Category Archives: power


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.

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.

Christians in the Public Square

At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? This was the question I was asked to respond to in a 500-1000 word essay for an online publication three or four weeks ago. To get my thought process going, I sent the question to a couple of Facebook groups I am part of to get their input–I wrote last week about their responses as well as my preliminary thoughts about the question.

It’s the Message, Stupid!cross and flag

I found the final draft challenging to finish–such a topic in 500-1000 words is similar to teaching the history of the French Revolution in fifty minutes (which I have done a few times). Yesterday was my deadline–here’s what I submitted (minus the pictures).

I recently reconnected on Facebook with a guy who was my best friend during a year of Bible school in my late teens—we had not been in touch for four decades. During an online conversation about some political/social issue, I mentioned that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “I’m a conservative because I’m a Christian.” Neither of us, wisely I think, pursued the matter further.

Answering the question “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” requires first thinking about “the Christian message” itself. capitalismAs my exchange with my friend on Facebook shows, well-meaning people of Christian faith can disagree sharply about the implications of their faith as it is lived in the real world on a daily basis. For instance, Susan might be thoroughly confused about how a professing Christian like Jim can whole-heartedly and full-throatedly worship at the altar of American capitalism despite the devastation it leaves in its wake for millions of our fellow citizens, while Jim is just as confused about how a professing Christian like Susan can be pro-choice and completely supportive of same-sex unions. As progressive Christians and conservative Christians go to war in the public square over whose beliefs and principles are more faithful to the true “Christian message,” progressive vs conservativewe are an offense and stumbling block to those who do not claim to be Christian. And Jesus weeps.

The parables and stories of Jesus consistently stress a central feature of faith that contemporary Christians tend to forget or ignore—the heart of Christianity is subtle, secret, and hidden. Followers of Jesus are likened to yeast and salt, the publican’s private petition for mercy is raised above the Pharisee’s public pronouncements of righteousness, we are told to pray alone behind closed doors to our Father who is in secret, and Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity. The secret of lived Christian faith is that it is a way of life, not a set of principles or doctrines. Nor is it a social or political agenda. Given that Christianity is a way of life energized by love, it is to be expected that individual Christians will be as unique and various as human beings themselves are.

micahOne way of describing Christianity as a way of life begins with the prophet Micah’s directive to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” joined with Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But justice, mercy, humility and love incorporated in a human life are likely to look quite different depending on who the person is. We are not provided with ways to judge which manner of lived Christian faith is more faithful than another to the “Christian message,” because faith is always interior. I am the product of a conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical Baptist upbringing, so I often wonder how I came to be as politically and socially liberal on most issues as I am, particularly since people like my friend from Bible school and many of my relatives are products of conservative Christianity and remain closely aligned with its accompanying leanings on political and social issues. My faith journey has been informed by many factors over several decades, including many that I did not choose. I have no reason to believe that I have now arrived at a place where my ever-evolving understanding of what the Lord requires of me is more faithful to the “Christian message” than the often very different understanding my brothers and sisters in faith share whose histories and journeys are very different from mine.flag and bible

The ever-present danger of Christian political advocacy is that, due to the necessarily public nature of such advocacy, it is very possible for the advocate to mistake a set of political positions or the elements of a social agenda as necessary and universal hallmarks of being truly Christian. It is very easy for the advocate to confuse her or his own purposes and agendas for the message of Christ. The “true message” of Christianity then quickly becomes something to be argued about in the public arena by persons equally convinced that their own agenda best matches up to the demands of Christian faith, entirely undermining the description of early Christians in the Book of Acts as remarkable because of how much they loved each other. The best firewall against this is to always keep in mind that the “message of Christianity” is the lives lived by those persons who profess the Christian faith in their daily private and public lives. christian communityChristianity is a way of life that is not reducible without distortion to a political or social agenda. We are the Christian message.

By all means Christians should be politically active—this is both a right and privilege of citizenship. But do not give the impression or be under the delusion that the right sort of political positions or social policies are what Christianity amounts to. I recommend that Christians distinguish carefully between Christian political advocacy and Political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. The former is to be avoided at all costs, as no person should understand herself or himself as the spokesperson for all Christians or for God. I highly recommend the latter; if my Christian faith is serious, it will have a daily and direct impact on how I engage with others and my society. Do not advocate in the name of Christianity, but advocate as the person that you have become because of your Christian faith.

Confessions of an Ocean-Hater

As I’m reviewing various posts for a current large writing project, I came across a reflection on beauty from a couple of years ago that I had forgotten about. It all starts with cognitive dissonance–I live in the Ocean State and I don’t like the ocean.

The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper. I cannot quite make it out.  Annie Dillard

Windows Live Photo Gallery WallpaperI live in the Ocean State. I really don’t like the ocean. Yet another opportunity for cognitive dissonance—what else is new? The strange thing is that this has turned out to be an ocean summer for me. First, a week early in June at a Benedictine hermitage on a steep mountain overlooking Big Sur and the vast Pacific Ocean (and I mean vast). Day after day of not being able to clearly distinguish the horizon between the brilliant blue sky and the equally brilliant blue ocean (when the hermitage was not in the clouds, that is). 041Then during Jeanne’s and my twenty-fifth anniversary week in July, we checked one thing off our bucket list and went on a whale watching expedition out of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fortunately one whale decided that the ninety-five plus degree weather was not a reason to stay submerged and showed off for our boat for forty-five minutes. Finally, Jeanne and I spent some time visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Florida in August. 100_1931They love the beach, so I found myself doing ocean-related things and meeting ocean-related creatures once again.

I am well aware that many people, including perhaps a number of you reading this blog post are ocean worshippers and can’t think of anything more attractive, peaceful and fulfilling than a day either at an ocean beach or on a boat on the ocean. I’m not a member of your club. Some look at or experience the ocean and are struck by feelings of peace and beauty. The ocean is indeed beautiful, but for me its beauty speaks of power, vastness, and a certain amount of fear. During the week in June that I woke up every morning with the Pacific at my feet, I always felt a bit tense and edgy, as if I was in danger of being swallowed up. The beauty of the ocean puts some people in a peaceful place, but it makes me nervous. As she often does, Simone Weil nails this:

images[1]What is more beautiful than the effect of gravity on sea waves as they flow in ever-changing folds, or the almost eternal folds of the mountains? The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that ships are sometimes wrecked. On the contrary this adds to its beauty.

Immanuel Kant had this tension in mind when he distinguished in his philosophy between the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” The Beautiful refers to things that are, well, beautiful—Wanderer[1]in the sense that they produce aesthetic pleasure and feelings of happiness. Things that are Sublime can also be beautiful, but tend to overwhelm us, disturb us, or even frighten us. The Sublime is “awesome” and “terrible” in the original senses of these words—it inspires awe and terror. Are you attracted and repelled by the same thing or experience? Do you consider something to be both beautiful and terrifying in its awesome, often destructive power? That’s the Sublime—and that’s how the ocean impacts me. It is both beautiful and disturbing, attractive and frightening. The ocean is sublime.

Just so that you ocean-lovers out there don’t think I’m nuts, the authors of the Old Testament Psalms agree with me. Over and over again, the Psalmist reminds us of the awesome power and terror of the sea; even more provocatively, these reflections are frequently used as a bridge to talking about God, the ultimate example of sublimity. Sometimes the Psalmist describes the power of the sea, assuring us that God’s power is even greater. Psalm 33 tells us, for instance, that “God collects the waves of the ocean; and collects the waves of the sea,” in control of even the most terrifying force imaginable. This can be source of comfort–rough-seas[1]

Psalm 46—God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand in time of distress, so we shall not fear though the earth should rock, though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea, even though its waters rage and foam, even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.

or of a petition for rescue from the often ocean-like overwhelming power of human reality–

Psalm 69—Save me from the waters of the deep lest the waves overwhelm me. Do not let the deep engulf me, nor death close its mouth on me.

Of most interest is when the Psalmist begins to attribute the very sublime, fearsome aspects of the ocean directly to God.

tsunami[1]Psalm 42—Deep is calling upon deep, in the roar of waters; your torrents and all your waves swept over me.

It is one thing to seek divine protection from the terrible and awful contingencies of human experience; it is another to attribute that very terrible and awful beauty to the divine itself. If what is greater than me is the epitome of the sublime, meaning that it not only is inexpressibly beautiful but also is unpredictable and terrifying, how do I respond? Is it possible for a mere, non-sublime human being to be in relationship with something like that?

If I am disturbed and made nervous by the ocean, there is a simple solution—stay away from the ocean. Good advice, but for me at least similar advice does not work concerning God. I’ve described myself at times as “God-obsessed” (as the poet Novalis once described Spinoza), meaning that no matter how unpredictable and disturbing the divine might be, I can’t turn away. That being the case, I find the following simple observation from Rowan Williams helpful: “If you want to swim, you must begin to understand the sea.” The Jewish mystics go so far as to suggest that if God is like the ocean, we are the waves on that ocean. That’s a bit esoteric for my taste, but the point is clear—055God invites an intimacy so close that at times the horizon between the divine and human becomes as blurry as the horizon between the ocean and sky at Big Sur. And isn’t that the promise of incarnation—the fusion of divinity and humanity?

The older I get, the more time I spend trying to stay afloat in the divine sea, the more I am convinced that this is not a problem to be solved or an issue to be sorted out. It is rather something to be lived. I agree with the author of Psalm 84—“My soul longs and thirsts for the living God.” And according to Antonie_saint[1]Antoine Saint-Exupery, that is a good start.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Spiritual Plagiarism

One of the most important things that any administrator or leader needs to learn is how to delegate authority. This advice has become a standard part of the package of wisdom passed from experienced administrators to those who follow them—you can’t do this alone.dwc It was a central part of the advice I gave both the colleague who followed me as chair of the twenty-two member philosophy department when my four-year stint ended several years ago, as well as what I told the new director of the much larger interdisciplinary program with eighty faculty and 1,800 students I directed for four years until just a few months ago. It is indeed essential information to pass on to the next administrator, and I talked a good game. But delegating has always been a challenge for me, and I trust that the new program director is much better at sharing and distributing authority effectively than I was.

I remember the day one October a few years ago when in the midst of trying to juggle several meetings that week, the scheduling of forty teams of three faculty each for the next academic year, upwards of two hundred emails every morning, and the demands of my own classes I pushed back from my office computer and said I. CAN’T. DO. THIS” (I might have thrown in an F-bomb between “Can’t” and “Do”). And a little voice inside my head said “No shit, moron!” (my inner voice is surprisingly disrespectful). “You’re trying to do it all yourself, which is not only dumb, it’s impossible.” delegateI had an assistant director and a program administrative assistant I was not utilizing fully and was not making sufficient use of any number of committees whose sole purpose for existence was to perform some of the important duties I was doing myself. Why was I making things so hard on myself? Perfectionism. Control. Introversion. The belief that the only way to guarantee things get done right is to do them myself. I knew all of these things about myself and still was driving myself unnecessarily nuts.

The first reading a couple of Sundays ago immerses us in what might be called “the invention of delegation” from the Book of Numbers in the Jewish Scriptures. I was lector that morning and almost started laughing as I read the text because the scene was so familiar. We find the liberated Israelites in the desert, and they are complaining—again. God has miraculously provided them with a daily supply of manna—miracle food from heaven—to keep them from starving, but everyone is pining for the wonderful variety of food they remember eating in Egypt. manna“We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Of course they have conveniently forgotten that when they were in Egypt they were freaking slaves. God is understandably pissed (this is not the first time these complaints have arisen), and Moses is also annoyed. But Moses’ annoyance isn’t just with this rabble of complainers he is in charge of; he’s had it up to here with the Big Guy as well.

“Have I done something to annoy you that I’m not aware of?” Moses wants to know. “Because otherwise I can’t explain why you have dumped all of this crap on me. Did I create these people? Am I the one who promised them freedom, a new land, and all the rest? News flash—that was YOU! But are you the one who has to solve everyone’s problems and wipe everyone’s butt for them? No—that would be ME!” And in a classic drama queen moment, Moses collapses on the spot. “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. delegating chartIf this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once–if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery.”

In response to Moses’ tantrum, God does what God often does in such situations in the Jewish Scriptures—He makes it up as he goes along. “What if I take some of the power and authority I’ve given you and distribute it to some carefully selected folks so they can share the burden of leadership and responsibility with you?” God suggests—and delegation is invented. Moses selects seventy guys he trusts, brings them to the tent of meeting (the place where God and humans officially interact), the Lord empowers the seventy men in response to which they start “prophesying,” and a solid chain of command and power sharing structure is established.

A few things to note:

  • Authority and power appear to be zero sum, meaning that empowering others automatically means that the leader is disempowered to that same exent. Only secure people should be in leadership roles, in other words.
  • Power needs to be distributed carefully, publicly, and according to recognizable procedures. A ceremony to mark the empowerment is a good idea.
  • Others need to be clearly made aware of the new power structure. The “prophesying” part of the story means, at the very least, that the newly empowered have been publicly marked as such. Secretly adding layers of bureaucracy without transparency is a recipe for suspicion and resentment.

This all sounds eminently sensible—until problems arise in the very next verses.

It turns out that two of the guys selected by Moses for empowerment didn’t make it to the tent of meldad and medadeeting, but they start prophesying in the camp as if they had participated in the official empowerment ceremony. In other words, they are acting with authority without having been officially empowered. Moses’ number one assistant, Joshua, squeals on the two guys to Moses and asks for permission to stop the unauthorized activity of these posers and frauds. Amazingly, Moses tells Joshua to leave them alone. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.” In the short span of one story authority has shifted from one person to the vision of a projected future in which anyone who has the vision and ability to be effective can act on it. What about the hierarchy? What about keeping control on how power is distributed? Is this any way to run an organization?

Apparently it is. In that same Sunday’s gospel, similar issues arise in the world of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has empowered his disciples to preach the gospel, cast out demons, and heal the sick—so far, so good. Then John reports some disturbing news to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” John, presumably speaking for the rest of the disciples as well, assumes that only those specifically authorized and empowered by Jesus to do special stuff should be doing it. This stranger using Jesus’ name to cast out demons is guilty of spiritual plagiarism, in other words. he hasn’t even learned the secret disciples’ handshake. And just as Moses told Joshua, Jesus tells John and the rest to leave this guy alone. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”wind

As we often learn when reading stories about the intersection of the human and the divine, things divine operate according to entirely different rules than those to which we are accustomed. Or perhaps according to no recognizable rules at all. The divine spirit is frequently likened to the wind, which blows where it wants when it wants to, without regard to our expectations, desires, or weather predictions. The takeaway? Divine power and authority is not a zero sum game. It can and will show up in all sorts of unlikely places, even those we have not authorized. Especially in those places.

Tired of Hating People–Thoughts on the anniversary of 9/11

Everyone beyond a certain age can remember clearly what they were doing fourteen years ago today when they heard the news. I was in my college’s main cafeteria getting coffee and noticed something weird happening on the Today Show broadcast on a television hanging from the ceiling in the corner. first towerAt that point all they knew was that one of the Twin Towers was on fire, apparently because an airplane had crashed into it. I had scheduled office hours that morning, so I listened to live radio reports on NPR of the second tower being hit and the collapse of both towers. There was a surreal air to the broadcast—I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true, some sort of elaborate hoax along the lines of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast many decades earlier. But it was true.

Classes were encouraged to meet and decide individually how best to deal with the day’s events. Several students in my first class of the day at 12:30 had family and friends who lived and/or worked in Manhattan—it was clear that the best thing for these students to do was to continue their frantic attempts to contact their loved ones. About half the class stayed and shared their thoughts—what they said and the nature of our conversation is difficult to recall. I know that many students (as well as many of my colleagues) were understandably angry and wanted retribution; tower collapseas we gathered our things to leave about half way through the class period I said “the one thing I’m feeling right now is that my best response to what has happened is to become a better person. A better teacher, husband, father, friend. That’s all I’ve got right now.”

I’m sure that there will be any number of retrospective reports this evening on the various 24/7 news channels, although I suspect that the fifteenth anniversary a year from today will have many more of them. Neither Jeanne nor I lost any immediate family or close friends in that day’s terrible events, although in a few cases it was only “luck” that spared someone we know well. Almost a decade and a half removed, when I think about 9/11 and its aftermath as I have been over the past few days, I think of patriotism, wars that seem never to end, and the realization that with the swift passage of time soon I will be teaching students who, first, will not remember 9/11 and then, three years or so later, will not have been born when 9/11 occurred. But most of all, the lasting effect in this country of the terrorist attacks on that day has been a persistent atmosphere of fear and suspicion—as well as of the hatred that fear and suspicion  produce.

Just about a year ago the theme of the weekly “TED Radio Hour” on NPR was “Transformation—stories and ideas about becoming a completely different person.” The first story up that day was titled “How Did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?”untitled

How did the Son of a Terrorist Choose Peace?

The story teller, Zak Ebrahim, is a peace activist and the author of The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice. Ebrahim’s father, El-Sayyid Nosair, for a number of years plotted with other radicals to attack a number of New York City landmarks, including tunnels, synagogues and the United Nations headquarters. These planned attacks were thwarted by an FBI informant, but one of the attacks—the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center–was not. Nosair and his fellow terrorists were convicted of placing a van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the sublevel parking lot of the North Tower; the subsequent explosion killed six people and injured over a thousand others. Ebrahim was seven years old at the time of his father’s conviction and incarceration—Nosair was sentenced to life imprisonment plus fifteen years.nosair and son

Ebrahim’s father had become radicalized in the early years of his son’s life; in his TED talk Ebrahim describes how shortly before his father was arrested he took Ebrahim, along with several of the men who turned out to be co-conspirators, to a shooting range for Ebrahim’s first lessons in using a rifle. Even after Nosair’s arrest, the impact of his worldview on his young son continued to be strong.

Growing up in a bigoted household, I wasn’t prepared for the real world. I had been raised to judge people based on arbitrary measurements, like a person’s race or religion. He would just talk about Jews being evil. And I would hear similar things from the men that were with him. You know, gay people being evil and them wanting to turn you gay so that you would go to hell too. And just gay people being all-around terrible people and a bad influence. And he used to say things like, a bad Muslim is better than a good non-Muslim. That’s pretty much what indoctrination is. You have authority figures around you telling you that the world is one way and you don’t get to see another perspective.

This radical indoctrination began to crumble when Ebrahim, as a teenager, began through school to be exposed to some of the people he had been taught to hate. PhiladelphiaOne of his fellow group members at the National Youth Conference in Philadelphia leading up to the 2000 Presidential election was Jewish. Ebrahim did not learn that his new friend was Jewish until several days after their friendship had started developing; he says that “I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that, for most of my life, I had been led to believe was insurmountable.” That summer he found a job at a Busch Gardens amusement park and for the first time had the opportunity to meet some gay people performing in one of the park’s shows. “I soon found that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met.”

One day I had a conversation with my mother about how my worldview was starting to change. And she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who’d experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said tired of hating“I’m tired of hating people.” In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.

On one level it’s easy to hate because a world made of “Us” vs. “Them” is simple to define and make judgments from within. On a deeper level, though, Ebrahim is right—the negative energy of fear and hate is psychologically exhausting, an exhaustion that is symptomatic of our culture. It’s almost as if it isn’t natural for humans to hate.

A few moments of attention to the level of discourse in the early months of the 2016 Presidential campaign are sufficient to hear the tones of fear and anger that pervade our national conversation about almost everything. stormer and trumpIt is a summer of intolerant and fear-mongering language—for the first time in decades various white supremacist groups have found a candidate who speaks their language of hatred and have publically endorsed him.

How White Nationalist Groups Found Their Candidate in Donald Trump

That such attitudes exist is nothing new; what is new is that we have reached the point where hatred and intolerance have found a new foothold in the public square and conversation. And even for those who seek a moderate position that avoids anger and fear, the current atmosphere is infectious. big enough lieA character in Eric Bennett’s new novel A Big Enough Lie explains the dynamic well:

There are people in the world whose opinions differ from yours so much that the difference implies violence, urges it, supplies a will for it. And if you stand on the side of moderation, this implication, this will to violence, upsets you even more than the mere difference of opinion itself. Because you are complicit in it—you become complicit in extremism by loathing extremism. You are reduced by your enemy to what you despise in your enemy. The world excuses only saints and lunatics from its economy of hatred, is what you realize. Pick a side.

On this fourteenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, my hope is that we as a nation, as a culture will decide, as Zak Ibrahim’s mother did, that we are tired of hating people. us-vs-themTired of dividing our tiny little universes up into “Us” and “Them” as we vilify those who do not look like, act like, or believe the same as those in our self-defined groups of specialness do, often in the name of rigidly dogmatic beliefs that cannot accommodate the complex and shades-of-grey world in which we live. As Zak Ebrahim discovered, the best cure for fear and hatred is simple experience. But such experience can only happen if each of us has the courage to step outside our ossified comfort zones and dare to meet the most frightening thing in the universe—someone who is not the same as me.


The Wicked

debateThe morning after the recent Fox News-hosted debate amongst candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the appointed morning psalm in the Anglican monthly cycle of “read through the Psalms in a month” was Psalm 37. Usually there are three or four psalms each morning and each evening, but this is a long one. Subtitled “Reflections on Good and Evil” in the Grail translation that I use, the psalmist is focusing on the good guys and the bad guys, the “upright” and the “wicked.” The wicked are mentioned fourteen times in forty verses—clearly the psalmist is living in a world in which the wicked are prospering and upright folks (like the psalmist) are waiting for the day when the scales of justice will realign and the wicked will get what they deserve. There is little of the impatience with the divine’s apparent lack of action in this psalm that one finds in others with similar themes; here, patience, commitment, amalekitesand trust are the prescriptions for the upright as they wait for the wicked’s fifteen minutes of fame and power to end.

As she occasionally does, Jeanne joined me for my morning psalm, so I read it aloud. When finished, I asked “who do you think the ‘wicked’ are in this psalm?” “Probably the Amalekites, the Amorites, the Jebusites—one of those ‘-ites’ that the children of Israel were always worried about.” The people living in Palestine when the wandering Israelites showed up, claimed that Yahweh had given them the land that the “-ites” had lived in for generations, then proceeded upon divine authority to try to wipe the “-ites” out, in other words. I’m sure she’s probably right, but strangely the psalm got me to thinking about the debates I had seen the previous evening (I watched both the happy hour and main event debates). Just replace “upright” and “just” with “Republican” or “conservative,” then replace “wicked” with “Democrat” or “liberal,” and it all sounds very familiar.

It was clear that everyone on stage, for instance, was convinced of the truth of the following verses toward the end of Psalm 37:

I have seen the [liberals] triumphant, towering like the cedars of Lebanon. I passed by again; they were gone. I searched; they could not be found.vanish like smoke

In just a bit over a year, candidates promised in various ways, the accomplishments of the liberals will be no more. The Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, the proposed treaty with Iran—“they shall vanish, they shall vanish like smoke.” There was no doubt that many on stage suspected the bad guys of not only poor judgment but also of deliberate treachery.

The [liberals] make plots against the [conservatives] and gnash their teeth against them; but the Lord laughs at the [liberals], knowing that their day is at hand. . . . The [liberals] are watching for the [conservatives] and seeking occasion to destroy them. wicked and justThe Lord will not leave the [conservatives] undefended, nor let them be condemned when they are judged.

Although there was significant disagreement amongst the candidates about exactly how it will happen, all on stage agreed that before long, our long national nightmare will be over and conservative values will be restored.

See the [conservatives], and mark the [Republicans], a future lies in store for the righteous, but [liberals] shall all be destroyed. No future lies in store for the [Democrats].

Lest you think I am picking on Republicans and conservatives (and I am), Psalm 37 can work for liberals too.

The few things owned by the [liberals] are better than the wealth of the [conservatives]; borrowingfor the power of the [Republicans] shall be broken and the Lord will support the [Democrats].

Liberals don’t tend to describe the perceived truth of their beliefs as sanctioned by the divine, or at least not as often as conservatives do, but they could. Look around a little bit in your favorite sacred text and you can find something God says or does that will support your favorite thing. In addition, liberals suspect that in the reality many conservatives desire in their heart of hearts, there is no room for those who disagree.

wicked violenceThe sword of the [Republicans] is drawn, the bow bent to slaughter the [Democrats]. Their sword shall pierce their own hearts and their bows shall be broken to pieces.

My point is psychological rather than political. The discourse of Psalm 37 is of the same sort as the discourse in our current political climate, even our culture at large. It is one thing to disagree strongly with someone—that’s what discourse and debate are all about. But when the disagreement takes on a moral tone so that the person you disagree with is not only mistaken in your estimation, but also wrong in a moral sense (wicked or evil in biblical terms), then discussion and (God forbid) compromise become impossible. Simple listening becomes impossible. Positions become entrenched, opponents become vilified, and soon the stakes have become cosmic. The triumph of truth, justice, and the American way becomes dependent on my being right and those who disagree with me being dismissed as wicked and ungodly.

rubioThe problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to engage and discuss for very long in conversation with people whose beliefs and opinions are radically different from your own. As I listened to yesterday’s debates kasichI frequently managed for several minutes at a time to listen objectively and make some informed judgments about the various players. Rubio and Kasich seemed better prepared than Walker or Cruz, Paul chose to be combative while Bush did not, carsonCarson had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look to him, and so on. But then someone would state their position on some issue that matters to me and I would immediately fall into “You fucking moron! How the hell can any human being with a half-dozen working neurons actually believe that?” mode, from where it is but a short journey to the just vs. the wicked all over again. The offending person has morphed from someone I strongly disagree with into someone who the world would be better off without. It’s going to be a very long fifteen months.

Smith’s Pasture

Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Isaiah 12

Several years ago, during an infrequent return to northern Vermont where I grew up, Jeanne and I took a quick detour from Route 5 South to drive past the old homestead, the house in which I lived until age eleven. It was in poor repair, and seemed far smaller than when I was a kid. Most surprising was that Smith’s pasture, the cow pasture across the road that was the site of many childhood adventures, was gone. A tangle of trees and underbrush now grows where the gate to the pasture was. I’m hoping that if I had pushed through the brush I would have found Smith’s pasture on the other side, sort of like finding Narnia on the other side of the wardrobe. Because it was magic.

Growing up in the sticks has some definite plusses—how many city kids have a cow pasture at their disposal? Smith’s pasture was one of several unofficial playgrounds for my brother and me. Many were the summer mornings when my mother would pack us a lunch and we would climb over the fence into the pasture, limited only by the general directive to be back before dark. The generous Mr. Smith, whom I never met, gave my family free access to his pasture, while the evil Mr. Cole, who owned the adjacent pasture just down the road (and whom I also never met), refused such free access. Hiking, war games, superhero exploits—Smith’s pasture was the natural stage for just about anything two kids reaching double digits in age could come up with.

Vermont cow pastures bear little resemblance to the idyllic, flat pastures that bovines in other parts of the country enjoy. Smith’s pasture was a hill—a mountain in my childhood imagination—that  rose sharply from the road to a high plateau whose back boundary my brother and I never found. Large boulders and innumerable trees of all sorts were thickly spread across the hundreds of pasture acres. The slopes in portions of the pasture were steep enough that I often wondered what the dairy cows, not generally known for their mountain climbing abilities, thought of having to eke out their bovine existence in a less than congenial landscape.

Smith’s pasture was more than the regular locale for boyhood adventures. It was also the source of our annual Christmas tree. Each year in early December my brother and I would trudge up the hill in snow that was often waist deep, searching for the perfect tree. One year we returned at dusk with a tree so wide that it took us close to an hour to stuff it through the front door and so tall that our living room ceiling bent the top foot and a half over when we stood it upright. Only a special early infusion of Christmas spirit kept my mother from having a fit as we sawed off the bottom two feet in the middle of the living room rug.

It was only many years later that I put two and two together and figured out why Mr. Smith was so generous with access to his pasture. He may or may not have had a soft spot in his heart for children needing a place to explore—the real reason we had access to his pasture was the artesian well, located several hundred yards past the fence, which provided water for our house. A well-understood task accompanied our frequent treks into Smith’s pasture—don’t forget to check the well. It was my brother’s job to lift the hinged lid as high as he could—I was too small to do it—while I peered into the dim recesses below. “It looks fine!” “It’s a bit low!” or, one fateful afternoon—“It’s empty!!” This was distressing news, producing visions of no baths, no clothes or dish washing, and general aridness. The spring had widened a minor crack in the well wall into an exit route—it was many dollars and dry days later before the water was coaxed back into its proper location. When wells misbehave, life changes significantly.

One does not get very far reading in the Bible without encountering a well. In a largely desert landscape, of course, wells were both the source of life and the center of community activity. Isaac and Rebekah met at a well, as did Jacob and Rachel as well as Moses and Zipporah. Joseph’s older brothers threw him into a dried up well after he offended them one too many times. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4  is one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament. Battles were fought over wells. They are so prevalent and necessary in stories from a nomadic, arid land that it’s easy to imagine that they are natural parts of the landscape. But they aren’t. A well is a human attempt to harness the power of something very necessary but also very powerful—a spring of water.

As I learned at an early age in Smith’s pasture, springs do not always cooperate with our attempts to control and tame them. In ancient texts, springs and sources of water are sacred. This is not surprising, because water is necessary for life. A spring—an oasis—stands for life, for rest and refreshment. But it is the random power of a spring that most directly brings the divine to mind. Springs are as resistant to our attempts to control them as they are to our expectations.  Just when we think that we have the water under control, it decides to go somewhere else. This is the deepest secret to its living water: it transforms every obstruction into a new expression of itself: It turns every apparent barrier into a new channel..

This would be a good thing to remember every time I think I have God figured out, whenever my path to a frequently visited well becomes a bit too frequently traveled. But the divine spring has a mind and will of its own, apparently, and if I don’t pay attention, I will find my well, so carefully built to contain the spring, empty one day. And this is not a good thing—as Peter wrote, “these are wells without water . . . to whom the gloom of darkness is reserved forever.” It is easy to forget that the divine spring was never intended to be contained permanently in any external well, whether a building, a book, or any specific location. The good news, as Jesus told the woman at the well, is that the divine spring is “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And that well is me. And you. It’s a great idea—portable wells containing the most life-giving water ever imagined. I need go no further than where I happen to be to find out what the divine spring is doing.

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isa. 58:11

Welfare in my Back Yard

Although I am a very liberal guy, I occasionally worry about the welfare state. I understand the need for any healthy society to have various mechanisms in place to assist those who, through no fault of their own, safety netfind themselves incapable of taking care of their own basic needs; furthermore, my Christian faith calls for me to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and protect the widow and orphan. But what of those who have found ways to work the system effectively, who regularly grab a handout at the taxpayers’ expense when they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves? Many of the students in my “Markets and Morals” colloquium this past semester were so concerned about welfare abuse that they were willing to live in a world with no social safety net at all—at least we would know that those who survived had earned it.

This summer Jeanne and I have been providing food for the hungry in a real time manner—setting it out on a first-come, first-served basis as quickly as it could be consumed. And it has been getting consumed so quickly that I have started wondering whether we are unwittingly contributing to a bunch of slackers who could take care of themselves if they would just improve their work ethic and stop looking for handouts. birds feedingAs I often do when confronted with perplexing challenges, I went to the experts—my Facebook acquaintances. The response was very interesting.

Bird lovers! We have bird feeders in our side yard–so many birds visit that we go through six cakes of suet every 36 hours or so. Mostly wrens, sparrows, chickadees, with the occasional woodpecker and even less occasional goldfinch. A couple of people have told me that one should definitely feed birds during the winter but not during the summer, since they can find their own food in the summer. I don’t want to be contributing to a dependent class of birds looking for an avian handout, and we are spending an increasing amount of money on bird food! What do you think?

The responses fell into several distinct categories. Some people just embraced the joy of helping make the lives of God’s creatures, no matter who they are, a little bit easier. But is the help primarily for those in need or for the self-satisfaction of the helper?

  • Those beautiful birds are such a glorious part of God’s creation! We enjoy watching them, and so does our little indoor cat, so I feed and water the birds pretty much year-round. I will shamelessly admit that it is for my own enjoyment as much as anything else, regardless of the expense. Our yard is a welcome center for our fine feathered friends! Their symphonies fill the air, so it is a pleasure to sit out on the deck to observe them and listen to their concerts.fat bird
  • They probably can find enough food in the summer, but…if you enjoy watching them…I’d say it’s worth the money (are they getting fat??)

Others suggested that some needs should be taken care of, but not others. Thread the needle between welfare dependence and self-sufficiency, in other words.

  • I don’t feed birds, but I do have two bird baths. Clean water is even more necessary for their survival than food. Birds are always using the larger birdbath about 15-20 feet away from a large window, which makes it easy to watch them.bird in birdbath
  • Be sure they have water in the summer. They may be able to find food, but water is not as easy as it once was.
  • I’m pretty sure I have contributed to the dependence of several generations of cardinals and chickadees. Concur about water. I try to keep my two bird baths filled and refreshed every couple of days.

One of the most frequent tropes was to express a preference for helping some, but not others, suggesting that it is better to feed no one than to risk the possibility that someone I don’t like might get some food despite my best efforts to keep them from it.

  • We gave up on bird feeders – couldn’t keep the squirrels out of them. When we attached a cone to block their access from the ground, they just started jumping from the trees. They put on some great acrobatics shows, but, really, feed the tree rats? I don’t think so.squirrel
  • I had such a hard time keeping squirrels from eating everything that I gave up on feeding them. I have heard that feeding them makes them less able to get food on their own.
  • We gave up feeding the birds because the pidgeons [sic] chase away the song birds.

And some suggested that only very special types should get help.

  • We only feed the birds in the winter with one exception being the humming bird.
  • There are many places for them to find food & they manage well – No worries; they will be back . . . I just found out I have a hummingbird nest in a tree in my yard – I’m excited!! hummingbirds

The most nuanced response—the one that I found most attentive to all parties concerned—encouraged me to continue feeding everyone but to take closer rationing control.

  • I feed them in the summer, but I am the boss of the bird feeder, and if they go through the seeds too fast, they just have to wait a couple of days. I try not to refill the feeder more than once a week.

My own responses to these various comments and suggestions reflect my own uncertainty about how to deal with these avian freeloaders.

  • Just as I thought–I am contributing to the creation of a dependent class of birds.
  • Well, I must admit that I am tired of the free-loading birds who always want their beaks filled when they should be out looking for jobs.

I finally ended up with this tentative decision:

  • Thanks, everyone! I will continue feeding them but do better at managing their consumption–and I’ll address the water issue!

Truth be told, I suspect I will continue to feed them indiscriminately as they chirp innocently in the tree and our roof as soon as the feeders are empty. I am easily manipulated.welfare I found it interesting and a slight bit disconcerting to find that my friends’ and my attitudes about bird welfare fell immediately into categories recognizable from the never-ending debates about social safety nets and welfare for human beings in this country. The important questions remain the same. What duties do we have to those who do not have enough? Why are people in need in the first place? Should those who have enough expect those who do not have enough to prove their worthiness to be helped? What is the difference between charity and duty? Are there limits to how much those in need should be helped? And if we can’t agree about birds, what are the chances achieving consensus about our fellow human beings? I headed out to fill up the feeders right now—I wonder how many of the dozens of birds in line deserve it.

Books that Changed My Life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Not long ago I posted the following on Facebook: What books have changed your life? I don’t mean which books do you think are “greatest” or at the top of the “Great Books” canon, but which books came along at just the right time in your life and changed something significant? The response was fascinating, with dozens of my Facebook acquaintances (and theirs) listing interesting and eclectic offerings from Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of my own life-changing titles—please share yours and let’s keep the conversation going!patc

At a writer’s workshop several summers ago one of the writing coaches gave us writer wannabes a terrific question to ask every time we write. “With Middlemarch and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the world, why would anyone be interested in this?” Over the twenty years or so since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time, I have occasionally mentioned to friends whose opinions I highly respect how the book has influenced me. More often than not, my friend has replied that she read it years ago and didn’t finish it, or he confesses that “I just don’t get it.” One said “I didn’t like it much when I read it, but I’ve never been able to forget it.” I understand these reactions—Dillard’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner is odd, quirky, eclectic, and one-of-a-kind. And it has helped me to see the world around me and myself differently.

leaf minerOur life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Annie Dillard is an intense observer of details, capable of seeing things that escape the notice of just about everyone. She finds worlds of complexity and interest in the tiniest matters—I often think of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who when I read Dillard. But I have encountered skilled natural observers before—Hortonwhat makes Dillard different is that she invites the reader into a new kind of seeing altogether. Given, as she writes, that most of us “waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves,” how do we learn to get out of the way and see what is actually there instead of what we expect to see?

There is another kind of seeing, which involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

And what Dillard sees is that “Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” Dillard Frog and Bug 3From the slow-train-wreck horror of watching a giant water bug paralyze a small frog then suck the frog’s insides out through a puncture hole to the gratuitous beauty of a mockingbird free-falling from a five-story roof only to swerve and land light as a feather just a couple of feet before crashing into the earth—just because it can—Dillard finds that we are surrounded by endless details that belie our constant attempts to categorize and “figure out.”

Dillard is not the least bit hesitant to ask the big questions that arise from her intense attention to detail. As she describes it in another of her books, she continually participates in “unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” tea cupOur attempts to understand the big picture, however, must always begin with what is the case rather than what we would like to be the case. This requires learning how to see unfiltered.

What we know, at least for starters, is here we—so incontrovertibly—are. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die. In the meantime, in between time, we can see. The scales are fallen from our eyes, the cataracts are cut away, and we can work at making sense of the color patches we see in an effort to discover where we so incontrovertibly are. It’s common sense: when you move in, you try to learn the neighborhood.

Practicing this sort of seeing was an “eye opener” for me (pun intended), opening previously undiscovered pathways I had always longed to follow. They led to ways of thinking about God that blew me away.

We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet. praying mantisThere is not a people in the world who behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is packed with page after page of excruciatingly detailed observations of violence and ugliness in the natural world, to the extent that my students sometimes wonder why Dillard finds it necessary to pound her readers over their heads with a basic fact: Nature is both violent and beautiful, deadly and life-giving. “Enough already!” they complain. Dillard’s point is not to fill up pages but rather to force us to face the implications of what we are seeing, including what these truths tell us about what is greater than us. What sort of being or process is responsible for this?

How many people have prayed for their daily bread and famished? They die their daily death as utterly as did the frog, people, played with, dabbled upon, when God knows they loved their life. AlgonquinsIn a winter famine, desperate Algonquin Indians “ate broth made of smoke, snow, and buckskin, and the rash of pellagra appeared like tattooed flowers on their emaciated bodies—the rose of starvation, in a French physician’s description; and those who starved died covered with roses.” Is this beauty, these gratuitous roses, or a mere display of force? Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

Dillard knows full well that such Job-like challenges to the Divine are “out of bounds” in many circles, but she isn’t having it. “We are people,” she writes, “we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!” As she asks elsewhere, “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” The fact is that what we are seeing is not what we would expect to see in a natural world created and overseen by a benevolent deity. dome of heavenSetting aside traditional constructs and concepts, Dillard freely explores other possibilities.

Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?

I had wondered about this since my early years as a young Baptist boy, but this was the first time I found it in print. And it inspired me to fearlessly track what I see to what might be behind the scene—regardless of where it might take me.

But as Dillard regularly reminds her readers, terror and beauty are intertwined in our world, so intimately that our attempts to separate them will invariably fall short.

No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax—how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek? . . . Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

When I remember to get out of my own way, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek serves as a standard for me, a standard of how to see differently. pearlThis theme of learning how to truly see weaves through many of the texts that have influenced me over the past several years—Annie Dillard was the first to introduce me to it.

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. . . . But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.