inclusion of the United States in Western civilization (even though it does not make an appearance in DWC until the beginning of sophomore year), the dotted line should cross the Atlantic so that the U.S. and Canada lie on the Europe (northern) side of the line. Mexico and Central America? Iffy. South America? Not sure. It was pretty clear that the line was intended to include those most like us in the West and exclude everyone else.funny-asia

This exercise established pretty quickly that the answer to West of What? cannot be geographical. One student then helpfully suggested that “I think ‘Western’ refers to various ideas rather than geographical areas.” Asked for examples, students suggested things like democracy, human rights, capitalism, and monotheism. One of my colleagues, a theologian, jumped on that one. “Is Christianity a Western religion?’ he asked—“Of course!” was the answer (Congressman King would have been proud). “What about Judaism?” The students weren’t as sure there, even when my colleague pointed out that both Christianity and Judaism started in the same place and that Jesus was a Jew. “What about Islam?” Most of the students thought not (Donald Trump would have been proud), prompting my colleague to point out that for a number of centuries during the Middle Ages the westernmost area of Europe—Spain—was Muslim. Trying to define “Western” by religion doesn’t work much better than geographically.monotheism

Finally, one brave student said “I think that ‘Western’ for most people means pretty much the same thing as ‘White’.” And I suspect there’s a great deal of truth in that suggestion. When we study Western Civilization, we will undoubtedly end up studying predominantly dead white guys unless a concerted effort is made to engage with non-Western influences. I mentioned to the students, for instance, thg-and-iat most people don’t know that one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—philosopher in the Western tradition, Plato, was heavily influenced by thought from Persia and India. The dotted line is porous, in other words. Furthermore, one of my colleagues who is of Italian ancestry pointed out that one hundred years ago in this country, immigrants from southern European countries such as Greece and Italy were not considered by many in this country as white.

After ninety or so minutes of this, I’m sure our students left largely in confusion. And that’s a good thing. Despite the name of the course, “Western Civilization,” upon close scrutiny, turns out to be as much a reflection of our expectations and prejudices as anything else. This is good for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old young adults to understand at the outset of their forays into their college education. We live in a polarized political and social climate in which labels and categories are used as if they are as objective and set in stone as the Ten Commandments. Only when we realize that all such dividing lines are at their roots random, porous, and fluid might we seize the opportunity to do better.