Category Archives: philosophy

A Crooked Faith

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. Immanuel Kant

I love many kinds of music, but classical music is my first love. I was classically trained on the piano from age four through high school; my first piano teacher, a Julliard graduate who somehow ended up in northern Vermont teaching piano, was also the organist for the North Country Chorus, a volunteer choral group that was, in the estimation of Vermonters at the time, our version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every year the North Country Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah, which became—and still is—my favorite classical composition. Its music is inspired, of course, but in addition its settings of texts from the King James translation of both the Old and New Testaments were an artistic gift to a kid who was forced to study and memorize significant portions of the Bible from an early age. Even today, decades later, I hear Handel’s glorious music every time I encounter a passage from Scripture that is included in the libretto of Messiah.

After an instrumental introduction, Messiah begins with a tenor recitative and aria set to prophetic texts from the first verses of Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This is followed by the first chorus:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Handel’s music is so beautiful that it is possible to miss the power and promise of the text: When God arrives on the scene, messes get cleaned up, crooked things get straightened out, imperfections are made perfect, and problems get solved. A wonderful promise—but not one that squares with my experience.

I was reminded of these texts and this music as I read and responded to the Facebook comments on a recent blog post that a friend shared on a progressive Christian Facebook page that she administers. The back-and-forth started innocently enough:

  • Him: From the last couple of posts you have made it seems as if you are questioning your faith that’s my thought.
  • Me: I’m ALWAYS questioning my faith! In my understanding, that’s perhaps the key factor that keeps faith alive and prevents it from becoming rigid and inflexible. A favorite writer of mine says that the opposite of faith is certainty–doubt is an indispensable part of a vibrant faith.

In a quick succession of posts, the commenter then sought to set my crooked ideas straight:

  • Him: The word of God stands firm it is not flexible in no way form or fashion And to quote anything from a man’s corruptible heart against it is sin there’s no two ways about it . . . If you always question your faith you are lost and I feel for you you can’t ride the fence or change his word to suit your will . It is what it is period.

Well, now. Before I had the opportunity to say something snarky and self-righteous in response to this clearly misguided, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist person, another commenter posted that she appreciates my posts because they help her “grow and learn,” suggesting to the first commenter that he should “find something more conservative.”

  • Him: I’m a progressive liberal in politics thank you but first and foremost I’m a true Christian to the best of my ability.
  • Me: I also am a progressive liberal in my politics and seek to be a true Christian to the best of my ability. The difference perhaps lies in our understanding of what “true Christian” means. I completely reject the idea that it requires inflexibility, rigidity, or being in service to a specific interpretation of texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
  • Him (after some further pushback from others in the conversation thread): I’m not a conservative in no way but yes I am seeing this page for what it truly is I will see myself out. I will pray for you and those like you who can’t accept the truth of the Bible for what it is and maybe one day you will see your personal opinion on what you want the Bible to mean is in fact wrong. Good day.

I’ve been involved in this sort of conversation many times over the years, and they just about always end this way, with the conservative Christian promising to pray for the liberal “Christian” to see the truth and thereby escape hellfire and damnation, as the liberal immediately rehearses how he will judgmentally and condescendingly share this story with his fellow progressive friends at the first opportunity. But a half hour or so later, the commenter posted one more time, offering some well-intentioned and much appreciated scriptural advice.

  • Him: I leave you with one verse and I promise I will not persist here any further. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
  • Me: Thanks–this is a favorite of mine as well. Except that I prefer the more accurate translation of the final clause: “And he will direct your paths.” Faith is not a straight line–it’s an adventure that takes a person in many unexpected directions.

When Immanuel Kant wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” he was observing, at the beginning of a discussion of his moral theory, just how great the challenge of getting human beings to morally straighten themselves out actually is. Perhaps it is reflective of my natural perversity when I say that I sort of like the crooked timber of humanity. The best moral theories take human beings as we are rather than as the theorist idealistically wants us to be. The same can be said for faith. My own faith is rooted in my embrace of the central, incarnational idea of Christianity: God became human—and still does. The Christian story is not about God straightening human beings out, but rather is about God using our natural human bends, twists, and turns.

Reading the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did using this lens reveals the crooked timber that we all know to be definitive of being human. Christians love to focus on the loving, generous, eloquent, patient, courageous Son of God that we find on every page and tend to overlook other things we discover about Jesus. He got tired, could be curt and dismissive (even to his mother), and was occasionally sarcastic, impatient, and judgmental. He was a real human being, in other words, with all the lack-of-straightness that involves. And that’s good news, since it means that I don’t have to “straighten up” or “sit up straight,” as various authorities used to demand from me, in order to be a bearer of the divine in the world. God is often just around the next corner of our crooked paths.

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

It’s President’s Day, which for all college professors means–as do all Monday holidays in the middle of the semester–“catch up day.” It’s the Spring semester’s version of Columbus Day. I will be spending most of the day catching up on the grading that never seems to end, particularly since I have this nasty habit of assigning my students a lot of writing assignments. But it’s also a time to think about Presidents–not the current one, if I can help it–as well as social policy and politics.

There are many things that I love about visiting our friends Mike and Suzy. Included among those things are the various and random items spread about their house that make me think. We usually enter their house through the garage; next to the door into the house is an extra refrigerator/freezer containing, amongst other thing, the better-than-Bud-and-Miller beer that Michael always makes sure is on hand for my visits. I take full responsibility for raising Michael’s beer awareness over the years and proudly survey the contents each visit.

For all of the years we have been visiting, two bumper stickers on the outside of this refrigerator have frequently caught my attention. The first: When Jesus said “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them. The second: Who Would Jesus Bomb?  Striking, provocative, and very timely. Although our country always seems to be wondering who to go to war with, these bumper stickers particularly came to mind a few years ago as the most “do-nothing” U. S. Congress in recent memory debateed what should be done in response to events on the other side of the world—the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Do-Nothing-Congress1[1]This was (and continues to be) a Congress whose members had become so constitutionally incapable of true discussion and compromise that they would rather use each other’s toothbrushes than try to understand each other’s arguments. Yet they were strangely united by the question of what is the best and most appropriate violent response to violence. Although possible diplomatic solutions were proposed, the tenor of the conversation seemed to be not so much whether to respond with violence, as when and how. And the Syrian conflict continues unabated.

I do not pretend to know what is in the best interest of the United States or of those in the Middle East. Whatever votes are taken, whatever decisions are made, and whatever actions are endorsed are always fraught with uncertainty and subject to endless second-guessing. I am also strongly committed to the separation of religion and politics in the sense that public policy should not be fashioned with any particularly religious framework in mind. But over the past few years I have begun to explore the parameters of my Christian faith in new ways, discovering over and over again that these parameters are more expansive and flexible than I could have ever imagined. wwjd-bracelet[1]Questions like whether or how to respond to what the Syrian government allegedly did to its own citizens jerk me up short when considered in the light of my Christian beliefs. Because I find absolutely no justification in the seminal texts of my faith to justify violence under any circumstances, even if such violence is proposed as a measured and proportional response to violence of a different order entirely. And this concerns me.

Truth in advertising requires that I reveal that my natural tendencies lean strongly toward pacifism and non-violence. I grew up in the sixties in the midst of the Vietnam War; my brother, three-and-a-half years older than I, was a conscientious objector. The draft lottery ended just as I became old enough to be subject to it; had it continued, I would have followed in my brother’s footsteps as a conscientious objector or perhaps in the footsteps of others to Canada.Vietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967[1] So it is not surprising that I resonate with the non-violence and pacifism of the Gospel texts—they align with and confirm my natural tendencies. For exactly these reasons, I am very cautious about making claims concerning the appropriate Christian position to take in cases such as Syria. The philosopher in me knows that human beings, myself included, have a very strong tendency to interpret texts through subjective lenses and then treat that interpretation as if it was objectively true.

But I challenge anyone to find in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s parables, or his teachings from the Gospels anything that justifies responding to violence with violence, regardless of the nature of the violence that demands a response. This is what makes even sketching the outlines of a consistent Christian position in cases such as Syria so maddeningly difficult. Jesus in the Gospels continually stresses the importance of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick—the disenfranchised and powerless, in other words. _143081042209598[1]And could there be a more blatant example of abusing the powerless than killing innocent civilians, particularly children, by using chemical weapons?

A text I have used frequently in classes over the past several years is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie’s riveting account of how the villagers of Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in southeastern France, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children, under the noses of the Gestapo and the Vichy police during World War II. Inspired by the Gospel in action as taught to them by their dynamic pastor, Andre Trocme, the villagers hid and cared for refugees in their homes, farmhouses, shops and places of worship until they could safely be taken across the nearby border into neutral Switzerland. And they did all of this, at the continual risk of their own lives, in the open while fully dedicated to non-violence.

Hallie reports that upon the publication of his book recounting the story of Le Chambon, the author of one of the first letters he received sought to remind him of just how limited and insignificant the Le Chambon story really was in the larger context of World War II and the Holocaust. “Le Chambon wasn’t even in the war,” the author of the letter wrote. “Reverend Trocme and a miniscule number of equally eccentric kindred-spirits had no effect,” and mattered only to mushy-minded moralists. Only vast forces “make history,” forces energized by power that overwhelms moral niceties over and over again. Le-Chambon-before-the-war-634x397[1]“Nothing happened at Le Chambon,” the letter concluded, at least nothing worth paying much attention to.

Hallie admits that “the moral brilliance of the villagers does not light up the moral darkness around the village as much as it makes that vast darkness seem darker by contrast.” Individual and collective acts of moral bravery in the face of inhumanity, terror, and violence often appear to have no greater impact than spitting into the face of a hurricane. Force can only be met by greater force, violence often can only be thwarted by violence. Hallie himself was a combat artilleryman in the European theater during World War II, and writes “I knew that decent killers like me had done more to prevent the mass murders from continuing than this pacifist mountain village had done.” So in the real world, a world in which no one loves their enemies and no one turns the other cheek, why even try to think through violence within a framework of non-violence?

The world in which we live does not accommodate non-violence as a response to violence, peace as a response to aggression, apparent weakness as a response to power. Every attempt to institutionalize goodness and organize moral behavior ends up playing the same sort of power game that is supposedly being opposed. The message of the gospel is gutted every time it is joined to recognizably effective tools of power, even with the best of intentions. As followers of Jesus, we are saddled with a perspective and a call that is guaranteed to be a failure. Teachings_of_Jesus_6_of_40._parable_of_the_leaven._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible[1]And this should not be a surprise, since the whole Christian story is rooted in weakness, suffering, loss and apparent failure.

But this is what makes the presence of true faith and belief in this world so crucial. We are told in the gospels that “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Despite its apparent insignificance, yeast over time works its apparent magic on the lump of dough, changing it incrementally into something entirely different. Who would Jesus bomb? No one, because that is not the divine response to even the most horrific of evils. We are called to be present in the midst of it all, not proposing policies that God would endorse or solutions stamped with divine approval, but rather as witnesses of hope, of the possibility of transformation, and of an insistence that a better way is possible. As Philip Hallie wrote to his letter-writing critic, “thanks for your point of view. But something really did happen there.” We are called to be catalysts for changes that often are so small as to seem invisible. But as the proverb reminds us, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Socratic Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a Moral Holiday

It has been a bit over three months since the Presidential election, just over three weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration. It seems like an eternity—time apparently only flies when you are having fun. There has been no end of unsolicited advice from all parts of the political and religious spectrum for those who, as I, are having a bit of a hard time figuring out both how to process what has happened and, more importantly, how to approach the days, weeks, and months ahead. I have, for instance, been told “You lost, so stop whining and deal with it!” (as if principled resistance and whining are indistinguishable), as well as “Why don’t you give him a chance? It may not be as bad as you think” (You’re right—it’s worse). But the response that disturbs me most is one that I’ve read frequently on Facebook from fellow Christians, both those who voted for the new President last November and those who did not. “I just fall back on believing that God is in control and that things will work out according to His plan.” I used to hear that sort of thing a lot when I was kid as a response to or explanation of any number of disturbing developments. I didn’t buy it then, and I still don’t.

As much as I would like to take a hiatus from the insanity that seems to accompany the new administration’s efforts on a daily basis, I am finding that the courses I am teaching this semester won’t allow it. As I reread a talk by William James in preparation for an upcoming class in my American Philosophy course, for instance, I found James discussing an issue that has arisen frequently over the years in my classrooms with students: for many persons of faith, the whole purpose of religious belief is the apparently attractive, but elusively vague, state of “comfort.” “It comforts me to believe in God,” someone will say, without specifying whether this comfort is a fuzzy hope about an afterlife, a sense of solidarity created by hanging out occasionally with people with similar beliefs, or a warm emotional attachment to believing that “it will all work out right in the end.” William James calls this theistic attitude “trust in the Absolute,” and faces it head on.

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying that their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is “overruled” already, we may . . . without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

There have been a number of times during the past several weeks when I have been tempted to take such a moral holiday. But if there ever was a time when persons of all faiths should not take a break from being on the moral front lines, this is it.

Pragmatist philosophers like William James often talk about the “cash value” of an idea, suggesting that the “truth” of an idea or belief is to be judged not by whether it matches up correctly to some objective fact of the matter, but rather by considering to what extent the idea or belief “works” or actually makes a difference in one’s life.

Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much.

The radical nature of this reinterpretation of what it means for something to be true becomes obvious when applied to faith and religion. In what does the truth of the theist’s “I believe in the existence of a good God” reside? Not in the comfort provided by believing that such a being actually exists in a heaven beyond the reach of human investigation, but rather in the difference this belief makes in the theist’s day-to-day life. Where the rubber of faith hits the road of real life, comfort is a scarce commodity. What matters is what my faith causes me to think and do in what William James calls “this real world of sweat and dirt,” noting that the services of the divine are needed not in a heaven “out there” somewhere, but “in the dust of our human trials.”

The fundamental problem with the attitude that “God is in control” or “We may not recognize it, but God has a plan” is that, for those of us who profess the Christian faith, we are God’s plan. Taking a moral holiday by wrapping ourselves in the platitude that God knows what God is doing is to deliberately ignore what the gospels tell us over and over again. We are the salt of the earth, we are tasked with caring for those who fall through the cracks, we are the way that God gets into the world. When those in power enact policies that harm the very persons for whom God cares the most, it is our responsibility to speak truth to that power in words and actions.

One of the ways that persons of faith often engage with the surrounding world is through prayer, which makes Colbert I. King’s opinion piece “Should we pray for Trump?” in Saturday’s Washington Post of particular interest.

Washington Post: Should we pray for Trump?

King reports that Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention advises us “to pray that Trump’s presidency is a ‘great and good one’ and that he flourishes in the civil arena,” while the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have concluded that Trump’s policies are “clearly demonic acts.” Quoting the Apostle Paul, the bishops advise their congregations to wrestle against “the rulers of the darkness . . . [and] spiritual wickedness in high places.” King himself says that his “humble prayer is that the President of the United States gets help,” similar to my wife’s prayer that “the damaged four-year-old inside the President’s adult body will be healed.”

My own experience with persons who pray (now sixty years and counting) reveals that prayer often becomes a way for persons of faith to take a moral holiday. Throwing a few words, formulaic or improvised, heavenward might seem to satisfy the person of faith’s obligation to engage with a world in which it often seems beyond our capacities to make a difference. But we are instructed by the Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing,” indicating an engagement and activity that goes far beyond a few set pieces offered at specified times. My relationship with prayer was tense and fraught my whole life until I realized that prayer is not an activity—it’s a state of being. It’s an attitude that, for me, means asking How do I bring the best of me, the divine that I know is my deepest me, into this day, this class, this essay, this conversation? What does the divine in me have to say about policies and decisions at the highest level of government that are an affront to what I believe God wants for all human beings?

“I trust that God knows what God is doing” is simply a platitude and an escape until I realize that when it comes to God’s engagement with the world, I’m it. We’re it. This is how God does it. Jesus loved the unlovable, healed the sick, challenged the powerful, and eventually paid the ultimate price for not taking a moral holiday. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew something about putting his life on the line, wrote: “Living confession does not mean the putting of one dogmatic thesis up against another, but it means a confession in which it is really a matter of life or death.” Lives are at risk—don’t go on holiday.

Saying What Cannot Be Said

I recently led a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. Job1A one of our weekly meetings, we were talking about Job’s reaction to what God has to say about the unfairness of Job’s suffering after many chapters of silence from the Divine end of things. I have heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you. Job, described by God to Satan in chapter one as the most righteous man on earth, has heard all about God. He knows the stories, the texts, the rules, how to worship, how to sacrifice—in short, Job has heard everything there is to hear about how to make God happy and stay on a good relationship with what is greater than us. None of that seems to matter as load after load of shit is dumped on Job, everything falls apart, and his complaints and demands for explanation meet with stony silence from on high.

When God finally does respond, the divine answer to Job’s questions boils down to “who the hell are you to ask for explanations from me?” god in whirlwindI’m God and you’re not, in other words. But the content of God’s response to Job’s complaints is not what has a lasting impact on Job. What changes his life is that for the first time, God is not something Job has just heard about second-hand. He now has had a first-hand, face to face encounter with God—and everything he has heard throughout his life pales in comparison. As members of the group engaged with Job’s description of this encounter, one person noted both that such experiences are indeed life-changing and that they are extraordinarily difficult to put into words. How is it possible to describe or explain such a powerfully personal experience, especially to those whose knowledge of the divine is entirely in the “I have heard of you” category? the unicornOne likely answer—it isn’t possible.

The discussion reminded me of a character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels who unexpectedly has a Job-like encounter that shatters his world. In The Unicorn, we are introduced to Effingham Cooper, a stuffy, well-intentioned but ultimately annoyingly foolish busybody. He sees himself as a man of action, striving for everyone to be happy, but actually through his actions is simply attempting to manipulate others and create the world around him in his own image. By literally immobilizing him in a quicksand-like bog, into which he has stumbled while on a twilight walk, Murdoch sets the scene for Cooper to have a revelation that is one of the most central passages in all of her twenty-four novels.

He could still feel himself slowly sinking. . . . He began to feel dazed and light-headed. . . . Max [a dying philosopher whose pupil Cooper once had been] had always known about death, had always sat there like a judge in his chair facing toward death, like a judge or like a victim. Why had Effingham never realized that this was the only fact that mattered, perhaps the only fact there was? If one realized this one could have lived all one’s life in the light. . . . Irish bogSomething had been withdrawn, had slipped away from him in the moment of his attention and that something was himself.

Effingham has lived his life to this point as most human beings do, under the impression that he is the center of the universe. Preparing for what appears to be his imminent demise, he’s faced with the possibility that perhaps his existence is not as important as he thought.

Perhaps he was dead already, the darkening image of the self forever removed. Yet what was left, for something was surely left, something existed still? It came to him with the simplicity of a simple sum. What was left was everything else, all that was not himself, that object which he had never before seen and upon which he now gazed with the passion of a lover. And indeed he could always have known this for the fact of death stretches the length of life. Since he was mortal he was nothing and since he was nothing all that was not himself was filled to the brim with being and it was from this that the light streamed. This then was love, to look and look until one exists no more, this was the love which was the same as death. Hman and donkeye looked, and knew with a clarity which was one with the increasing light, that with the death of the self the world becomes quite automatically the object of a perfect love.

Cooper is unexpectedly rescued (by a stranger leading a donkey, no less!), but his experience of near physical death provides a framework for spiritual insight. His physical entrapment has been the catalyst for recognizing that he has been psychologically and spiritually unfree. Sinking physically in the bog causes him to experience a sublime release from the burden of his own self-consciousness and self-centeredness. His moral rescue precedes his physical rescue. In an epiphany, the beauty of the universe is revealed to him through the momentary extinction of his own self-presence.

Cooper’s experience is a secular companion to the sort of encounter that Job has with a God who cannot be engaged second-hand. job and godBoth men have been brought by unexpected and unexplained circumstances to an experience and realization that shows what they previously thought they knew to be, at best, woefully inadequate. As the person in my discussion group suggested, the most important issue now is “What do I do with this?” How does one capture lightning in a bottle and channel this new energy going forward? We are not told much about Job’s life after his divine encounter other than that he gets everything back that he had lost.

In the case of Effingham Cooper, we find out a bit more—and it isn’t encouraging news. After his rescue, in the afterglow of the experience, he tries to explain his vision to three others, all of whom fail to understand. Sadly, but believably, the impact of his experience wholly fades. As much as we would like to believe that a transformative encounter with what is greater than us will be the catalyst for permanent and positive change, we still have to live out the rest of our mundane and normal days, weeks, months and years. There is no “once and for all” salvation from the self and ego—it is a piecemeal, imperfect and continuing process.

So how does one communicate the content of intensely personal and private transformative encounters? How does one say what cannot be said? One doesn’t. mustard seedInstead, a face to face encounter with the divine, with the infinite, must work itself out in the far less spectacular and far less dynamic grind of daily life. And this is as it should be. Even though most of us would prefer living from one energizing mountain top experience to the next, that’s not the way it works. There is a reason why the Kingdom of God is likened in Jesus’ parables to leaven, to a mustard seed, to salt, to things that work powerfully over time in unnoticeable ways. There is a reason why Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity publically. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, the divine works slowly and secretly in the world, embedded in human lives.

God Might Actually Enjoy Us

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

In the academic world, teaching schedules are usually planned and assigned more than a year in advance; accordingly, I found out over a month ago what I will be teaching during the Spring 2018 semester. One of my assigned classes is “Contemporary Women Philosophers,” a course  I team-taught once a number of years ago and specifically requested when our preferences for the next academic year were solicited, so I’m pumped. I mentioned this to a colleague as we waited for our monthly department meeting a couple of weeks ago; my colleague asked “which philosophers are you going to use?” Off the top of my head I mentioned Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Hannah Arendt . . . “What about Marilynne Robinson?” he asked. Great idea–Robinson’s essays and fiction are brilliant, and she happens to be the author of the book that is closest to perfect of any I have read.

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Amen.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. dillardYou don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.

What Christians Get Wrong About Jesus

On July 5, 1838, in the middle of what he called “this refulgent summer,” during which “it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” thirty-five-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered what has come to be known as his “Divinity School Address” to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. At this time, the Divinity School was the acknowledged center of Unitarian thought; even though Unitarianism was close to the fringes of liberal Christianity, Emerson’s words were so stunning and radical that he wasn’t invited back to campus for 30 years (some sources say 40). As I reread the address for the first time in several years, in preparation for a class in the American Philosophy course I am teaching this semester, two things occurred to me almost simultaneously:

  • I completely understand why even the most liberal Christian scholars and professors at Harvard didn’t want this guy on campus.
  • I can’t believe how strongly I have come to agree with even the most “out there” parts of his address.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never been invited to give a talk at Harvard.

Emerson’s theme is what he calls “the religious sentiment,” a recognition that the moral law is present equally in each individual and that I am, as are all human beings, a part of something greater and sublime.

 This sentiment . . . is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish. The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and in the game of human life, love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God, interact . . . this sentiment is the essence of all religion.

Emerson seeks to convince us that “This sentiment is divine and deifying. showing the fountain of all good to be within.” In case one might think he is speaking hyperbolically, Emerson drives his point home: If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God. And, Emerson insists, almost without exception our human attempts to codify and systematize this sentiment—attempts that we usually call “organized religion”—have screwed things up.

Without fail, organized religions teach their adherents that the divine nature that is in all of us actually is only to be found in a limited number of human beings; the natural divinity in all human beings accordingly is “denied to all the rest, and denied with fury.” In the case of Christianity, the problem arises from a complete misunderstanding of and overemphasis on the person of Jesus.

Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion . . . an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.

The Harvard Divinity School faculty and graduates in the audience undoubtedly thought, with justification, that a Christianity that does not focus centrally on the person of Jesus hardly deserves the name.

But Emerson is just beginning. By raising the person of Jesus to exalted status, Christianity has managed to convince its adherents that God no longer speaks. Anticipating Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation fifty years later, Emerson tell his audience that

The Moral Nature, that Law of laws whose revelations introduce greatness—yea, God himself—into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.

The person of Jesus, the activities of the divine in the world, the miracles that accompanied God’s presence in human form, have been shut up between the leather covers of a book and ossified into doctrines and rituals. No wonder Emerson speaks favorably of the man who once told him privately that he felt as if he was doing something immoral when he attended Sunday services at his church.

So who was Jesus? Is Emerson one of those heretics who wants to sell Jesus to us as just another excellent teacher, a fine moral exemplar, an admirable human being but not divine? Hardly. Jesus’ greatness and uniqueness lie in recognizing who he truly was—and through this recognition each subsequent individual can find empowerment and inspiration.

Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’ . . . He was the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of man.

Emerson does not deny the truth of the Incarnation, the seminal and central truth of Christianity. Jesus was truly both human and divine. But his greatness lies in his awareness that this was not unique to him. Humanity and divinity belong together, and are fused in every human being. Jesus’ empowering gospel directive to his disciples was that they would do even greater works than his; his message to us is “Dare to love God without mediator or veil . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint man with Deity.” We would do well to remember Catherine of Genoa’s insight: “My deepest me is God.”

I smile as I imagine the faces of the faculty and graduates as they listened to Emerson’s message of radical incarnation. One can hardly build a functioning, hierarchical religion around the shockingly democratic idea that all human beings share the spark and the mark of the divine. Yet Emerson suggests that there remains an important place for teaching and preaching: “It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that God speaks, not spoke . . . the true Christianity is a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man.” Several years ago, my long dormant and atrophying faith awakened when I embraced the Incarnation story in a new way. God not only became human, but we human beings remain the only way in which God gets into the world. Jesus told his critics that “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Emerson’s radical but empowering insight is that each of us, once we embrace who we truly are, can say the same thing.

Playing the Nazi Card

We ought not to hide from ourselves that Nazi Germany is a mirror for all of us. What looks to us so hideous is our own features, but magnified. Simone Weil in 1937

            One of my favorite weekly activities is to gather every Friday afternoon at MacPhail’s, our on-campus watering hole, with any number of faculty colleagues to down a beer or two (or three) as we mark the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend. Last Friday was no exception. It was inauguration day, which—as I described that day on this blog—I was not watching.

Why I will not be watching: Inauguration Day Reflections

As is often the case, I was the first person to arrive. I sat in our usual area with my back to the three television screens over the bar, on which the new President’s poorly attended inaugural events were being covered. Having established the habit many years ago of never being without something to read if there was any chance I might have to wait for anything for more than thirty seconds, I reached into my book bag, pulled out the central text that I would be working with in one of my classes the following week, and settled in to knock off a few pages. When a colleague and friend from the chemistry department showed up a few minutes later, it occurred to me that there was a strange synchronicity between what was on the television screens behind me and what I was reading. “Look at what I’m reading, Seann!” I said, passing the book to him. He broke into laughter as he saw Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. You can’t make this stuff up.

I am in the early stages of teaching an interdisciplinary colloquium with a colleague from the history department: “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” This is the third time in the past four years we have offered this colloquium; it is the most wildly popular course I have ever taught, filling up immediately on registration day with a list of dozens of students on a waiting list hoping to get in. I would love to think that the colloquium’s popularity is due to my colleague’s and my teaching excellence, but the real reason everyone wants to take this course is simple: Nazis sell. Put the adjective “Nazi” together with any course content—Nazi Accounting, Nazi Calculus, Nazi Basket Weaving—and the class will fill up immediately. Like the worst train wreck ever, people can’t look away from the Nazis. Just about everyone agrees that they represent the worst that human beings can be, but still—or perhaps because of this—no one can look away.

This is not just the case in the educational world. Mention the Nazis in any public conversation and people’s ears prick up. Describing someone’s activities or attitudes as Nazi-like is the third rail of public discourse, a bridge too far even in the most vigorous debate. And yet it happens on a remarkably regular basis. The Nazi card was played frequently during the just completed Presidential campaign season, most recently a bit over two weeks ago when the then President-elect criticized the intelligence community for not prohibiting an unsubstantiated document containing damaging allegations from being published. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” the President-elect tweeted, a question that immediately met with outrage from many quarters, while at the same time attracting prurient interest because the Nazis had been invoked. Playing the Nazi card has been a popular activity on all sides of political arguments for the past fifty years. I recently finished reading Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections); in his final chapter on culture wars in this country from the 1970s to the present, he mentions at least a half-dozen different times when one side of a given squabble has accused the other side of Nazi-like behavior or beliefs.

Why do we do this? I’m sure that many articles, books, and dissertations have been written on the psychology and politics of Nazi-shaming, but on one level the attraction is obvious. If X accuses Y of Nazi-like behavior, X is intending to either derail the conversation entirely or deflect it in an entirely new direction. Except for skinheads, no one takes Nazi attributions lying down. To accuse someone of being or acting like a Nazi is to accuse her or him of being on the very outer fringes of humanity, perhaps having even crossed the line into non-humanity. But my impression is that no one really means it when they play the Nazi card—it’s just the worst thing the person can think of to say in the moment. Accusing someone of Nazi-like behavior is like accusing them of being an evil alien—and that’s a problem. Because the Nazis were people, no different at their core than the rest of us. We forget this at our peril.

One of the most important tasks my teaching colleague and I seek to accomplish early in the semester when we teach our Nazi era colloquium is to convince the students that the Nazis were not aliens, monsters, or mutants. To consider them as such is to remove the possibility, at least theoretically, that we share anything in common with them. My colleague and I assign significant portions of Mein Kampf, study the NSDAP’s “Twenty-Five Point Program” (the Nazis’ socio-political “platform”), and consider the lengthy chapter on Hitler’s tortured childhood from Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good, all with a view to realizing that understanding the Nazis requires first understanding that they were human beings just as we are. Human beings with histories, experiences, commitments, worries, fears, desires, hopes and dreams. Human beings who hoped for a better world than the one they believed had been unjustly imposed on them by outside forces. The policies and actions of the Nazis flowed logically from clearly stated premises and assumptions; the fact that these premises and assumptions differ sharply from those that most of us profess to be committed to does not prove them to be wrong. We urge our students to realize that dismissing the Nazis simply because they believed so differently than we do spares us from doing the difficult and important work of identifying exactly why we are committed to our beliefs and assumptions. Only if we recognize that the Nazis were human beings with whom we share a vast amount of things in common can we truly begin to consider carefully what went so monstrously wrong. As Alice Miller writes, “all that it took was a committed Fuhrer and several million well-raised Germans to extinguish the lives of countless innocent human beings in a few short years.”

For those who believe that their religious faith provides them with a firewall against the elements of human nature regularly on display during the Nazi era, the story of the Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, in Germany during the time of the Nazis is both sobering and disturbing. People like Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franciscan priest Maximillian Kolbe are examples in our colloquium of persons who exhibited grace and truth during the Nazi era, but they were voices and persons of resistance. Large numbers of Christian pastors and priests, ministers and bishops, as well as their German Christian congregations, not only supported the policies of Hitler and the Nazis but also truly believed that this support was sanctioned and supported by their commitment to their Christian faith. It did not turn out to be that difficult for millions of good Germans to find a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism.

I spent a great deal of time on this blog over the past many months wondering how evangelical Christians, millions of Catholics, and many others with whom I share my Christian faith could square their faith with their political commitments and how they voted in the recent Presidential election. I’m still wondering, but returning to the Nazis has reminded me that human beings can convince themselves that absolutely anything is true, as well as believing that incompatible beliefs are actually compatible, if they are sufficiently motivated by their experiences, circumstances, fears, and anger to do so. That includes me. The next time the Nazi card get played publicly, we would do well to not treat it as twisted entertainment or the tweetings of uninformed people with too much time on their hands. As offensive as it may sound, each of us has a Nazi inside of us—only regular vigilance and a constant refusal to be duped or complacent can silence it. As Pogo told us many years ago, we have met the enemy—and he is us.

The “F” Word

There’s nothing like unexpectedly dropping an f-bomb on a bunch of students. But it’s even better when one of them does it. I teach at a Catholic college, so one would think that the students would be used to talking about the f-word—we Baptists certainly were when I was growing up. But dropping an f-bomb in class, even when the context is entirely appropriate and the word is germane, is like farting in church. Everyone clams up, an uncomfortable atmosphere fills the room, and no one wants to deal with it. And I am presented with, as professors like to say, a “teachable moment.”

Mark Twain once defined “faith” as “believing something you know ain’t true.” Strangely, I find that my largely parochial school educated students think of faith in this way. They think that faith is opposed to reason, to logic, to evidence, yet is the foundation of what they have been told are the most important truths imaginable. bumper stickerThey believe that things believed on the basis of faith are certain and beyond question; I’m reminded of the bumper sticker on a number of vehicles in the church parking lot of my youth: “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But in my estimation just about all of the above “facts” about faith are false. I agree with Anne Lamott when she writes that the opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is certainty. But that’s not something I can just drop early into a conversation about the f-word. I have to build up to it.

A good place to start is with another excellent insight from Anne Lamott—faith is a verb, not a noun. It’s an activity, not a thing. So what exactly are we doing when we are “faithing”? I use a good technique that I learned in grammar school—“Somebody use the word “faith” in a sentence that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, church, or God.” That’s a temporary challenge for many of my students, but pretty soon someone says something like “I have faith that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse.” Or “I have faith that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl a week from Sunday.” I contribute that “I have faith that when the time comes, my friend John will make the right decision.” All of these sentences are still treating faith as a noun rather than a verb, as something you have rather than something you do, but progress is being made.red sox

“Do you know that the chair isn’t going to collapse?” I ask. “Are you certain that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl a week from Sunday?”  “Well . . .no.” So you’re just guessing? In both cases, the answer there is “no” as well. Apparently faithing is an activity that occupies the vast territory between certainty and guesswork—the knowledge territory in which we human beings spend a great deal of our time. Although my student can’t prove that her chair won’t collapse in the next minute, she can refer to past experience to support her faith claim—she’s seen human beings in thousands of such chair situations in her life and has never seen a chair-fail yet. Patriots fans can point to the excellence of their regular season, their having won four Super Bowls in the past fifteen years, and so on. faithingMy faith in my friend John is not blind—I’m convinced that the phrase “blind faith” is an oxymoron—it is based on years of observing his careful consideration of important alternatives before making a decision. When removed from the confines of religion, faithing turns out to be a perfectly natural activity—the activity of moving past evidence in hand toward a conclusion for which there is not complete evidence. Faith is the activity of inching past probability toward something stronger (although the goal is never certainty).

With this in hand, we move to my go-to definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My Catholic students who are largely ignorant of what the Bible contains are often surprised to find out that this is from the Book of Hebrews, the first verse of Hebrews 11 which is sometimes called “the honor roll of faith.” They are even more surprised to find that the definition says nothing about God, religion, heaven, hell, or any of the other accompanying items they are used to seeing in the entourage of a definition of faith. Instead, it is an excellent summary of what we have been discussing about faithing as a normal human activity.  We faith when we want to provide substance to something important that we are hoping for (the chair will hold me up, the Patriots will win the Super Bowl, my friend will make a good decision). All of the items hoped for are “unseen” because they either have not happened yet or cannot be proven true with certainty. rene-descartesFaithing fills in the gaps between evidence and what we hope for, realizing that further evidence over time may force us to adjust our hopes or discard them altogether.

In one of his letters, Rene Descartes tells the story of a king who refused to eat anything unless he could be convinced with certainty that it was not poisoned. And he starved to death. Some things—most things—cannot be established with certainty. Sometimes we just need to faith our way along. Faith in the realm of things divine is a case in point. I cannot know with certainty anything about God or even that God exists. But this does not mean that I am guessing or shutting down my brain when I faith. I can point to any number of past and present experiences that I count as evidence from which to take a faith leap in the direction of the divine. As I wrote in a Facebook discussion not long ago, facebook“Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” Faith in the spiritual realm involves applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. I can’t prove it, but neither am I guessing.

The Time of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

In her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made testament of youthinto a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch grapples directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.