Category Archives: philosophy

A Liberal’s Worst Nightmare

One of my teaching colleagues and mentors used to love to tell the story of what happened one day after he and a colleague teamed up for a particularly impassioned lecture in the interdisciplinary course they were team-teaching. I no longer remember what he said the text or topic of the class was, but after class a usually silent back-row-sitting student came up from and said “Wow! You guys really take this stuff seriously!” Which raises the question: What would happen if we actually took the things we claim to believe and be committed to seriously enough to do something about them? Seriously enough to completely change our lives?nhs

Katie is a “good person”—doctor for the National Health Service, mother, wife, and socially aware—but is desperately unhappy with her life. Her husband David is angry and cynical; he writes a newspaper column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway” in which he pillories everything from old people who walk too slowly getting off the bus to overrated artists like Sting and The Beatles. Katie and David’s marriage is in trouble, their kids are spoiled and ungrateful, they live in an upper middle class neighborhood but know few of their neighbors, they are comfortable but are surrounded by poverty and homelessness, moral demands are flying at them from all sides. Katie is having an affair, which she blames on her overall unhappiness. She wants a divorce, which David refuses to agree to.hornby

This is the setup for Nick Hornby’s hilarious and insightful novel How to Be Good, which will be included on my General Ethics syllabus in the fall. What makes the novel particularly interesting is that within the first fifty pages, under circumstances better read about than described (you really should read the book!), David undergoes a mysterious moral transformation from a cynical and nasty piece of work to a dedicated moral and social activist. David and Katie have paid lip service to all of the appropriate liberal political and social positions ever since they met at university, but now David is sounding as if he intends to actually act on what they have always lazily claimed to believe. How is Katie to respond? How is she to cope with a husband who is suddenly attentive, pleasant, no longer angry, sharing his portion of the parenting burden without complaint . . . and who intends to turn their lives upside down? Katie is nervous, because “I can’t help but feel that all this sounds very ominous indeed.”

About a third of the way through the book, David lays it all out:

We don’t care enough. We look after ourselves and ignore the weak and the poor. We despise our politicians for doing nothing, and think that this is somehow enough to show we care, and meanwhile we live in centrally heated houses that are too big for us . . .homeless We have a spare bedroom, and a study, and meanwhile people are sleeping outside on pavements. We scrape perfectly edible food into our compost maker, and meanwhile people at the end of our road are begging for the price of a cup of tea and a bag of chips . . . We spend thirteen pounds on compact discs which we already own in a different format . . . We buy films for our children that they’ve already seen at the cinema and never watch again . . .

You get the point . . . and so does Katie. At the end of his diatribe, David sums up succinctly.

I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare . . . I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.

In short order David gives many of his children’s toys and one of the three house computers away, seeks to recruit families on their street to house homeless teenagers in their spare bedrooms, and generally disrupts house and home in an effort to walkwalk the walk. The problem is that David’s logic is unassailable. If this is what we claim to believe, then this is what we should be doing. Which monumentally frustrates Katie who, after all, has considered herself to be the “good person” in this marriage for years. “I want to destroy David’s whole save-the-world-and-love-everyone campaign, but I want to do it using his logic and philosophy and language, not the language of some moaning, spoiled, smug, couldn’t-care-less, survival-of-the-fittest whiner.”

I share many of Katie and David’s beliefs; while theirs seem to have been established primarily through education, peer pressure, and social class, I often trace most of my liberal moral and social commitments back to my professed Christian faith. Which raises disturbing to a different level, because a person of faith who actually put the fundamental tenets of the faith into daily practice would be a Christian’s worst nightmare. beatitudesI smack headlong into this every time I read or hear the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which the Sermon on the Mount came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. Throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is dwidows and orphansriven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate. Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the Ten Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. 10 commandmentsBecause of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m very grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God? Our worst nightmare.

Gun Speak

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosophers love words and language. We love to dissect them, analyze them, write insufferably boring and inscrutable articles and books about them, and talk amongst ourselves in a code that only the most inside of the insiders understand. But beneath their PhDs and pretension, philosophers are on to something. Words matter. A lot. WittgensteinAs Ludwig Wittgenstein—arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century—pointed out, our words shape our world. And if we want to change our world, we might want to consider paying close attention to our words—and changing them.

I first encountered both the difficult and liberating aspects of changing my words and language when writing my Master’s thesis thirty years ago. I grew up in a world where language was entirely skewed in the direction of maleness—pronouns, examples, collective nouns for all human beings, God—everything I thought and talked about came packaged in gender-exclusive language, as if one half of the human race wasn’t worth mentioning. The Bible that I grew up reading and memorizing was soaked through and through with patriarchal language. During the 60s many voices began pointing out both how pervasive and offensive sexist language was; I also noted that many people, including most of the people I knew, were not inclined to change their speech habits. gender inclusive 1Not because they didn’t think that feminists and others had a point, but because they were used to using sexist language and they perceived that it would be difficult to change their language default setting.

During my early adulthood I worked on changing my own speech patterns away from sexist toward inclusive; in the late eighties, as I tackled the task of writing a Master’s thesis, I decided that I would make a conscious and concerted effort to write the 100+ page document using entirely gender inclusive language. And it was very difficult to pull off. Not only did it require my becoming entirely conscious of my own sexist language habits, but the primary texts from ancient philosophy that were at the heart of my thesis were written by males who used exclusively male-oriented discourse. My new writing vocabulary and style seemed forced and stilted at times, but I attributed that to the difficulty of breaking bad habits and establishing better new ones. Over the subsequent three decades using gender-inclusive language has become so natural and habitual to me that hearing or reading sexist, male-oriented language screeches like nails on a chalkboard. gender neutral 2One of my regular classroom missions is to make students aware of how important it is to use gender-inclusive language. When some students—male and female—don’t see the moral reasons behind my mission and resist it, I sell it to them practically by assuring them that gender-inclusive language is a standard expectation in business communication. Try getting a good job without gender-inclusive language in your skill set.

Now I find myself faced with a new language challenge. The one-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, as well as the shooting of Rep. Scalise and others, has placed the issue of gun violence and control back into public conversation, something that happens for a brief period every time such an incident occurs until various forces push the conversation off the table. I am a strong advocate of significant gun control (extending far beyond prohibiting private ownership of assault rifles), do not own a gun, do not intend to ever own one, and am both incredulous and frustrated when, time after time, no real changes ever happen—even in the wake of Newtown. ammosexualI’ll leave it to my colleagues in history and sociology to explain this country’s general obsession with guns. Prompted by a brief interview that I heard on the radio a few days ago, I started paying attention to my speech, looking for ways in which words and idioms involving guns appear in my everyday communication. I was more than disturbed to find that I, a gun hater if there ever was one, say things like the following on a regular basis:

  • He was so nervous that he was sweating bullets.
  • I wish the people on that committee would stop deliberating and just pull the trigger on a decision.
  • I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, so I just took a shot in the dark.
  • Sometimes it is really important to just stick to your guns.
  • Wow, did that plan ever misfire.
  • He just needs to bite the bullet and get on with things.
  • She really jumped the gun that time.
  • It may not work, but we need to give it our best shot.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Such words and phrases are so common in ordinary conversation that many of us—including myself—are entirely unaware of how pervasive they are. “Blown away,” “Bullet points,” “Locked and loaded”—our language reflects the pervasive presence of guns in our culture and our collective psyche. And I, for one, think that this is more than just a harmless habit.words matter

How we speak matters. The words and phrases that we regularly use matter. If we’re uncomfortable with the fact that so many people get killed by guns in our culture, then it would be a good thing for us to slow down and listen to how many different expressions that we use have to do with firearms, shooting, and guns. And just as I made a deliberate project of becoming gender-inclusive in my writing and speaking several decades ago, I am beginning a new personal project—eliminating words and expressions having to do with guns, shooting, and firearms from my communication. My newest book is currently in the midst of the editing process at my publisher; I was pleased to find when I checked that in the roughly 62000-word text I do not use the word “gun” at all, and use the word “bullet” only once when I refer to the assassin’s bullet that took the life of Bobby Kennedy. I’ll need to look more carefully for some of the phrases and idioms listed above. minute manApparently my project is close to complete when it comes to my writing. But in speech I have a lot of work to do. One way to do this is to make Jeanne aware of the project and to point out every time I inadvertently use a gun-violence-related phrase. I’ll be including a section on guns and the second amendment in my upcoming General Ethics classes in the fall—that will be a good place to practice (I might start the section with consideration of this post).

I frequently wonder what I can do to turn the tide against our culture’s collective obsession with guns and the violence that invariably accompanies it. My project is something I can actually do—not easily, but with awareness and fortitude. And significant change sometimes begins with simply being aware. If enough people worked at dropping gun-related words and phrases from their vocabulary, perhaps our conversation about the Second Amendment would begin to change in fruitful ways. It’s worth a shot. Whoops! I have a lot of work to do.end gun violence

Making the Truth Laugh

One of the many enjoyable occurrences at the end of each semester is occasionally receiving thank-you notes from students. Often they come from quiet students who said little in class but eloquently mention a moment or a text from the semester that made a difference or that will stick with them. The bookshelves in my philosophy department office are lined with such cards and notes, welcome reminders that once in a while something works better than expected.

A couple of years ago I received such a note from a student in the Honors interdisciplinary class that I teach with two colleagues. The student wrote that our class was “the best college course I’ve ever taken,” a judgment tempered slightly by the fact that she was a freshman and at the time had only taken six college courses so far. Later in her note, however, she thanked the three of us for our senses of humor, writing that “I have never laughed so hard or as often in any class I have ever taken.”simone weil[1] That one I’ll cherish for a long time, because my teaching philosophy for years has been shaped by Simone Weil’s observation that “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” For this student, at least, mission accomplished.

chickenthoreau[1]When it comes to learning, laughter is serious business. Although they often do not occupy front row seats in the pantheon of philosophical greats, many of my favorite philosophers—Epictetus, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche and others—depend on various forms of humor to shape their thought. Irreverence is a particularly effective philosophical tool. A logical argument demonstrating that human capacities do not match human pretensions is not as effective as Montaigne’s126763672545178[1] “even on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own ass.” Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest master of irreverence in the philosophical Western tradition, undermines commitment to logical precision with “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!” and scoffs at piety with “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” As I told a junior faculty member after observing a skilled but humorless performance in his logic class, “philosophy is serious, but it isn’t deadly serious.”

nameoftherose[1]In Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose, laughter plays an unexpectedly central role. Set in a fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery, Eco weaves murder, heresy, liturgy, medieval medicine, sexual deviance, the Inquisition, opulence in the face of abject poverty, and political intrigues between the Emperor and two competing popes into a memorable fictional tapestry. A central thread in that tapestry is a question that sparks frequent and passionate debate: Did Christ ever laugh?protectedimage[1] This seemingly random question becomes the center of an intense debate that ultimately involves far more than academic curiosity. Jorge, the venerable and blind former librarian insists that Christ never laughed. Not only is there no record of such a thing happening, but there are also solid theological reasons for denying laughter to Jesus. “Laughter foments doubt,” Jorge argues, and doubt undermines those things about which we must be certain. Those in doubt must turn to the relevant authority—a priest, abbot, text—to remove uncertainty. 4349348690_947b4e3701[1]Laughter makes light of what is most serious and most indubitable.

William of Baskerville, the visiting Franciscan monk who becomes the medieval Sherlock Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of several murders at the abbey, counters that there is nothing in the sacred texts indicating that Jesus did not laugh, and also points out that laughter is part of human nature (and Jesus was human, after all). Furthermore, William claims, “sometimes it is right to doubt,” given that doubt and uncertainty are part of the natural human rational thought process. “Our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason must also please divine reason.” William is not given to hilarity, but has a keen eye for the ironic and incongruous throughout the novel, frequently showing that the true pursuit of truth often takes one down paths of uncertainty and irreverence. The adventure and openness of the process is far more instructive than any certainty that hypothetically lies at the end of the path.

As the novel progresses to its dramatic conclusion and the body count of dead monks increases, the depth of Jorge’s commitment to certainty and rejection of the twin demons of laughter and doubt is revealed. For decades, Jorge has been the self-appointed concealer of the only existing copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, in which Aristotle show that the value of comedy is to cause us to laugh at power, at pretension to greatness, and at human aspirations. Laughter allows us, at least temporarily, to abandon fear. In Jorge’s estimation, laughter is the enemy of authority, both temporal and spiritual, and must be snuffed out at all costs. Accordingly, he has murdered those in the abbey whom heJorge_&_William[1] suspected of knowing about and lusting after this dangerous text.

In the climactic confrontation  between Jorge and William at the novel’s denouement, as the depths of Jorge’s insane commitment to protecting certainty and truth  becomes apparent, William exposes the true nature of Jorge’s obsession. “You are the Devil. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” Jorge has shaped his life and actions according to his conviction that truth is to be protected, that it must be defended against all threats—there is a strong element of fear in his conviction that he owns the truth. He is absolutely right about one thing, though—laughter and doubt are direct threats to everything he considers holy. Laughter can bring pretensions to certainty and truth to their knees far more effectively than argumentation.imagesCAEB25EV Rather than face such a world, Jorge destroys the book, himself, and ultimately the library and entire monastery.

In the final pages of The Name of the Rose, in the midst of smoking ruins and ashes, William reflects with his young apprentice Adso on what they have seen and experienced. William refers to the dead Jorge as the “Antichrist,” an appellation that Adso does not understand.images[5]  “The Antichrist,” William explains, “can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear those who are willing to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them.” What is to be learned from the tragic and apocalyptic events at the abbey? William’s speculation is one that all seekers of truth and lovers of human beings should take to heart. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Anne LamottAnne Lamott, whose work causes me to laugh more than any author I can think of, defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is not only uniquely human, it is one of the many signs of divine love that each of us carries into the world daily. Did Jesus laugh? That depends on whether he was a human being or not. Since incarnation, humanity infused by divinity, is at the heart of the Christian faith, laughter is a fundamental expression of God in us. “Lighten up!” is a call to holiness.

diy-quote-wall-art_856-1[1]

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

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

When Are You Going To Grow Up?

joshua

Not long ago, the reading from the Jewish scriptures at church was brief and a bit odd. Early in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites cross the Jordan River and enter the land that has been promised to them, even though it is already occupied by nomadic tribes and city dwellers who are under the apparently mistaken impression that since they already have been living there for generations, it belongs to them. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, a whole generation of Israelites has been born and grown to adulthood who are unfamiliar with the formative traditions underlying their heritage. First, the males of the new generation are all circumcised. After a short recovery period (recently circumcised guys aren’t going to be very good soldiers or anything else), we arrive at Sunday’s reading.

While the Israelites were camped . . . they kept the Passover in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on the very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened bread and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Understanding the significance of this requires a bit of context—what was this “here today, gone tomorrow” manna all about?red sea

In Exodus we are introduced to manna in the context of a very familiar scenario: The Israelites (who were miraculously delivered from the pursuing Egyptian armies by the parting of the Red Sea a few chapters earlier), are complaining. And with good reason, because they are hungry in the middle of a desert with no food in sight—and it’s God’s fault. “At least when we were slaves in Israel we had enough food to eat,” they moan—which may be a case of selective memory. In any case, God’s solution to their predicament is direct and, to me at least, somewhat amusing. “You want food?? I’ll drop so much meat on you in the evening and so much bread in the morning that you won’t be able to figure out what to do with it all!” mannaThe white material left on the bushes and ground after the dew evaporates is confusing to the Israelites—“WTF is this??” they ask. “Man hu” in Hebrew, from which we get the word “manna.”

Manna turns out to be an Israelite culinary staple for the four decades of wandering in the wilderness. Not surprisingly, they get sick of eating the same damn thing for every meal—in Numbers, their dissatisfaction with their diet plays an important role in the development of a new leadership structure for the tribes. We find the liberated Israelites complaining—again. Everyone is pining for the wonderful variety of food they remember eating in Egypt. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” slaves in egyptOf course, they have conveniently forgotten that when they were in Egypt they were freaking slaves. God is understandably pissed (this is not the first time these complaints have arisen), and Moses is also annoyed. But Moses’ annoyance isn’t just with this rabble of complainers he is in charge of; he’s had it up to here with the Big Guy as well. He’s feeling overworked, overstressed, and unappreciated. After some negotiation with God and some creative input from Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a new bureaucratic structure of authority is devised and everyone is happy—until the next time.

We discover in the Gospel of John that the Jews of Jesus’ day still took great pride in the fact that God loved their ancestors so much that they were fed for forty years with heavenly miracle food. The problem is, God is no longer in the manna business—according to the reading from Joshua, he went out of that business as soon as the Israelites crossed the Jordan River.

dillardFurthermore, as Jesus reminds his Jewish brethren, eating manna apparently wasn’t that special. “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” Annie Dillard once called this the cruelest thing that Jesus ever said, but not really. Manna was a temporary stopgap to address an immediate need, it ended as soon as a better solution to daily hunger could be found, and it’s nothing to memorialize or interpret as proof that you are special.

Is there anything here for we contemporary folks, a lesson to be lifted out of the pages of Jewish scripture? The story of manna is both a coming-of-age story and a cautionary tale about not holding on to the old when the new is right in front of us. This could also be required reading for people who for a time are deservedly dependent on various social support systems and might be tempted to stay on the dole indefinitely. But as usual, I go first to the spiritual and psychological implications. My Baptist preacher father used to challenge his conservative listeners to “get out of the nursery” and spiritually grow up, noting that a thirty-five-year-old person still in diapers and sucking on a baby bottle would be a rather sad sight.grow up And yet that’s precisely what traditional religion often does for those it welcomes through its doors. It provides a lifetime of packaged answers and canned responses to important questions about what is greater than us when after a certain time individuals should be struggling with these questions without their hands being perpetually held. I remember being told as a kid in Sunday School that if the Israelites had taken the most natural direct route from Egypt to the Promised Land, it would have taken them no more than a few weeks. Instead it took them forty years, at least partially because they got used to living on divine handouts and the equivalent of nourishing baby food. The spiritual and psychological equivalent of manna is spooned out to the congregation in many churches every Sunday.

A final return to the newly circumcised and manna-deprived Israelites in the Book of Joshua is in order. It is worth noting that on the day after they celebrated Passover, the very day the manna dried up, “they ate the produce of the land.” In other words, they raided the fields of the people already living in Canaan—the Israelites had just shown up and had no grain-producing fields of their own yet.jericho When the divine handouts and support systems dry up, one needs to get creative. What’s going to replace the reliable divine infusions that are no longer available? It could be anything, including what might seem to be “out of bounds.” And what happens next? The Israelites engage in their first skirmish among many in the extended occupation-of-Canaan campaign that takes up the rest of Joshua—they lay siege to the walled city of Jericho. With help from a prostitute (who turns out to be a direct ancestor of Jesus) and by marching around the city until the walls fall down, Jericho is taken. Apparently divine help is still available—it just isn’t going to come in the package that we have become accustomed to.

There is no one but us

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There are many aspects of the academic life that I love, but attending academic conferences is not one of them. Yet last weekend I found myself on an Amtrak Acela headed for a conference on Simone Weil, colloquywhere I would be reconnecting with some friends and colleagues as well as presenting a paper (the last one of the conference, usually the third rail of such events). After a four and a half hour train trip to Philadelphia, then another half hour on the regional train to the conference hotel, I was ready for dinner. My normal procedure would have been to take my tablet along and do a bit of paper grading, but both tablet and phone were in need of charging, so I headed to the onsite restaurant on the main hotel floor with Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, the reading assignment for the final meeting of my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium early the next week. At seventy-five pages, Dillard’s book was the perfect companion for dinner. With no electronic distractions and fortified by three fine craft beers and two appetizers, I read Dillard’s striking text from cover to cover, once again blown away by her unique ability to push me to places where I would just as soon not go.

Not much happens in Holy the Firm, a meditation on the beauty of the natural world as well as the many ways, both affirmative and devastating, in which it impresses and imprints itself on human beings. htfThe central event of the book is a private plane crash in which the face of Julie Norwich, a seven-year-old girl, is horribly burned. It is a classic WTF??? event, as Dillard expresses brilliantly.

We’re tossed broadcast into time like so much grass, some ravening god’s sweet hay. You wake up and a plane falls out of the sky . . . What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims?

I have spent almost a full semester not with my “Beauty and Violence” students asking the “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” question of whatever or whoever is greater than us and presumably responsible for some of the random violence and tragedy that surrounds us. A little kid with her face burned off? WTF??? indeed.

Dillard’s struggle with how to even shape a meaningful and appropriate question is eloquent, disturbing, and relentless. How are faithful people supposed to seek relationship with a God who is apparently oblivious to such events? “Where was God?” is frequently asked, a question that Dillard answers with truth rather than faith or hope. “We need reminding, not of what god can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel’s worth of sense into our days.” lawnThe truth of the matter, which the existence of  “flamefaced children” force us to confront, is that God does not appear to care.

We reel out love’s long line alone toward a god less lovable than a grasshead, who treats us less well than we treat our lawns. . . . Of faith I have nothing, only of truth; that this one god is a brute and traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen.

I expect my “Beauty and Violence” students to have a lot to say about this text in class this afternoon. We have worked hard all semester to challenge the traditional notions concerning God that are absolutely impotent when applied to Julie Norwich situations. Several authors have suggested that, for any number of reasons that are worthy of consideration and discussion, God is not omnipotent in relation to our world. Dillard nods toward such ideas throughout her work, including in Holy the Firm:

Faith would be that God is self-limited utterly by his creation—a contraction of the scope of his will; that he bound himself to time and its hazards and haps as a man would lash himself to a tree for love. That God’s works are as good as we make them. mangerThat God is helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen.

A God who creates out of love rather than power is limited in all of the ways that love places limitations on our actions concerning what we love. An intriguing possibility arising from alternative traditions in both Christianity and Judaism. But as my students and I have concluded regularly this semester, “We don’t know” is the most honest thing we can say when seeking to know the mind and intentions of the divine. And the follow-up, for persons of faith, is usually “Now what?”

As Dillard notes in the above passage, it appears that we clumsy, partially ignorant, well-intentioned but frequently failing human beings are how the divine gets into the world. And that, in many ways, is both empowering and worrisome.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us. There has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.

This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his prison cell awaiting execution by the Nazis,  writes to his best friend that “that we must live as people who manage our lives without God.” Because no cosmic source of answers and solutions is going to sweep in and set things straight. We’re it. “There is no one but us.”

The next morning as a couple dozen folks partook of standard conference breakfast fare waiting for the paper-presenting festivities to begin, I chatted briefly with Tomeu, the president of the academic group hosting the conference. Noting the absence of two annual regulars, I asked “Where is Jane? Where is Larry?” Both were on the list of papers to be presented over the next couple of days, and neither had been missing from any of the dozen or more of these conferences I’ve attended over the years. “Oh, you didn’t hear what happened?” Tomeu replied—“Jane fell last week and broke several bones.” “That’s awful!” I said—Jane is in her late seventies/early eighties and is rather frail. “And what happened to Larry is just terrible,” Tomeu continued.  sad angelLarry, one of the nicest people I have ever met, told me a year earlier about his beloved first grandson, showing me several photos of his pride and joy. Just last week, Tomeu said, Larry’s three-year-old grandson had choked on a marshmallow and could not breathe. By the time the marshmallow was dislodged, the child had been without oxygen for several minutes; in the hospital it became clear that he had suffered significant brain damage. The next day, Larry’s grandson died.

There’s nothing to say, other than oh my God. You want to scream A FUCKING MARSHMALLOW????, but in the end, no words are appropriate. I’ll tell this story to my students this afternoon, and Larry’s grandson will be the most recent example, joining Julie Norwich, of a “what the Sam Hill is going on?” complaint. It’s enough sometimes to turn one into an atheist. And yet here I, as I so often do, resonate with Annie Dillard—also from Holy the Firm.

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

Many years ago when Rick Pitino was coach of the Boston Celtics, he was often asked how long it would be before the Celtics returned to the glory to which spoiled New England basketball fans had become accustomed over the years. Pitino counselled patience, because “Larry Bird isn’t going to come walking through that door any time soon.” And neither is God. There is no one but us.

One Heart and Soul

In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium no long ago, our text was a co-authored volume in which two economists, who happened to also be persons of Christian faith, alternated essays and responses on a number of important issues. markets and moralsAs their weekly writing assignment in preparation for seminar, I asked students to select a point of disagreement between the authors (the disagreements were legion), describe briefly the position of each author on the selected issue, then take a side supported by argumentation. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, my sophomores should be able to do this—identify issues, fairly and accurately describe various arguments, and take a position that is both fair to other relevant positions and supported by evidence and argument. So I was disappointed when more than one student ended their essay with something like “I prefer X’s position because Y sounds a lot like socialism.”

Sigh. In my comments on such papers, I always include something like “That’s a description, not an argument. It’s related to another sort of description masquerading as an argument: ‘I disagree with Z, therefore Z is wrong.’” Divided linePart of my job as a professor is to convince my students that a liberally educated human being earns the right to have her opinions. Unearned opinions are like body parts—everybody has them. Plato lists “opinion” low on his ladder representing the climb from ignorance to wisdom. Moving up this ladder one or two rungs from “opinion” to something closer to knowledge involves learning that just believing something does not make it true, realizing that disagreement is the beginning of justifying one’s beliefs, not the end. It’s always discouraging to realize that someone can make it to almost half way through their undergraduate college career and not have learned this.

But I digress. What got me to thinking about this most recently was a story from The Acts of the Apostles that will be one of the Sunday texts in a couple of weeks :Acts 4

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

It’s one of my favorite passages from the New Testament—as I heard it, I thought of my student. “Dude!” I thought, “It’s a good thing you didn’t hear this—because this really sounds like socialism!” In the past I have used this text in class to poke at the unquestioned assumptions carried by students who, often coming from a faith-based upbringing in an upper middle class or wealthy household, believe communismthat somehow their capitalist free-market attachments and their background framework of religious values will fit seamlessly together as if by magic. “They sound like a bunch of communists!” more than student has remarked in shock, and indeed they (anachronistically) do. Welcome to the lifelong task of trying to live a life of coherent belief and commitment!

This passage from Acts is sometimes linked to the familiar story of “doubting Thomas” that was yesterday’s gospel reading from John. In spite of the bad rap Thomas has gotten over the centuries for being the one disciple loser who refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he had seen him and touched him first person (of course, none of the other disciples believed until they had first-hand contact either, but let’s not go there), he is one of my all-time heroes. By both personality and profession I am naturally skeptical–Imontaigne think that doubt is closer to godliness than cleanliness. Just as I take the great skeptic Michel de Montaigne as a model for how to do philosophy, I consider Thomas as one of my models for how to approach the spiritual life, something I share with many of my spiritual guides ranging from Kathleen Norris, Christian Wiman and Joan Chittister to Anne Lamott, roawn williamsRowan Williams and Barbara Brown Taylor. Most homilies about this gospel draw the moral of the story from Jesus’ gentle criticism of Thomas’ attitude: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But there is seeing and then there is seeing. Except for a select few, those who have committed themselves to Jesus in any way have never seen him physically. But without a direct encounter—without truly seeing something worth committing to—faith commitment can easily become sterile religion.

Why, I have often wondered (and have often asked my students), did the early Christian communities choose to organize themselves economically in the manner described in Acts? They are close enough in time to Jesus’ physical presence that undoubtedly some of their members actually knew him in the flesh, or at least knew some people who did. But if the vision is not going to fade, such communities cannot rely on first-hand remembrance of the source. Practices and attitudes reflective of the values the community is committed to must be embedded in the very fiber and structure of the common life of the group. the wayAt some point, given that a new community of followers of the Way was seeking both stability and faithfulness to the message, someone must have asked “How would Jesus have organized this community if he were here?” Somebody remembers the parables, another person recalls the Beatitudes, and pretty soon they become a small, primitive laboratory for the Gospel.  How to truly become Jesus in community form? By putting into action what the man supposedly said and lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Love each other as God loves us. This wasn’t church for them—this was life. Most likely their very survival depended on it.

Two thousand years later, persons who profess a Christian faith share a lot in common with these early followers of Jesus. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, just as most—and pretty soon all—of the members of these early communities had not. micahWe are bound together by having seen Jesus in ways far deeper and more profound than physical vision. And our challenge is the same as theirs, to figure out what it means to actually live it rather than just say it. As I often do, I fall back here on the prophetic words of Micah who asked, just as these early communities did, just as we do today, “What does the Lord require of us?” Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. And, I might add, doubt is an appropriate seasoning for each of these.

Dodge City Ethics

Bein’ born is craps. How we live is poker. Doc Holliday

sparrowOf the dozens of novelists whose books I have read over the years, Mary Doria Russell is one of the least likely favorites. I’m not a big science fiction fan (I much prefer mysteries), but her debut novels The Sparrow and Children of God, about a Jesuit missionary expedition in outer space (you can’t beat Catholics in space!) are both beautifully written and thought-provoking. Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt during the post-World War One partitioning of Palestine, is much better than I expected it would be. And I’ve avoided her most recent novels, Doc and Epitaph, which follow Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers through late nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, for quite a while since I’ve never been a fan of Wild West fiction. But a recent reread of Dreamers of the Day reminded me of what a wonderful writer Russell is; I was looking for a new novel, so Doc and Epitaph it is. I highly recommend  them.doc

Doc is set in 1878 Dodge City where the genteel and consumptive dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday finds himself scratching out a living as a card shark by night and a sometimes-dentist for cowboys who have never seen a toothbrush by day. A Northern-educated Southern gentleman who headed west hoping that the dry Plains air might be good for his lungs, Doc finds himself in a violent world where life means little and in which most of his acquaintances can barely read, let alone appreciate his conversational references to Vergil and Dostoevsky. One exception is Morgan Earp, the youngest of three Earp brothers in town, who is a policeman along with his older brother Wyatt. Wyatt can barely read, but Doc happily loans Morgan favorite volumes from the library he brought with him from Georgia, including Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist.

One morning Morgan is in Doc’s dentist office as Doc extracts several teeth from a chloroformed Wyatt, Doc and Morgan discuss the novels Morgan is reading.holliday

  • Doc: Morgan, how are you and Mr. Dickens getting along?
  • Morgan: I lie him better than Dostoevsky. Oliver Twist reminds me of Wyatt when he was a kid.
  • Doc: You met Mr. Fagin yet?
  • Morgan: Yeah. Ain’t made up my mind about him. He’s good to feed all those boys, but he’s teaching them to be pickpockets too. That don’t seem right.
  • Doc: But that is just what makes Fagin interestin’. Raskolnikoff, too. Fagin does his good deed with a bad purpose in mind, but the boys are still fed. Raskolnikoff kills the old woman, but he wants to use her money to improve society. As Monsieur Balzac asked, May we not do a small evil for the sake of accomplishin’ a great good?
  • Morgan: I don’t know. It’s still an evil.
  • Doc: And yet, that seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.

posterAnd there, in a dentist office in dusty, dirty Dodge City, is the heart of one of the greatest quandaries in ethics. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it ever morally permissible to act immorally in the attempted achievement of a great moral good?

Philosophers love this stuff. The other day when I tried to get a colleague and friend from the English department to choose whether she would choose to support our Providence Friars basketball team or the University of Virginia Cavaliers (UVA is her beloved alma mater) if they played in the Final Four, she asked “Is this one of those philosophy games where you give someone completely unrealistic hypotheticals and then force them to make a choice?” She undoubtedly had heard philosophy puzzles such as

Suppose an out-of-control train is running down the tracks directly at a bus full of 30 people stalled on the track. You have the opportunity to redirect the train to another track where one person is stalled in a car on the track. trolleyIf you don’t pull the switch to redirect the train, thirty people will die. If you do, one person will die and thirty people’s lives will be saved. Do you pull the switch?

To complicate matters, suppose that the one person on the second track is a brilliant scientist who is on the edge of discovering a cure for cancer. Does that make a difference? What if he or she is a homeless person? You get the point.

Surprisingly, non-philosophers don’t always enjoy playing such hypothetical games (by the way, my colleague said she would cheer for UVA, which almost ended our friendship instantly). But the issues raised by Morgan and Doc’s conversation still hold. c and pWas it morally permissible for Raskolnikov to murder the useless old miserly woman in the interest of distributing the millions of rubles she was hoarding to hungry and needy people? Does Fagin’s feeding of dozens of hungry children lose its positive moral strength when we find out that he is training them to be pickpockets and becoming rich in the process?

Many philosophers and theologians have noted that in an unpredictable world filled with evil, no one’s hands are ever morally pure—regardless of their intentions. Doc and Morgan’s conversation moves in this direction.

  • Doc: We’re none of us born into Eden. World’s plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what’s the best way to play a bad hand?
  • Morgan: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • Doc: Infinitely sad, but damnably true. Bein’ born is craps, but how we live is poker. The question is how to play a bad hand well.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus could not have said it better: “For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

But in first week of Easter, I would be remiss if I did not return for a moment to Doc’s characterization of the events of Good Friday and Easter: “That seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.” hyacinthMaybe, but something tells me that a utilitarian number-crunching calculus is not the motivating factor behind Easter. At the heart of the story is radical love—God responds to our flawed human condition by becoming one of us, taking on everything that defines us including pain, injustice, suffering, and death. The new life of Easter emerges from the worst that our world can offer, just as the hyacinths are poking their heads out of the seemingly dead grass in my front yard. No matter the hand we’re dealt, that’s the way to play it.

God and Darwin Walk into a Bar . . .

Several years ago I spent a sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute on the campus of a Benedictine university in the Midwest. Several of the Benedictines at the abbey on site were liaisons between the abbey and the institute, and were part of our regular lunches and discussions. Wilfred, one of the Benedictines, was recently retired from several decades of teaching physics at the university as well as the prep school nearby. During one lunch conversation Wilfred noted that “Darwin taught us more about God than all of the theologians put together.” I am in the final weeks of leading an Honors colloquium this semester; my students and I have discovered just how insightful Wilfred’s comment was.

The colloquium—“Beauty and Violence: The Problem of Natural Evil”—is an exploration of what we might be able to say about what is greater than us through close observation and study of the natural world. My students, the majority of whom are products of parochial school education, have found on an weekly basis that the God they were taught to believe in simply does not square very well with what we find in front of our faces. oasA central part of the course was two weeks with Darwin’s The Origin of Species, one of the most important books ever written. None of my students, even the two bio majors, had ever read the book—they just had heard a lot about it. I often challenge my students to put persons who supposedly disagree sharply about important matters in conversation with each other. So suppose God and Darwin walk into a bar. The Almighty orders his usual 21-year-old Balvenie neat (it’s an upscale bar), and Charles orders a rum and orange juice (really—he drank that). What might they talk about?

Darwin: I read the other day that between one-third and one-half of the people in the U.S. don’t believe in the theory of evolution. Why do people hate me so much?

God: That’s because they haven’t taken the time to have a drink with you! You have the same public relations problems that I have—people assume things and make judgments about us without ever taking the time to get to know us.

Darwin: I am aware, though, that a lot of good Christians believe that the theory of natural selection, if true, undermines many of the features that Christians traditionally have attributed to you.

God: Like what? I always find it sort of amusing when people get into fights over the details of my personality on the basis of third-hand and partial information.

Darwin: Oh, for instance that you are omnipotent and created the world with a specific plan in mind. Since chance and randomness are central features of evolution, an all-powerful God who plans all of the details of creation out ahead of time doesn’t fit evolution very well.I invented it

God: No kidding! But who ever said that I’m into control and planning in the first place?

Darwin: Uh . . . just about everyone? Put that together with your being all good, as well as omniscient, and the traditional portrait of God Almighty is pretty well filled out.

God: You tell me, Charles. Does that portrait strike you as anything like what you know me to be?

Darwin: Not everyone gets to have an occasional drink with you like I do. For the most part, the ideas that people have about you are guesswork and projections based on what they have direct access to. Your followers, for instance, have thought for ages that observing the world around us can help us intelligently speculate about what you are like. And the theory of evolution didn’t help.

God: Why not?

Darwin: All I can do is tell you how the theory of natural selection affected my own belief in you over the decades that I was developing the theory. The more I studied the natural world, the more appalled I was by the violence embedded in every part of it, along with the extraordinary beauty and diversity of living things. Then Annie, my eldest and favorite daughter died after a long illness, despite my wthank god for darwinife’s and my prayers and the continuing efforts of the best medical people. I tried for many years to square my own experiences and knowledge with what I was supposed to believe about God. An omniscient and omnipotent God who allows pain and suffering to run amok throughout creation? I just could not believe in a God like that anymore.

God: Good, because I don’t believe in that God either. But you’re no atheist. An atheist could not have written your final lines in The Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . having been breathed into a few forms or into one; and whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin: That was inspired, wasn’t it? I think I’m an agnostic—I just don’t know what to think about God—you, I mean. Having a drink with you makes you seem so normal, but as soon as you’re gone I have far more questions than answers.

God: But that’s a good thing. A rabbi I know says that he would rather be on earth with the questions than in heaven with the answers.

Darwin: Really? But what are we supposed to do when what we thought we knew about you just doesn’t fit with what we are learning about ourselves and the world around us?

God: I always say that if you don’t like the answers you are getting to your questions, change the questions! Forget for a minute everything you’ve ever been told about what I’m like and start over. Let’s suppose that your theory of evolution by natural selection is largely correct (it is, by the way). On the basis of what that theory tells you about the world, what might you speculate about me?

Darwin: My first guess is that you like change more than stability, and novelty more than the familiar. Annie Dillard, who is almost as astute an observer of the natural world as I am, wrote that “not only did the creator create everything, but he is apt to create anything. God and evolutionHe’ll stop at nothing. There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say: ‘Now, that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’” I’d guess you also favor process over finality and imperfection over perfection.

God: And why would I value imperfection over perfection?

Darwin: Because as every artist knows, imperfections are fundamentally necessary to beauty. Charles Baudelaire wrote that “That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity–that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.”

God: And Baudelaire was pretty good, wasn’t he? This reminds me of something a physicist-turned-Anglican-priest said recently in an interview: “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.” John Polkinghorne is right, because I really am more like Ella Fitzgerald than Beethoven.

Darwin: Most importantly, you apparently are committed to freedom and creativity above everything else—not just in human beings, but in everything. Within very broad parameters, life never stops recreating itself in new forms.teilhard

God: One of my favorite guys, Teilhard de Chardin (how can you not like a Jesuit paleontologist?) hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “Properly speaking, God does not make: He makes things make themselves.” But of course this is risky . . .

Darwin: No kidding! Freedom, open-endedness, radical creativity, a “hands off” attitude—that raises a whole bunch of other questions: the problem of evil, is there a point to all of this, what faith amounts to, can science and religion cooperate . . .

God: Stop! Stop! I’m not sure of the answers to some of those questions myself! (checks his phone)god so loved—Shit! Look what time it is! Can you pick up the tab this time, Charles? I forgot my wallet back home . . .

Darwin: Again? Okay, but now you owe me big time . . .

God: In more ways than you know. Wilfred was right. You’ve taught people more about me than all of the theologians put together!

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.