Category Archives: philosophy

I Am Because You Are

I almost never give up on a book half-way through; I was reminded a few days ago of why this is a good habit to have developed. I was deep into a book that I should have loved. Patrick Henry (a descendant of that Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death!” fame),ironic christian the author of The Ironic Christian’s Companion, is a historian of religion and the former director of the ecumenical institute where I spent a sabbatical semester in 2009. But I was struggling with the book. I liked most of the author’s ideas, but not his writing style, the haphazard organization of the book, or what seemed to me a minor case of his being a bit too full of himself. I had not dipped into it for a week or so, and decided to give it one more go. I’m glad I did, because the next chapter resonated on several levels, beginning with perhaps the most famous claim in the history of Western philosophy.

“I think, therefore I am”—it is not much of an oversimplification to say that with this single sentence Descartes rewrote the playbook for Western philosophy and set Western philosophy and science on a path that it has taken more than four centuries to begin steering away from. The subjective turn, the insistence on certainty that begins with me, the dualism that separates mind from body as well as intellect from emotion—the list of thorny philosophical problems traceable back to Rene Descartes goes on and on. cogitoI am very familiar with Descartes—I wrote my dissertation on his moral philosophy in which he struggles mightily with the problem of how the solipsistic individual mind that is the center of his metaphysics is to live her or his life in a world that sharply distinguishes neither between mind and body nor between the autonomous self and the billions of other such selves on earth. Patrick Henry, a dedicated academic with a powerful intellect, writes that

When I used Descartes, as elaborated by a whole intellectual and academic culture, as my guide, I got the world wrong. I have spent much of my life trying to unlearn Descartes’ lesson.

Long before I went to graduate school, a theologian friend of my father’s once told me that the darkest day in the history of Western civilization was the day that Descartes shut himself alone in a stove-heated room and began to think. I didn’t know what he meant then, but I do now—and so does Patrick Henry.

Philosophical puzzles and problems aside, the real problem arising from the vision of reality that Descartes creates is that it closes each of us off from each other and establishes the autonomous human individual as the measure of what is true and real. becausePatrick Henry writes that he began to break free from Descartes’ hold when a friend from Kenya told him that “in Africa, we say I am because you are.” My existence is not self-defined; I cannot start from scratch and it is no accident that each of us finds ourselves surrounded by other human beings. We define ourselves not in the solipsistic privacy of our individual minds, but through interaction with others. This is a difficult thing for academics to learn; some of us never do. Trying to get academics to do anything collectively is often referred to as similar to trying to herd cats; it’s actually a lot more difficult than that. My years of chairing a large academic department, then directing an even larger academic program, revealed that trying to organize academics is like trying to herd cats when each of the cats has a PhD and truly believes it is the smartest cat in the room. The chances of creating an academic community when each individual in the community trusts her or his own intellect more than what might be learned from others are very small.

My own academic department is currently a prime example of what can happen when a group of very smart people over time becomes convinced that they have little or nothing to learn from each other, unless they already happen to largely agree with the others in question. My department is large as philosophy departments go; the very idea of more than twenty philosophers occupying the same space might be enough to cause normal people to despair. sienaBut for the first fifteen or so of the twenty-two years I have been a member of this department, we argued, challenged each other, took contrary positions, but were also mutually supportive and largely managed both to get along and learn from each other. For a host of reasons—more than I can even remember—this began to change several years ago.

Factions began to form, suspicion replaced trust, posturing replaced dialogue, and ideology replaced the pursuit of truth. After a few years of this poisonous brew stewing, we have come to the point where there is little conversation in the halls other than between people who know they all agree, no benefits of a doubt have been given in months, the administration and lawyers have become involved, and our dysfunction has made us the laughing-stock of the campus. Although I would love to think that I am the only person in the department who can listen to and communicate with all sides, I know this not to be the case. I am just as likely as anyone else to roll my eyes when certain colleagues raise their hand in a meeting before they even open their mouths, because I “know” that I will entirely disagree with what they say and since I “know” there is nothing I could possibly learn from this person; I have no doubt some of my colleagues have the same reaction when I raise my hand. better than thisA junior colleague said to me at lunch the other day “But we’re above all this!” And indeed we should be, but sadly we are not.

Patrick Henry tells a story of how a botched prayer unexpectedly provided an insight into why no one person’s or group’s intellectual commitments can possibly serve as a foundation for truth. Once when offering grace before a meal, Henry’s mother-in-law recited a well-known prayer that ends with asking God to “make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” Except that this time she closed the prayer with make us ever needful of the minds of others. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better counter to Descartes’ claim that my own activity of thought is sufficient to establish my identity. As Henry develops in the following pages, I (and each of us) need the minds of others because I cannot know enough, what I do know is distorted, my ways of knowing are different from the ways of others, and I can easily fool myself. Only through constant engagement with others, not in order to prove oneself right but rather in order to truly come to knowledge together, can a true community be formed.

I am continually reminded of this through regular seminars I conduct with friends and fellow travelers once a month after the morning service at Trinity_Cranstonthe Episcopal church I attend. I am the “professor” in the group and we use one of my recent blog essays as a jumping-off point for conversation each month. Yet I have learned far more about faith and life itself from the members of this group than they could learn from me in a million years. Each of us has developed not only trust in each other but reliance upon each other, because each of us knows that we are needful of each other’s minds, hearts, and experiences. Whether the situation in my department can be turned around or even salvaged, I do not know. But I do know that if there is any hope for improvement, it might begin with each of us taping on our bathroom mirrors and computer screens what Patrick Henry learned from his African friend: I Am Because You Are. Even if we don’t particularly like each other.


Welders and Philosophers

After attempting to watch significant portions of the first three debates among the multitude of candidates for the Republican nomination for President, I chose not to watch round four the other night, figuring I could catch the high or low lights the next day on line. I was greeted with the following lead from

It was a tough night for philosophers at the fourth GOP debate. To make a point about skills training, Sen. Marco Rubio said the world needed more welders than philosophers. cruzSen. Ted Cruz attacked “philosopher kings” for trying to figure out what was happening in the economy. And Gov. John Kasich, who tried at times to get philosophical and even quoted one—Michael Novak on the ethical duties of Wall Street—was clobbered by Donald Trump. “I don’t have to hear from this man,” Trump said after Kasich labelled him as untruthful.

My goodness. I’m sorry I missed it (not).

Don’t worry, I’m used to philosophers being trashed. Several years ago Jeanne and I were visiting my cousin and his wife for a few days and attended services with them on Sunday morning at their conservative, evangelical mega-church (something I would only do for someone I like a lot, and then only one time). megachurchThe pastor’s sermon that morning was about how important it is for Christian believers to live according to the precepts of the Bible and not to think too much about it. On several occasions he belittled those with too much education who urge people to think and ask questions about what they believe—we don’t need “philosophers” (using air scare quotes) telling us what we need to do when the Bible is perfectly clear, he repeated to a growing swell of “Amens.” My cousin’s wife was mortified. As she introduced me to the hand-shaking pastor at the exit door after services, he said with a beaming Christian smile “So nice to meet you! Where are you from and what do you do?” “He’s a philosopher,” my cousin’s wife said as his smile slowly faded.

I won’t take the time to address Cruz’s comment about philosopher-kings, since anyone who has cracked the cover of Plato’s Republic knows that true philosopher-kings would never besmirch their minds and characters with such low-level drivel as economics. As for Rubio, in answer to how he would counter Democrats’ proposals for free or subsidized college education, he said “For the life of me, I don’t know why we stigmatize vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Apart from not realizing that he meant “fewer” and not “less,” Rubio gained the distinction of being the first person to blame America’s economic woes on a surfeit of philosophers. The morning after the debate a Fox News interviewer opined to the senator that plato welder“Plato would have been so much more successful if he had just welded and stopped yapping about his philosophy. Senator,” an insight that Rubio did not challenge. I’m glad to report, though, that a multitude of news outlets from the AP and the Washington Post to the New York Times and resisted throwing philosophers under the bus with headlines like “Marco Rubio is wrong on this,” “Sorry, Marco Rubio, philosophers actually make way more than welders,” “Marco Rubio is wrong: Working philosophers make almost twice as much as welders,” and so on (note, though, that it said working philosophers). even provided helpful graphics to support philosophers, the first comparing earnings over time between welders and people with bachelor’s degrees in either philosophy or religious studies:

vox chart

and the second comparing the mean average wage of welders with people who teach philosophy or religion.

welders vs philosophers

I appreciate the support, although it is unfortunate that thinks that philosophy and religious studies are the same thing. Sigh.

The above gives me the opportunity to get on a high horse that I have been on occasionally in the years of this blog’s existence. The whole kerfuffle concerning welders and philosophers beginning with Sen. Rubio and continuing with reactions the next day was focused on money, on the apparently self-evident idea that the most, perhaps the only, important issue at hand is who makes more money. Of the dozen or so news sources I checked, I found only one that shifted the issue closer to where it belongs. The Weekly Standard argued that

There was far more wrong in Rubio’s assertion than the mangled grammar. For one, the idea that the only purpose of higher education is to make money is dangerously misguided. At its best, education makes us (as the term liberal arts implies) free men and women, and better citizens. And it’s bizarre, as Rubio seemed to suggest, to believe that anyone studies philosophy in order to get rich.

Now that would be bizarre—I’m exhibit A that one should not study (or teach) philosophy in order to get rich. But the Weekly Standard’s comments move the issue in a fruitful direction, away from “How much money do they make?” toward keep-calm-and-study-philosophy-21“Why would anyone study that in the first place?”

Several years ago during my four-year stint as chair of the Providence College philosophy department, I found myself sitting at a table with several very concerned parents. It was during one of the summer orientation sessions for incoming freshmen, and these were the parents of students who had indicated interest in majoring in philosophy once their college career began in the fall. The question, expressed in various ways, that all of these parents wanted an answer to was “What on earth will my daughter/son be able to do with a major in philosophy?” This is a discipline-specific version of a broader, equally challenging question: What can one do with a liberal arts education? The answer I gave those worried parents some years ago also serves as the best answer to the second, broader question. My answer is “you are asking the wrong question.”

The life of human flourishing depends far more on the sort of person one is than on what one is doing and is more a matter of continual character development than of supply and demand. Critique of Pure WeldingBringing Aristotle’s insights to the issue of liberal arts education, the best question to ask is not “What can I do with a philosophy major and a liberal arts education?”, but rather “What sort of person will a philosophy major and a liberal arts education help me become?” That is a question that will be answered through a vast variety of lives, only one of which is teaching philosophy. Philosophy and the liberal arts equip a person with a host of valuable transferable skills appropriate to the living of a flourishing life. Even a welder can benefit from philosophy—especially since philosophers earn more than welders. Thanks, Sen. Rubio, for helping bring that to light.

It’s a Mystery


The brand new installment in Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers mystery series just arrived–Jeanne and I are in disagreement about who gets to read it first. I am reminded of what I wrote a year ago about my love of mystery novels . . .

cunningham1When you aren’t reading philosophy, what do you like to read?” he asked. This had all the makings of a loaded question. When the president of the college where you are interviewing for a tenure track job asks any question, it’s loaded—but this one had all sorts of implications. He was a Dominican priest—what should I say? The Bible? The Summa Theologica? Three years earlier various folks had informally prepped me for what the president of the tiny college at which I currently worked and desperately wanted to leave would ask me and what answers he would want to hear, but no one had provided me with similar help this time. I was on my own. “Mystery novels,” I said truthfully, fully expecting that this probably sealed my not getting the job. “Me too!” he replied, and over the next half hour we compared notes—as it turned out, he was as big of a fan of Sara Paretsky and Anne Perry

anne perry as I was. He never asked me about my response to the college’s mission statement, why I wanted to leave one tenure track position in exchange for another; he didn’t even try to sound me out about what I thought it would be like to teach at a Catholic college as a non-Catholic. But I suspect he found out more about me from our conversation about mystery novels that he would have from my answers to any number of standard queries. Father Cunningham was a smart guy.

The story of how I came to love mystery novels parallels the story of the early months of Jeanne’s and my relationship. I often tell people that I read for a living. Actually I’m a teacher, but a philosophy/humanities professor spends far more time reading than in the classroom. Furthermore, I’ve been an incurable bibliophile since I started reading a couple of years before I started first grade. But even though mystery novels occupy a surprisingly large percentage of space on Jeanne’s and my many bookshelves at home, their entry into my world of that-which-must-be-read was relatively late. The early months of 1988 were more full of adventure, new beginnings, and over-the-top stress than any months Sante-Fe-NMI had previously (or perhaps have since) experienced. Jeanne and I met late in 1987; early in the New Year I went with her to Santa Fe, affording us the opportunity to find out whether actually living under the same roof would put a damper on our new relationship that had, up to this point, largely been one of lengthy, nightly long distance phone calls.

As Jeanne worked and studied through the final semester of her Master’s program at St. John’s College, I navigated the final stages of choosing a PhD program to start in the fall, struggled through the emotional and legal thickets of custody issues with my ex, and tried to find a job. I soon landed a piano-playing gig at a large Methodist church sixty miles south in albuquerqueAlbuquerque, which paid just about enough to cover the gas used for two weekly round trips in “The Bird,” Jeanne’s rather unreliable vehicle. I also found what would have been, under different circumstances and several years earlier, a dream job—working as a jack-of-all-trades in a tiny independent bookstore, called “Books West,” in a shopping plaza just a five-minute walk from Jeanne’s apartment.

Sue, my boss at “Books West,” soon realized that she had a rare find on her hands—someone who had actually read a lot of books. atlasshruggedWhen not working the single cash register up front, my duties included ordering appropriate selections for the one-shelf philosophy section which largely consisted of Ayn Rand junk and various new-agey stuff with the word “Philosophy” in the title, as well as making selections to beef up the “Fiction” section, which when I arrived contained nothing written earlier than around 1950. The store was tiny, so before long I had ordered way more than would fit on the shelves and my book selection activities went on hiatus. The bookstore had little traffic most of the time—there is just so much time that one needs to spend straightening out shelves that very seldom are touched—so fortunately Sue had no problem with employees reading at the front counter—just as long as it did not lead to ignoring a customer, should such a creature actually show up. What a job! Hours of reading time, and getting paid slightly over minimum wage to do it!

I am both an organized and an obsessive reader. Organized in the sense that I generally have a method to my reading schedule, obsessive because once I establish the method, I follow it through without deviation. I had a small bookstore at my disposal containing several genres of paperbacks I had never delved into. What to read? Where to start? Lord-of-the-RingsThe Science Fiction shelves held little interest, and I avoided Fantasy because I was quite sure that with The Lord of the Rings I had already read the best fantasy—several times—ever written. The Mystery section was promising, but I had no idea of who might be worth reading and who was just pulp mystery. I asked my co-worker John, a tall, skinny guy who next to my friend Anthony was the most “outed” I have ever encountered if he had an opinion. “I prefer Young Adult Fiction myself,” he said (he was probably thirty-five or so), “but I hear that P. D. James is pretty good.” “P. D. James it is,” I thought, and I grabbed Cover her faceCover Her Face, James’s first mystery. I loved it. I read her next one, then her next one, and didn’t stop until I had finished every mystery she had written to that point (that’s my obsessive method or methodical obsession in action). Then Sue Grafton. Sarah ParetskyThen Sara Paretsky. We’re talking two or three dozen 200-300 page paperbacks by this time. Jeanne graduated, we hightailed it out of Santa Fe eventually landing with my sons (we won the custody battle) in Milwaukee for the beginning of my PhD studies at Marquette, but I was armed with the names of several dozen more mystery writers to try out. Deborah Crombie. Elizabeth George. Anne Perry. Every one of them writing continuing series with returning characters and plots that develop over several volumes.elizabeth george

Why do I love mysteries? I suppose there are all sorts of reasons. I teach and write on the edge of mystery all the time, exploring the boundaries between the known and unknown in various areas of investigation—human nature, change and permanence, certainty and probability, reason and faith, human and divine. A student once expressed this sort of boundary analysis memorably in an oral exam several years ago. “It’s like being on the inside of a room with walls made of tinfoil,” she said. “You can’t get out of the room, but as you press against the walls from the inside, you can feel and then begin to imagine the shape of what’s on the other side.” I would add that there’s a certain element of moving the walls back a bit as the pressing and pushing continues. The room of the known gets larger, but the suspicion deepens that what’s on the other side of the tinfoil is far more interesting and greater than what is inside the room.

But I suspect that my attraction to mystery novels has a far less mysterious and far more practical explanation. Each of my favorite mystery authors writes in a multiple volume series, developing a handful of main characters throughout as they engage with and solve the latest murder. dalgleishAdam Dalgleish, Tommy Lynley, Barbara Havers, William Monk, Charlotte Pitt, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Ferguson have become parts of my life not because they brilliantly solve case after case, but because their growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities over the years that they have been my mystery friends remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy and Barbara were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. BJulia S-Fut I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in. (By the way, my latest mystery favorite is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series set in upstate New York. Its setting reminds me both of the rural Vermont of my youth and of the people I go to church with every Sunday. If you love the rural Northeast and/or Episcopalians, it’s to die for!).

vermont cows

A Green Mountain Boy

bernThe candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination for President over the past few months has put the little State of Vermont on everyone’s radar screen—a screen that more often than not it has avoided during my lifetime. One of the many activities my family used to entertain ourselves during our occasional trips from New England to the West Coast during my growing up summers was to see how many days it took us to see license plates from all fifty states. Not surprisingly, Alaska and Hawaii usually turned out to be the last two, although cars from the Deep South were rare, since we never took that route going or coming. We often forgot that the plate on our own car was as rare as a license plate from Mars in some parts of the U.S. One time as an attendant pumped gas into our Chrysler—it was in Oklahoma or some such place—he remarked “Vermont?!? Is that in America?” mapTo which my annoyed father asked “Have you ever heard of Canada?” “Yes . . .” “It’s just south of there.”

I lived all but six months of my life until age eighteen in Vermont, but I am not a native Vermonter. That’s because those were my first six months, spent in southern New York State where I was born just prior to my family moving slightly north and east. If you were not born in Vermont, you are not a Vermonter. Yet this little landlocked piece of real estate (it’s the only New England State that does not border on the Atlantic Ocean), surrounded by New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Quebec, shaped and formed me in ways I am still discovering. I had the opportunity to return to Vermont earlier this week and kill two birds with one stone. Bird one was attending my friend and colleague’s installation as the Poet Laureate of Vermont on Monday evening in Montpelier, making bird two—spending Monday night and Tuesday morning with my uncle and his wife who live fifteen miles away—a no brainer.Summer 2014 015

I was taught many important things about Vermont in my early public school education, including that Vermont has the most beautiful fall foliage and produces the most delicious maple syrup in the universe (despite the bogus claims of the much larger and more famous state on the other side of Lake Champlain). We took pride in being the first new state in the fledgling United States of America after the original thirteen, earning statehood in 1791 after a successful secession from New York (which they have never forgiven Vermont for). We learned that despite being shaped like an upside-down Vermont, our neighbor New Hampshire was inferior to Vermont in every measure that mattered. I have had many opportunities to test this claim over the past five decades, and have found it to be completely accurate. I was not surprised to learn that there were more dairy cows than resident human beings in Vermont. road not takenRobert Frost was our literary hero (we memorized “The Road Not Taken” in fourth grade), Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge were our favorite Presidents (because they were born in Vermont), and the heroes of every Vermont boy were Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Ethan Allen was a “farmer, businessman, land speculator, philosopher, writer, lay theologian, and American Revolutionary War patriot, hero, and politician.” All I knew about him as a kid was that he regularly kicked British ass, pioneering the sort of guerrilla warfare that was a central part of the American patriot victory in the Revolutionary War. His most famous escapade with the Green Mountain Boys was blowing up the ammunition dump at Fort Ticonderoga, an attack he co-led with Benedict Arnold before Benedict’s name became synonymous with “traitor.” green mountain boysAfter 9/11, I have often used Ethan Allen in class as an example of how whether someone is classified as a hero or a terrorist depends entirely on one’s perspective. Ethan was our hero; he was undoubtedly on top of the British “Most Wanted Terrorists” list.

As I drove south to north up the spine of Vermont on my way to Montpelier and my friend’s installation as poet laureate on Monday, I listened to two straight hours of Vermont Public Radio. This was nothing unusual, since Rhode Island or Boston NPR is just about the only radio I ever listen to at home. But one hour of VPR was a bit different—it was a local show describing, among other things, the planned “Legithon” at the Vermont Statehouse later in the week where regular citizens could drop in for a day’s worth of workshops on how legislation makes its way from somebody’s good idea into a legislative bill. I got the impression that the congressman being interviewed was expecting the statehouse to be flooded with citizens not only wanting to find out how laws are made but also with their own ideas about what those laws should be. Vermont politics is truly local.vermont cows

At my friend’s installation ceremony on Monday night I learned some interesting new facts, including that dairy cows now no longer outnumber human beings in Vermont (although it’s still close). But the total population of Vermont is well below the population of the greater Providence area. My friend was appointed poet laureate by the Governor of Vermont, who (disappointingly) was a typical politician in the sense that he clearly wanted to be the center of attention and spent more time introducing the new poet laureate than the new poet laureate took in his own remarks. But I learned from his bio in the program that the Governor “likes to fish, hunt, and garden, and can sometimes be found spreading manure and cutting hay at his farm,” so there’s that—I doubt that the Governor of Rhode Island has spread manure recently. I probably need to rethink that.

I drove to Vermont on Monday by a slightly longer route deliberately to avoid Boston traffic (and New Hampshire), but returned the New Hampshire and Boston way on Tuesday. I have to admit that the New Hampshire/Boston path between Providence and Montpelier is 25 miles and 15 minutes shorter than the Springfield, MA/Vermont route that I took on Monday. WIN_20151102_11_26_15_ProBut I was reminded on Tuesday that Vermont has far better rest areas and license plates than New Hampshire and that the extra hour or so in Vermont going the other way is well worth it. I’m not sure how much of who I am as an adult is due to my growing up in Vermont, but I suspect that my ponytail, liberal politics, and independent spirit are all traceable back to being a Green Mountain boy. Of the 200 or so people at the installation ceremony Monday night, there were at least ten males with gray ponytails and beards that put mine to shame. I’ve never met any guy from New Hampshire with a ponytail.

Religionless Christianity

One of the few benefits, perhaps the only benefit, of breaking my ankle in a bicycle mishap four weeks ago is that my sabbatical writing activities have been accelerated. I have two book projects; my unofficial goal for the first project was to have a proposal in hand to start shopping around to possible publishers by Christmas. I am well ahead of the pace I was projecting since I’ve been writing during the three or four hours per day that I had been biking until my unfortunate mishap. WIN_20151006_13_03_05_ProI now have in hand a full second draft complete with references and bibliography and can start working on a proposal this week. Yay me—but I would rather have been riding my bike.

Working on this book project has put me back into direct conversation with a writer who over the past fifteen or so years has been as influential on my thinking and overall development as any other—Iris Murdoch. In preparation for the book I thought I was going to write during my last sabbatical, IrisI read all of her twenty-plus novels and her most important philosophical essays; over the past three months I have been reviewing well over a hundred pages of single-spaced notes I took as I wandered through her extensive body of work. Iris came into my life when I discovered that Simone Weil—a thinker so influential on my intellectual and spiritual development that Jeanne calls her my “mistress”—was similarly influential for Iris Murdoch. In her last completed work (she died in 1999 after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s), Murdoch asks a question that is arguably the central issue explored in both her fiction and her philosophical work—“What can we do now that there is no God?”

Writing in the decades after the Second World War, Murdoch assumes that human beings are required to grapple with a difficult world lacking the tools provided by traditional Christianity (or any other traditional religious framework). Yet she is by no means a happy atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett.ddh Murdoch believes that the traditional conception of the divine, along with the various frameworks that have traditionally surrounded that conception, is meaningless, yet points out that while it is easy to say that there is no God, it is not so easy to believe it and to draw the consequences. Human beings are not the sorts of creatures that can simply fill the vacuum created by the absence of God with the closest thing available. We are incapable, by sheer force of will, of addressing the spiritual hunger and need that now-defunct frameworks and vocabularies were intended to address. There is something in the human heart that needs to believe in something greater than ourselves.

The search for the transcendent, for what is greater than ourselves, in Murdoch’s hands becomes a high-wire act with no safety net. She sets for herself the task of finding out what can be preserved of belief in the transcendent and in moral goodness without the trappings of religion that have supported such beliefs—a “Religionless Christianity” if you will. She preserves the notion of faith, but without guarantees—persons with such faith intuit something greater than themselves but refuse to embrace traditional descriptions of this something. Murdoch calls such a person a “mystical hero”:e and m

The man who has given up traditional religion but is still haunted by a sense of the reality and unity of some sort of spiritual world. . . . This hero is the new version of the man of faith, believing in goodness without religious guarantees, guilty, muddled, yet not without hope. This image consoles by showing us man as frail, godless, and yet possessed of genuine intuitions of an authoritative good.

Such a person, Murdoch believes, will exhibit many of the characteristics that traditionally religious people might aspire to.

Our life is an interconnected whole and a religious man would feel responsible for the quality of all his thoughts and experiences . . . This sort of–perpetual work–seems to me what religion is . . . It’s humility, and unselfishness–and setting yourself aside to make room for other things, and people.nones

I thought of Murdoch’s mystical hero the other day when reading an article describing how more and more of the students enrolled at various divinity schools across the country are unaffiliated with any religious denomination. Such students are called “nones” (pronounced “nuns”), since they are the sorts of people who check “None” when asked about their religious affiliation on a survey.

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

I think this is very cool, but something tells me that many people would stop reading after finding out early in the article that nones are predominantly found at places inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism like Harvard Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary. “Well of course,” the complaint might go. “Such places are bastions of secular humanism with words like ‘Divinity’ or ‘Theological’ on their letterhead for show.” Such concerns are not unique to the Protestant flavor of Christianity; cinoI have taught for the past twenty-one years at a Catholic college that, at least according to its current President, seeks to thread the needle between extreme conservative Catholic campuses and larger Catholic Universities (usually Jesuit) that many judge as CINO (Catholic in name only).

The game of “who is more faithful to the message” is usually zero sum, though, and leaves little room for phenomena such as the nones. What might an agnostic or even an atheist find attractive about divinity school? Several of the nones interviewed in the article provide clear answers. “I am attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And I recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition,” one none said. “So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.” Another could have been channeling Iris Murdoch: “If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government . . . and philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.” I am currently leading a discussion group at church using a text about knowing God written with millennials in mind; current research shows that one-third of millennials are nones. Where are such persons to find a spiritual home or community? If Iris Murdoch is right, the answer to that question will require great creativity and courage across the board, even in traditional places where such creative and courageous challenges to the status quo seem to strike at the very heart of what the place stands for.eckhart

I am not a none, but only because I believe that the Christian tradition is broad and resilient enough to accommodate outliers with the nerve to call themselves freelance Christians. And a “heads up” to the nones who are deliberately placing themselves in the atmosphere of divinity school—you never can tell what might happen. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk who almost lost his life due to his out of the box theology, wrote that “God begets his Son in you whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or wake—still God is at work.” And more recently, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reported that a person wrote her a worried email:

I think I’m having a crisis of faith . . . I think I believe in Jesus.

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

I’m so sorry. But sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Saint Keurig

She is the patron saint of efficiency, streamlined design, good taste and caffeine. Her name languished in obscurity for centuries, but she has recently become everyone’s favorite saint. And she has changed my life.imagesCAXCY4A8

Coffee has been a part of my life since I became conscious, but my mother did not drink coffee. This is surprising, since she was the product of several generations of Swedish farmers; Swedes are famous for the mass quantities of coffee they can consume. Grammie and Grandpa (2)My grandparents were a case in point. Grandpa would leave for the potato warehouse in the still, dark hours of the morning with a thermos of coffee that held eight cups of coffee or so, returning for breakfast with an empty thermos at 7:00. Grandpa and Grandma would share a percolated pot of coffee for breakfast (two or three cups each), then he would head off for the fields with full thermos, to be refilled again at lunch. They drank coffee at dinner—they probably drank coffee in their sleep. And they both lived into their eighties; when I visited the hospital room in which my grandfather eventually died, I was quite sure that the IV contained coffee. They drank real coffee—none of that pussy decaffeinated stuff (which I don’t think had been invented yet). This was coffee that would put hair on your chest (or at least on Grandpa’s—I don’t want to think about hair on Grandma’s chest). Most of my early memories of their house are olfactory—The sistersbread baking, meat frying or roasting, and always coffee percolating.

So no one knew what the hell was up with my mother. Her fellow family members thought of her as some sort of mutant when it came to the coffee issue. My aunts Elaine and Gloria, Mom’s older and younger sister, carried on the coffee inhaling tradition with gusto. I have few memories of either one of them without a coffee mug in her hand. My mother didn’t even drink tea. She drank a lot of water, fruit juice, and was in the vanguard of drinking the first diet sodas as they came out in the sixties. tab“Tab” was the first—if she was avoiding coffee and tea in order to avoid caffeine, she blew it with Tab. She also blew the unwritten law that human beings should not ingest things that are 99% unnatural elements.

I don’t remember when I first started drinking coffee; my Dad drank it (made by my mother, of course), so I’m sure it was during my high school years. I do, however, remember when I started drinking gallons of it, as a good half-Swede should. It was the year after high school, the year before I went away to college. I spent a year at the little Bible school my father was president of, in order to gradually move into the mode of being away from home before going away to college two thousand miles the next fall. Bible school was easy and boring, but it introduced me to the routine of being somewhat on my own and living at least a pseudo-academic life while also working thirty to thirty-five hours per week at the local supermarket where I had worked part-time during my last two years of high school. One day I decided to keep track of my coffee consumption, which I suspected was on the rise—that day from waking to sleeping, I consumed twenty-four Styrofoam cups of coffee. And that was a normal day. Ted, the manager of the supermarket, served as my coffee-consumption role model. In the years that I worked for Ted, I never saw him eat a bite of food—all he did was drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. The Styrofoam cups of coffee cost ten cents each from the machine in the break room—I’ll bet Ted spent three dollars per day at least. Ted was a no-nonsense guy and didn’t have the time to doctor up his black coffee with cream and/or sugar. I behaved similarly and have ever since.

imagesCACEHA7ZOn spring sabbatical more than six years ago my life was changed forever, because I discovered one of the greatest, nay miraculous, inventions ever conceived by the human mind—the miracle of Keurig. I was in residence at an ecumenical Institute for four months; the common space in the Institute’s central building, just three doors down from my little apartment, as well as the gathering area in the basement of the library just fifteen feet away from my office door had one of these eight wonders of the world. I carried many valuable things out of that sabbatical, but none were more life-changing than the Keurig machine. red keurigI told Jeanne when I returned about the magic of Keurig so many times that she got me a single-cup red one for Christmas.

Jesus said in the gospels that we should not keep our light hidden under a bushel, and I let Keurig light shine all over campus when classes started the next fall. Prior to the first philosophy department meeting of the semester, black and deckerI told the chair that we needed to get rid of the twelve cup Black and Decker coffee maker in the department office and get a Keurig machine. “Sounds like a good idea,” she said. “I’ll bring it up for discussion at the department meeting.” Bad idea—I thought I had taught her better. As the outgoing department chair, it was my duty to provide the new chair with various tricks of the trade I had learned in my four years running the department. The most important of these tricks was that the chair should bring matters to the department for discussion and vote as infrequently as possible. If something can be done without getting department input, do it. WMIMTrying to get twenty plus philosophers to agree on what day it is, let alone on something important, is an exercise in futility. If I had still been chair, I would have said to our administrative assistant Gail “order a Keurig machine and ten different flavors of Keurig cups for the department,” everyone would have Ooohed and Aaahed at it, Gail or I would have given a brief class on Keurig use and etiquette, and everything would have been done. But NO . . . the whole freaking department had to discuss and vote on it.

At the September meeting I made my Keurig machine pitch, half the department thought it was a great idea and wondered why the item hadn’t already been purchased. But then the other half, the folks who want to discuss and debate just to hear the mellifluous tones of their own voices, took over.

“I read online that Keurig cups have carcinogens in them.”

Office spaceShouldn’t we be buying coffee locally to help the Rhode Island economy?”

“I heard that there’s something in the cups that is dangerous for pregnant women.”

That’s when I lost it. Looking around the room of seventeen or eighteen guys and two women, one of whom was in her sixties and the other in her forties, I asked “WHO THE HELL IS GETTING PREGNANT?” But the debate continued until after a half hour I moved to table the motion. Because I knew how to get around this.

The October department meeting was scheduled at the same time as the monthly Faculty Senate meeting. Three members of the philosophy department were members of the Senate and needed to be there for an early discussion and vote, promising to get to the department meeting no more than a half hour late. These three were also Keurig opponents. I talked the chair into delaying the usual announcements and minutes approval, moving directly to taking the Keurig motion off the table. No conversation ensued, we took a vote and unanimously approved the purchase of a Keurig machine and all necessary accoutrements in five minutes. Signed, sealed and delivered before the missing colleagues returned from the Senate. industrialThey have never forgiven me (but they do use the Keurig machine).

When a year later I was asked to direct the Development of Western Civilization, I did things my way. My first executive decision was to retire the ancient industrial four-pot coffee maker and get a Keurig machine for the fifty or so faculty teaching in the program in a given semester. This started a trend—in short order, Keurig machines could be found in the Provost’s office, the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Liberal Arts Honors Program office, and every department worth the name on campus. After two years of using the philosophy department Keurig machine, the theology department upstairs even got their own.

civcoverlogo-588x290Now that my four years as program director have ended and I’m on sabbatical again, I occasionally wonder what, if anything, my directorship will be remembered for. Guiding the program through the first years of a new and improved version? Moving into a fabulous new humanities building designed specifically with the needs of this program in mind? My complete disregard for Robert’s Rules of Order when running faculty meetings? My starting every faculty meeting by saying “Here’s what we are not talking about today”? None of the above. Thanks to the wisdom and guidance of her blessedness Saint Keurig, I will be forever remembered as the director who got the Keurig machine.WMIM

Tapestries or Quilts

I am currently leading a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. The foundation that recruited me to form this group provided us with the text to discuss, and the group members are not impressed. Their common complaint is that the book is haphazardly and randomly constructed, with little apparent concern for underlying theme or connecting threads. Reading it is like going through a buffet line, piling several random items on top of each other, and calling it a healthy meal.

I concur with my colleagues’ critique–I’m as interested in well constructed texts as anyone. But are our lives not often cobbled together in similar, seemingly arbitrary ways? My group’s concerns reminded me of an essay I posted three years ago today, one of my first essays on this blog. Are our lives more like woven tapestries or patchwork quilts?

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

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. F-wordBut 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. 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. Things believed by 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: “bumper stickerGod 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 Red Sox will make the playoffs next year.” I suggest “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 sox

“Do you know that the chair isn’t going to collapse?” I ask. “Are you certain that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year?” (especially since they have finished in last place in their division three of the last four seasons, with a world championship in the other season). “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. Red Sox fans can point to the positive second half of the season after an embarrassingly abysmal first half, the promise of three or four brand new young players, a shake-up in upper management, 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 Red Sox will make the playoffs, 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.


Reading the Fine Print

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.


But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.


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

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

Saying What Cannot Be Said

I am currently leading a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. Job1During last week’s meeting, 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.