Category Archives: power

Justifying My Existence

It is unsettling, even scary, to relinquish who we think we are, and scary to stop clinging to what we have and what we do. Henri Nouwen

As I picked up my bag to walk to the gym, then to the office for a few hours of work, I said “I’m off to justify my existence for the day!” The idea of such daily justification comes from my father who, when he was at home rather than on the road travelling, used to ask my brother and me as we stepped into the house after school justify“What did you do today to justify your existence on this planet?” He always had a smile on his face when he said it, but there were serious undertones to the question. The challenge to not just be a piece of furniture in the room, not just to occupy space, but to prove my worth on a daily basis has stuck with me ever since. Jeanne’s response to my announcement was to laugh and say “You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not so sure.

I can talk a good talk about why, despite the Protestant work ethic and stereotypical American focus on action and productivity that pervades our culture, who one is does not amount to the same thing as what one does. chittisterAs Joan Chittister writes, humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” One should work to live, after all, not live to work. I am not, however, nearly as good at walking the walk. This has become more and more obvious as I move into sabbatical mode. Within a month I will no longer be a program director, something that has consumed me as a second full-time job for the past four years. I will not be a full-time teacher for the next sixteen months, uncharted territory for someone who believes he was born to be a professor. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen for several years that the biggest thing that being an administrator, first four years as department chair, then four more as a program director, has taken away from me is writing. But this is not entirely true. I actually have been writing a lot over the past almost-three-years on this blog—close to 300,000 words worth of writing (enough for three 250-or-so page books). What I have not done for close to a decade is academic writing of the sort that an academic must do in order to get promoted and tenured. Why? Because I don’t have to. Nor do I want to. button_tenurepromotionTenure and the last promotion came a long time ago, well before the last decade of administration piled on top of teaching. I no longer need to write and publish the sort of thing that one needs to write and publish in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this is a good thing since I don’t want to write that sort of thing and haven’t wanted to for some time.

What this means, going into sabbatical, is that for the first time in my professional life—actually for the first time in my adult life—the pressure is off. I’m being paid to be on sabbatical—undoubtedly a rare gift pretty much exclusive to the world of academia. And I’m not sure how to handle that. Over the past few years I have taken baby steps in the direction of trusting the world around me to show me what’s next rather than imposing my own expectations and structures on what’s next. sabbaticalBut they are only baby steps, insufficient to guide my plans for sabbatical. Beginning around this time last year I started planning for sabbatical by doing the usual things—setting up a series of appointments with our very helpful director of sponsored research, sending out proposals both for residential and non-residential sabbatical projects, and so on. For several months in late 2014 I waited to see what I would be doing and where I would be going on sabbatical. The response to all of my proposals? “Thanks, but no thanks.” Other than the lovely form rejection letters in various forms, I received no feedback other than “we don’t want to fund you doing that.” By the time the rejections arrived the spring semester had started, so other than a few “what the fuck??” moments, I didn’t have the time to think much about the implications until the past couple of weeks. I have plenty to work on and write about—three book projects, no less—but the usual routes to where that will happen and when have been dead ends. Now what?

Isaiah 6I was lector yesterday morning at church for the first time in months, and in one of those unexpected moments of synchronicity that I’ve noticed more and more frequently over the past several years my assigned Old Testament reading was one of my favorites from the Jewish scriptures, the call of Isaiah. As I read it from the lectern the story had immediate resonance. Isaiah has a vision of the divine throne room, where six-winged seraphim fly about and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” 24/7. After Isaiah expresses his utter unworthiness at being present for such a glorious spectacle, an angel takes a live coal with tongs from the altar and, laying it on Isaiah’s lips, says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Now you are ready, in other words. God itself asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me.” A risky thing to do, opening oneself up to whatever might come. Isaiah’s mission starts by saying “I’m ready for whatever.” Scary business, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells the brief story of a woman’s last hours before death. franklLying on her filthy cot in the barracks, the woman spoke briefly with Frankl.

“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

I am here—I am life. Maybe that’s enough. At least it’s a start.

Colorblindness

When I was growing up in northeastern Vermont, the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury was a favorite point of destination. It is an impressive stone structure, a small natural science and history museum, planetarium, and place to hang out all rolled into one. Admission was free for residents of St. Johnsbury, where my cousins lived, as well as for residents of neighboring towns, which included me. My cousins and I spent many Saturdays with nothing to do at the Fairbanks, followed, if we had any money, by a few strings of bowling at the alley just a few blocks farther down Main Street. Since the Fairbanks was also a favorite place for grade school classes to take their field trips (it was free, after all), I got to know the place very well.

Click on picture!

I’m sure it is now a cutting edge twenty-first century establishment (or maybe not), but in the sixties and early seventies when I frequented it, some of it was up to date (the planetarium), some was quaintly dated (the rest of it), and a few things were just plain creepy (such as the curators’ obsession with bad taxidermy and endless glass cases filled with decaying moths, butterflies, and other assorted insects). Other than the planetarium, my favorite part of the museum is one that I’ll wager has either been thoroughly revamped or discarded entirely—the “hands-on” science experiments in the crypt-like basement. The displays were as far removed from what one would find nowadays at even a mediocre science museum as Pac Man and Pong are from today’s video games, but Pong came out when I was in middle school, so it doesn’t take much to entertain me.

It was in the basement of the Fairbanks Museum that I gained, for the first time, empirical evidence supporting what I had suspected for my whole life—I’m partially color-blind. In a glass display at the bottom of the basement stairs was a row of color test plates (I learned today from Wikipedia that they are called “Ishihara color test plates”), circles containing colored spots within which were embedded a figure, usually a number, made of spots with a slightly different color. People with normal color vision can see the number easily, but those with certain color deficiencies can’t. I couldn’t. My normal color-seeing companions could immediately see the “25” in the circle, while I only saw spots. I learned that I have red/green color deficiency—nobody’s perfect.

Being color-blind has not turned out to be a big deal. I always ask Jeanne to endorse my clothing choices and especially to match a tie to a shirt when she’s home; when she’s not, I dress in safe colors, primarily blue, gray, black, red, yellow—anything that doesn’t require me to tell the difference between shades of green and brown, or various permutations of purple. Actually, purple turns out to be the biggest problem for this particular red/green colorblind person—go figure. But when I was a kid, my colorblindness was frequently a source of unwanted attention. My father and brother, for instance, entertained themselves by finding a house, a billboard, or car with the sort of color that I didn’t see as they did. “What color is that?” they would ask, and would laugh like hyenas when I got it wrong. When I finally started saying petulantly “I’m not playing that game anymore,” they laughed even harder.

Color-blindness, at least of the sort I have, is not a debilitating condition—it’s just good to know that I have it so that I can adjust accordingly. Far more important, I think, are the sorts of blindness that all of us are afflicted with, limitations so insidious that every one of is convinced that we see perfectly (even if no one else does). One of the continuing issues that I’ve grappled with over the past few years has to do with the importance of seeing, not just clearly, but differently. The natural human procedure is to view everything through filters and screens that tend to be invisible, yet distort everything that we see. A recent Sunday gospel provides a powerful example of the power of seeing differently. Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching is in full swing. The crowds are so unrelenting that Jesus and the disciples do not even have time for a proper meal. Jesus has a good idea—let’s get away to a deserted place and rest for a while. With that in mind, Jesus and his inner circle hop into their boat and sail on the Sea of Galilee to where they think they can have a bit of quality down time together. But word spreads so fast that a new crowd is waiting for them when they land. So they try it again, jumping in the boat and sailing away. But the masses are waiting for them wherever they land.

Put yourself in Jesus’ sandals—what do you see? I remember Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of a scene just like this in his 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Crowds of people in need of healing are swarming around Jesus demanding his attention, which he tries to provide. But for every person he touches, five more show up. The crowd becomes larger and more insistent, grabbing at his clothes, blocking his way, surrounding him in a closer and tighter circle. Their musical chant increases in intensity and pitch; Jesus begins to sing “There’s too many of you, don’t push me, please don’t crowd me” in a high pitched wail above the cacophony. Finally he screams at the top of his lungs—“HEAL YOURSELVES!!!” and the stage goes black. Then one spotlight shines on Mary Magdalene as she soothingly sings “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you; don’t you know everything’s all right, yes everything’s fine.”

Webber’s imaginative score is brilliant because it is so real. Trust me; the reaction of Webber’s Jesus to the crowd is exactly what my reaction would have been, except I might have included an f-bomb or two. In Jesus’ sandals, I would have seen a mob seeking to suck me dry of everything I have to offer, treating me like a miracle-dispensing ATM instead of a human being who gets exhausted and needs to get his batteries recharged. And there is an element of that in Mark’s account—Jesus is trying (twice, no less) to get away from the crowds that are demanding more than he presently has to offer.

And that’s the beauty of the story. Because although Jesus wants and needs to be alone with his friends and rest, he ultimately does not run from the crowd—he sees them for what they are. “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Yes Jesus was the Son of God and yes he perhaps had more to offer than we do, but his compassion for the crowd is not due to his divinity. It is due to his choosing to see differently, to get past the normal human self-centered filters and look at what is in front of him. He sees a need that he can address and addresses it, even though he’d rather be doing something else. Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and Jesus’ compassionate gaze on the crowd is one of pure love.

Color-blindness isn’t so bad. But other-blindness, the blindness that is part and parcel of being human, is. In John 14, Jesus promises that because he is going back to his Father and because of the coming of the Holy Spirit, we will do “greater works than these.” And although I don’t completely rule out the possibility of healings and other spectacular miracles today, these are not the works Jesus is talking about. Our greatest works will flow from our divinely energized ability to see things as they are, not as we would like them to be or as we wish they were, and to address the needs with unfiltered directness. Jesus looked at what was right in front of him with compassion. Let’s go and do likewise.

Is Democracy Overrated?

It is Memorial Day, a great day to honor those who have made sacrifices over the years, including the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to protect our freedoms. It is also a good day to consider how well we are living out the freedoms that these sacrifices were made for.

house of cardsJeanne and I are anxiously awaiting the release of Season of Three of House of Cards on DVD in July (we don’t do the streaming thing). On this Memorial Day I am thinking about politics; in one of the early second-season episodes, then Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”

senateFrank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.

lit.aristotlepolitics.coverRepublicFrank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s and Aristotle’s Republic and Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.

Socrates-on-trialThere are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” alexander-aristotle-grangerAristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.

Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.

bbcsmDoes it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “BullCarter Fordshit.”

I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. elephants and donkeysThe polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, jesusvotesrepublican1who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.

Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.

Do You Have What It Takes to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?

My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”

The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. JeffersonBut simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.

If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once or twice per year on Memorial Day or Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost this Sunday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

ubi_caritas_et_amor_wedding_sticker_template-re6fcd4ed855b45a3b33a27c44272a696_v9wf3_8byvr_210[1]

salient salmon[1]

Consider the Salmon

unicorn-iris-murdoch-paperback-cover-art[1]In The Unicorn, one of Iris Murdoch’s characters drops the following into a mundane conversation: “Have you ever seen salmon leaping? Such fantastic bravery, to enter another element like that. Like souls approaching God.” The implications of this simile are striking. Salmon are hard-wired to do what they do, a hard-wiring that drives them to a place in which they are not equipped to survive and, ultimately, to death. This is hardly an attractive picture of the human search for God, but there’s a certain familiarity to it. In the Old Testament God is frequently hiding, in a thick cloudevil-face-captured-in-thick-cloud-of-smoke-500x292[1], in a burning bush, beyond a rock, because if a human actually experienced God directly that would be the end of the human. God’s element is not ours, yet just as the salmon there is something unavoidable in us that draws us toward that divine element and, perhaps, to our destruction. Great news.

Genetically Modified SalmonTwo salmon are discussing their options:

Bob: Are you ready to start heading upstream? It’s about that time.

Sam: I’m not doing it. You remember all those guys who headed upstream to do this last year? You ever seen them since?

Bob: No, but so what? This is what salmon do. This is what we were made for.

Sam: Not me. You go right ahead—been nice knowing you. I’m staying here.

BBrown bear catching salmonob: What are you, a salmon or a flounder? Any salmon worthy of the name swims upstream and leaps the falls!

Sam: I feel the same urge you do! But not every itch needs to be scratched. I prefer to be a wimpy salmon and alive to being a salmonly salmon and dead.

Bob: You’re no salmon at all. You can’t be a salmon and not leap!

Sam: You know what, I think this whole leaping thing is just a bunch of crap our parents and grandparents put on us. I can still be a salmon and stay in this part of the river. You leaping salmon are a bunch of schooling fish who believe you have to do something just because you were told you do.

imagescaf8jdis[1]I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once wrote that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” More great news. But how well does this salmon simile work? There’s a lot of effort on the part of the salmon to do something that makes no sense, yet is definitive of what it means to be a salmon. Are human souls hard-wired to seek for God? And is that seeking always a matter of extreme effort that leads to at least a virtual death? What choice do we have in the matter? That’s where the salmon simile breaks down, since despite Sam’s resistance, real salmon don’t have a choice. They just do what they’re programmed to do. We have a choice—or do we?

st-augustine-of-hippo7[1]With an idea probably stolen from St. Augustine, I was told in my youth that all human beings have a “God-shaped hole” inside of them that cannot be filled with anything other than God. I understand this and have often described myself as a “God-obsessed” person. This has nothing to do with any particular idea of God but rather with a gnawing hunger deep inside that nothing readily available can satisfy. I have no specific idea as to what might satisfy this hunger, while the salmon (or at least Bob) are convinced that only leaping will do it. But then there’s Sam, who’s at least considering the possibility of a fulfilled salmon existence that doesn’t involve leaping to one’s death. I’ve encountered Sam-like human beings who appear to have no such hunger, or at least claim not to have one, but that strikes me as odd. I’m obsessed with it and I’ll bet they are too—they just don’t call it God.

At the center of every human being is a yearning and desire for something good and divine and pure, a yearning that is never satisfied by anything in this world. Human beings are free only to the extent that they are free to choose either to work with this longing, without knowing exactly what this longing corresponds to, or to redirect this longing and seek to satisfy it with things closer to hand. Although the former choice is attractive, there’s probably also a lot to be said for the latter choice that, if we’re talking about salmon, Sam is making. Since the leaping choice is obviously a risky one, why not try to reinvent himself and search for meaning as a perfectly fine non-leaping salmon?

Sam and Bob agree on one big thing—there’s more to being a salmon than simply swimming around in a river. imagesCA6IDEGOBob believes he knows what that “more” is and will leap into it with all of his fins, despite the likelihood that he won’t come out alive on the other end. Sam, concerned about the lack of information from the other side, prefers to find another way to investigate this “more.” Dorothy Allison writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” I like that, and I think Sam would too (so long as salmon have politics and literature). It increases our options.

imagesCA4E0W95

ring of gyges

Someone Would Know

mall bookstoreHey Justin! What if you had a ring that made you invisible when you put it on? Would you use the ring to take the books you’ve been wanting from the kid’s section at the bookstore the next time we go to the mall?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

In the summer of 1989, as I prepared for my first PhD-candidate solo flight in the classroom scheduled for the coming fall semester, I solicited advice from anyone and everyone in the philosophy department, from fellow grad students to those breathing the rarefied air of full professor, about what to include in my introductory level ethics class. There were as many “must do” suggestions as there were colleagues. But they unanimously agreed on one suggestion—I had to put Plato’s Ring of Gyges story from Book II of the Republic on the syllabus. A guy who finds a ring of invisibility and uses it to seduce the queen, kill the king, and become top dog in the kingdom of Lydia. Using my seven-year-old son as a guinea pig, I asked him what I would be asking my students in a few months—What would you do with the ring?

floating booksWho would know?

How are they going to explain the books floating out of the store?

Well, what if anything you touch or hold when you’re wearing the ring becomes invisible? Now would you take the books?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

I wrote last Friday about my belief that this little story tucked into the early pages of the Republic was the inspiration for the Ring of Power at the center of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an epic tale that teases out the moral issues and implications of such a scenario.Ring of power

A Trip to Middle Earth

The ring put immediate pressure on each person’s most sensitive areas—what do you really want? In what ways are you hindered from getting what you want by obedience to moral norms? What would you do if the pressure to abide by moral norms were lifted? Justin, living in a house with an academic father and step-mother, was a great lover of books and regularly received a “no” answer to his requests to buy more books when visiting the local bookstore (we were living on a tight graduate student budget, after all). The ring of invisibility would give him direct access to the world he really wanted—one filled with every book his heart desired.

empty bookshelvesJustin, who would know?

There would be spaces on the bookstore shelves where I took the books from.

So you fill those holes up with books from some other part of the store that no one’s looking at. Now would you take the books?

No.

WHY NOT?

Because someone would know.

More than twenty-five years later, I would guess that I have taught the ring of gygesa class focusing on the Ring of Gyges at least fifty times. The story teaches itself. It is an extraordinarily flexible tool to get people of all ages and various life experiences to start immediately thinking about why they follow moral guidelines and principles at all. As the director of a large interdisciplinary humanities program, I am frequently asked to give “mock lectures” to weekend groups ranging from alumni and board members to prospective students and their parents. One of my two “go to” lecturse for such events is “The Ethics of Invisibility: Plato’s Republic and Gyges’ Ring.” After a few minutes of set-up, I ask my audience what I asked my son all those years ago—suppose you had the ring of invisibility. Do you think you would find yourself doing things when wearing the ring that you don’t normally do?

Who is going to know??!!

I’ll set off the alarm at the front of the store when I walk out.

So let’s say that when you’re invisible the machine can’t detect you or anything you are holding! NOW are you going to take the books?

No.

WHY NOT??

Because someone would know.

Except the occasional goody-two-shoes who claims she would use the ring for good (no guy has ever claimed this), virtually every one of my classroom companions admits that they would behave differently when wearing the ring than they normally do, pressing and eventually breaking through the envelope of basic moral expectations. When asked for specific examples, people usually start small.

  • Listen in on conversations you have not been invited to be part of.
  • Play tricks on your friends.
  • Steal something small and insignificant, just to verify that the ring actually works.

first classTo raise the bar a bit, I ask “how many of you would use the ring to give yourself a free upgrade to first class instead of sitting in the cheap seats in the back the next time you are on a plane?” Almost everyone always admits that they would.  When asked why they don’t give themselves such an upgrade without the ring, the answer is never “Because it’s wrong.” Rather, we don’t give ourselves free upgrades because we are afraid we’ll get kicked off the plane if our theft is discovered. Which is exactly the point of the Ring of Gyges scenario—we behave morally because we fear the consequences of not doing so. As soon as we are convinced that “no one will know” if we do something immoral, a world that the ring of invisibility places within our grasp, our commitment to moral behavior vanishes just as we do when we wear the ring.

As time allows me to push the envelope even further with my audience, I generally find that there is a moral glass ceiling through which very few people are willing to crash wearing the ring, even when it is guaranteed that they will never be held accountable for what they do. Other than the random person (always a guy) who says he would use it to kill people he doesn’t like, everyone stops short of murder. Many would stop long before travelling that far along the path. But only rarely is there someone like my seven-year-old son who says he would not use the ring at all. What is wrong with people like that?

YOU’RE FREAKING INVISIBLE!! NO ONE’S GOING TO KNOW!!

I would know.

frodo and samOut of the mouths of babes, as the saying goes. Where did my seven-year-old get a moral compass so true that it could (might) override even one use of the ring of power? Perhaps Jeanne and I had already brainwashed him sufficiently in the rules of proper human conduct. I doubt it. Tolkien was right when he suggested that the seemingly simple hobbits Frodo and Sam were the most appropriate persons in Middle Earth to deal with the ring—moral strength disguised as simplicity. Perhaps it really is as basic as what it says in Deuteronomy: “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Worth remembering the next time I am tempted to see what I can get away with. Someone would know.

puppet[1]

The Designer God Project

Jean-Antoine Houdon ~ Voltaire[1]Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. In truth, we invent God all the time, often with seeming disregard as to whether the God we have invented actually exists or not. Anne Lamott suggests that we can be pretty sure that we have created God in our own image if it turns out that God likes all the people and things that we like and dislikes all the people and things that we dislike. So how am I, or how is any God-believer, supposed to tell whether the God I believe in exists in reality, or exists simply as a figment of my self-obsessed imagination? I’m having the opportunity to explore these issues with my students early this semester, and the process has been both dynamic and illuminating.

The texts for an early seminar last semester in the interdisciplinary program I both teach in and direct was the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis and the first twenty-four of Exodus.gen-ex[1] It is often a challenge to get freshmen to discuss anything in seminar in the early weeks of their first semester; getting a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, most of whom are products of twelve years of parochial education, to talk about the Bible is even more difficult. But I’ve been doing this for a while and have a lot of tricks. After assuring them that no one has ever been struck dead in any of my classes for speaking honestly about their reactions to what they’ve read in a “sacred text,” a few brave souls began to admit that the God of these Old Testament stories is quite different from the God they had been taught to believe in. This God frequently seems insecure, petty, unfair, and arbitrary—what’s up with that??

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that a thought experiment was in order. I said “Okay, if you don’t like the God of Genesis and Exodus, let’s work for a while on what we do want God to be and to act like. Let’s create a ‘Designer God’—you get to create God from scratch. Write in your notebooks for ten minutes on the following topic: Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics. Come up with three characteristics and explain why any God worth believing in would have to have them. Go.”

After the writing portion of the thought experiment, the students compared notes and found that the God they had just designed individually was pretty similar from person to person. As they offered their favored divine characteristics, I wrote the list on the board:

Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics:

Forgiving

Trustworthy

Understanding

Fair/Just

Loving (at least to those who deserve to be loved)

Powerful

Dependable

All-Knowing

Not a micromanager

As we discussed selected characteristics on the list, a number of issues were revealed.

Fairness and justice: The biggest problem the students had with the Old Testament God is that this is a God who plays favorites. 172663381_640[1]Any God worth believing in should treat everyone the same. “Why?” I asked. Do all of you treat everyone the same? Do you like the seven billion plus people in the world the same? Do you even like the few dozen people who you know really well the same? They had to admit that they didn’t. “Then why do you expect God to do something that you make no attempt to do?” I wondered. The students struggled for an answer other than that God is God and we’re not—the divine should be held to a higher standard than we are, although where that standard would come from other than God they weren’t sure.

images[6]Love and forgiveness: At first, the idea was that any God worth believing in should be loving. Period. “Even mass murderers, drug dealers and child abusers?” I asked. Well, several thought, we need to qualify this love thing a bit. God should love those who deserve it, or those who believe in God, but not everyone indiscriminately. Love that is equally spread everywhere without qualification is cheapened somehow. God’s love is transactional, in other words. I do this, God responds with love.

Power: Omnipotence turned out to be a big one—no God worth believing in is wimpy or weak. “But God in Genesis and Exodus is powerful and has no problem exhibiting that power on a regular basis. And you didn’t like thatomnipotent[1],” I reminded them. As it turned out, Designer God should be powerful but should not be all about using that power all the time. “When is it appropriate for God to use that divine power?” “Whenever I or my group is in trouble or needs something” was the most common response. So you want God to be like a 9-1-1 operator or a lifeline on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That didn’t sound right, but maybe so. That led to another Designer God must-have trait.

Dependability: God needs to “be there” was the way that many students put it. “Dependable” and “trustworthy” were synonyms in this discussion. “Being there” means on call, though—the students clearly were not interested in a proactive God that demanded much of them. When things are going badly, listen up and answer my prayers. When things are going well, leave me the hell alone. No-Micromanage-150x150[1]The students were largely in agreement when I reframed this trait as a requirement that God not be a micro-manager. An overall plan for my life is fine, but I want to have a great deal of choice in terms of how I choose to find out about and pursue that plan (even freedom not to follow that plan if I so choose).

As we entered the last half hour of seminar, I asked everyone to take a mental step back and look at the list of Designer God characteristics that we had been discussing. 1834269-a-macro-of-santa-claus-face[1]Truth be told, they looked like the characteristics of a combination of a non-interfering Santa Claus and my students’ parents on a good day. Or the personality traits of the pleasant, vanilla God they had been taught to believe in. The question to ask, I suggested “What evidence is there that the God you have just designed actually exists?” Is there any evidence that these are the character traits of the divine, or are these simply a projection of what we want to believe in? A careful and clear consideration of the world we actually live in reveals that for every piece of evidence supporting the existence of the Designer God, an equally obvious piece of evidence suggests either the Designer God’s non-existence, or—perhaps more challenging—that whatever God is, God is something quite mysterious, exhibiting characteristics not on our list, and well outside our comfort zones. puppet[1]The Designer God Project was a two-hour exercise in creating God in our own image. And maybe that’s where most of us would like to stay. We’re like the Israelites in Exodus who get the shit scared out of them when God actually talks to them directly. They are very uncomfortable with the noise, the lightening, the fire, and the obvious power. Their response? “Moses, you go talk to God and tell us what God wants. We can deal with you, but don’t want to deal with that.”

The writer of Hebrews suggests that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God. Something created in my own image is far more comfortable, predictable, and manageable. Forrest-Gump1[1]The uncomfortable thing about adventuring with a real God rather than hanging out with a projection of myself is that it opens the door to continual growth and surprise and blows the doors off my comfort zone. Walking with God is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

A Trip to Middle Earth

Everyone has an unforgettable teacher or two in his or her history; I aspire to be that teacher for a person or two in every class I teach. When thinking about those teachers in my own history, I usually go no farther back than my mentors in graduate school, about whom I have written occasionally on this blog.

Resembling the Picture

But as I stood in line for a movie ticket for hobbit movie“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a few weeks ago, I remembered Mrs. Lord, the wonderfully monikered teacher of my college-prep English class as a freshman in high school. We spent a lot of time with grammar (something that I think fell by the wayside in high school English classes long ago), but I remember the literature. Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, “Romeo and Juliet,” just to name a few. I was well read for a ninth-grader, but had heard of neither the title nor the author of the book from that year that had the greatest influence on me. The Hobbit? I thought? What the hell is a hobbit? And why does tolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien find it necessary to have three initials rather than one first name? I don’t exactly remember the details of my original reaction to this book, but it was strong enough that after finishing it in two days, I went to Mrs. Lord after class and said “I really like this book. Has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact, yes he has,” she replied. And I was hooked for good.

This was decades pre-Amazon, and there were not a whole lot of bookstores in northeastern Vermont, so I don’t exactly recall how I got my hands on paperback copies of the three-volume The Lord of the Rings. But I did (probably my mother pulled it off—it’s the sort of thing she did behind the scenes all the time), and I feel headlong into Middle Earth. In many ways I have never fully returned. lotrStarting that year (1970), for the next three decades I read the trilogy through from cover to cover on the average of every three years. When I heard over a decade ago that a Peter Jackson was planning a trilogy film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, I was fully prepared to be a critic with the same intensity that the fundamentalists of my youth were critical of Biblical epics (“That’s not scriptural!” “That’s not in the Bible!”). But I loved the trilogy on the big screen (more than I enjoyed the unnecessary trilogy of The Hobbit), and plan to watch the fifteen-hour extended version of the trilogy I have at home straight through at least once before I die (when Jeanne’s out of town—she’s not into this hobbit/elf/dwarf/wizard/orc/ent/ringwraith stuff).

There has always been a great deal of speculation about where Tolkien got his ideas and inspiration from, beginning with the Ring of Power itself, the possession or destruction of which is the driving energy of the thousand plus pages of the epic.

Ring of powerOne Ring to rule them all

One Ring to find them

One Ring to bring them all

and in the Darkness bind them

I can’t say for sure (although I’m sure that dozens of websites would be happy to school me on this), but I know where I hope Tolkien got the idea for the Ring of Power from. As a classically trained scholar, Tolkien knew his Plato—and so he also knew that at the beginning of Book Two of his masterpiece The Republic, Plato tucked a memorable story of another insignificant nobody who found a ring with remarkable powers and corrosive effects—the Ring of Gyges.

republicThe topic of conversation in The Republic is justice broadly conceived—something more like what we would call “morality” or “right living” rather than the narrower sense of justice as equality or fairness that we contemporary folks are familiar with. The overarching question in the early pages of The Republic is “Why be moral at all?” Socrates intends to argue that being moral is natural to human beings, but before he can get started one of his conversants, Plato’s older brother Glaucon, begs to differ. Normal people, Glaucon claims, believe that human beings are not moral by nature—we are self-interested, aggressive and competitive creatures who want what we want when we want it and are willing to pursue it at any expense, including the welfare of someone else, as long as we think we can get away with it. We impose morality and law on ourselves and each other because we are afraid of each other, but being moral is an artificial state for a human being, something contrary to our basic nature.

To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of a lowly shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia named Gyges. One day while he is bored out of his mind tending the sheep and goats, ring of gygesGyges does a bit of exploring and finds a pretty gold ring. He has never owned anything so sparkly and shiny, so he keeps it. A few days later, as he is sitting in the middle of the weekly shepherds committee meeting with several of his colleagues, he is fiddling with his new toy and discovers that when he turns it a certain way on his finger, he turns invisible! Gyges uses his ring of invisibility as an instrument of empowerment—in short order his seduces the queen, kills the king, and becomes the ruler of Lydia. Furthermore, Glaucon argues, any person, from moral giants to lowly degenerates, would do the same thing with the ring of invisibility that Gyges did—whatever they wanted to do. And they would be fools if they did not.

The purpose of Glaucon’s story is to emphasize his point that being moral is artificial, not natural. We restrict our pursuit of self-interest because we fear what will happen if we are discovered breaking the rules of society, rules intended to keep aggressive and self-centered creatures from killing each other. We bind ourselves with the restrictions of the social contract while secretly wishing for a world in which we could do whatever we desire. gollumThe ring of invisibility opens for its wearer that very world, a world of power and opportunity—a world in which everything can be accomplished without fear of retribution or responsibility. That Tolkien’s Ring of Power turns its wearer invisible, just as Gyges’ ring does, is a telling connection to Plato’s ancient tale. But Tolkien introduces a new element—empowerment comes at a cost. Every character sucked into the vortex of the ring’s influence—wizard, elf, dwarf, hobbit or human—experiences the corrosive effect of power without responsibility. Sméagol the lowly hobbit devolves into the tortured Gollum; SarumanSaruman the White turns from a powerful force for good into an even more powerful force of destruction; kings become bodiless wraiths; once used, unlimited power is both seductive and deadly.

On the surface, the cosmic conflict that dominates The Lord of the Rings seems reducible simplistically to Good vs. Evil, a simplistic reading that makes Tolkien’s fantasy an endless source of ideas for violent video games. But lying just below the surface are the timeless questions that should obsess all of us. What are we? What is morality? Are good and evil mutually exclusive? How should we live our lives in the middle of a reality largely outside our control? Next Friday, I’ll return to the ring of power tales with the story of how I learned something twenty-five years ago from my seven-year-old son that I’ll never forget, something that forever influenced how I think about what is good and what is not.

Magical Thinking

There must be something about the end of January and named snowstorms. This year it is Juno–exactly a year ago it was Janus. I’m making plans for another mega shoveling event (Jupiter, Jorge, Jockstrap or something like that) in late January 2016, since clearly there’s a pattern here. Or maybe that’s just magical thinking . . . as I considered exactly a year ago.

indexI am a huge college basketball fan. Actually, I am a huge Providence College Friars fan, not surprising since I have taught at Providence College and lived in Providence for nineteen years and counting. There’s nothing like Division One college basketball—I have had two season tickets to Friars games for nineteen years and have probably missed no more than a dozen home games (except for the semester I was in Minnesota on sabbatical) during those nineteen years. Last week I drove through Snowstorm Janus to an evening game at the dunkin-donuts-center-1Dunkin’ Donuts Center, then posted smugly on Facebook “I am in my seat at the Dunk” for all of my Facebook acquaintances who consider themselves to be “fans” to read and be shamed by.

Early in our time here in Providence, I received a Friars sweatshirt for Christmas. I particularly liked it because it was a turtleneck sweatshirt. I like turtlenecks. They are an essential part of a professor’s winter wardrobe (usually worn with a $_35corduroy jacket, an even more indispensable sartorial item—I have five). The comfort and warmth of this sweatshirt, along with its understated “Providence Friars” on the front, made it a “must wear” item for every home game.

 This item of clothing took on even greater importance when I realized, after several home games, that the Friars had never lost a home game that I attended wearing the sweatshirt. So, of course, I continued wearing it to home games and the Friars kept winning. This continued for more than one season, until on the way to a game one evening my son Justin noted that even though I do not have an extensive wardrobe, it was not necessary to wear the same damn thing to every game (especially since I also owned a hwl set=sku[20233460],c[2],w[500],h[375]&load=url[file product]T-shirt or two with the Friars logo). I then let him in on the secret: “We have never lost a game that I attended wearing this sweatshirt.” I felt that I had let my son in on one of the best-kept secrets of the universe, but he simply responded “Yes we have, Dad.” I vigorously denied his claim, of course, but to no avail. “You were wearing it at the final home game last year when Pittsburgh kicked our ass, and at the game before that when we lost in overtime to Villanova!” It sucks to have someone with total recall of trivial facts in the family—I knew better than to challenge his memory, since every time I have done so in the past I have been proven wrong. Thinking back, I speculated that Jeanne must have (without my knowledge) washed the sweatshirt for the first time ever before last year’s Villanova game and inadvertently washed away the secret substance that guaranteed Friars wins.

magical%20thinking%20button[1]I had been a victim of magical thinking—the identification of causal relationships between actions and events where scientific consensus says there are no such relationships. There is logical fallacy  describing this way of thinking with the very cool name “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” “After this, therefore because of this.” Since (at least according to my flawed memory) the Friars won every game that I wore my special sweatshirt to, I concluded that they must have won because I wore my special sweatshirt. Avid sports fans are notoriously susceptible to magical thinking—lucky clothes, coins, and ritualistic activities from what food and beverage is consumed on game day to the path driven to the sports bar all are treated as causal links to victory. But don’t scoff at or feel badly for the avid sports fans. All human beings are susceptible to magical thinking, often in areas of belief and activity far more serious than sporting events.

Adolf-Hitler-3009436 I am team-teaching a colloquium this semester that is rooted historically in 1930s and 40s Germany and the rise to power of the Nazis, and am learning that Adolf Hitler’s decision making throughout this period was energized almost exclusively by magical thinking. Believing that he had intuitive connections to truths and powers unavailable to others, Hitler cultivated the mystique and aura of a shaman, an aura that become more and more seductive and convincing to others as his actions over and over again led to seemingly “magical” results. As one scholar writes, “Hitler came to believe that he was blessed, that he was earmarked by Providence for a special mission. There was some kind of magical destiny for him.” Of course the destructive downside of such thinking is revealed when the conviction of a special destiny and connection to greater powers persists even when not verified by real world events. Magical thinking is answerable to no one other than the person doing the thinking, since it does an end run on logic, evidence and rational processes. As one of Hitler’s contemporaries described,

Hitler does not think in a logical and consistent fashion, gathering all available information pertinent to the problem, mapping out alternative courses of action, and then weighing the evidence pro and con for each of them before reaching a decision. His mental processes operate in reverse. Instead of studying a problem . . . he avoids it and occupies himself with other things until unconscious processes furnish him with a solution. Having the solution he then begins to look for facts that will prove that it is correct.

Hitler’s magical thinking was not  an aberration or evidence of psychosis or insanity. Although very few of us ever have the opportunity to use magical thinking as a basis for decision-making that affects millions of people directly, all of us are susceptible to it on a regular basis. Any time my belief in a connection between cause and effect is untouched by contrary data or information, magical thinking is involved. If I “know” that I am right even though I lack any reason to believe this other than my own “gut,” magical thinking is involved. imagesAnd whenever I believe that with an appropriate prayer, pious activity, meditative silence or good deed I can force the divine hand into producing a desired result, I am definitely infected with magical thinking.

Magical thinking is more pervasive in religious belief than any other sort. Religious belief for many is energized by the question of how to tap into divine power, to cultivate a relationship with what is greater than us. From prayers said in a certain way through rosary beads to donations to charitable organizations, virtually any practice can take on the aura of being the way to attract God’s attention, to make it most likely that the divine interest will be drawn toward my little corner of the universe. Vast numbers of books have been written concerning and dollars spent promoting the latest suggestions as to how to get God involved directly in my wishes and desires. The funny thing is that such practices and activities often seem to work. I prayed in a certain way for a person to be healed, for someone else to find a job, for a favored politician to win election—and it happens. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. images.2Those who promote or invent seemingly successful techniques for gaining God’s attention rise to the status of guru or spiritual giant, and everything they say, write, or do takes on special significance.

But crashing disappointment always comes and it turns out that the life of faith is not magic after all. There are as many days and weeks of slogging through an apparently empty desert of belief as there are mountain top experiences when it seems that God must have decided to channel divine energy directly through me. It turns out that whatever the divine is, it is not a slot machine, a formula to be solved, or an incantation to be performed. This is why Jesus resisted performing miracles on demand. He knew that magical thinking is powerfully seductive because it is easy, because it seems to free us from the challenging work of day to day seeking. maskros.jpg w=714Jesus likened the divine to the wind, which we cannot predict and which blows where and when it wants. The very air we breathe is infused with the divine. Everything is sacramental, but there are no sacred cows.

consuming fire

Playing with Fire

Somewhere I heard or read that one of the top television programs in Finland (or Sweden or Norway) is a few hours of watching a fire burn in a fireplace. I don’t know whether or not this is true—I would hope that my Scandinavian cousins might go for a real fire in a fireplace rather than one on a screen. But Google “fireplace youtube video” and you will find several dozen to choose from.

During the two-hour final exam in one of my classes last semester, I put a fireplace video on the big screen up front while the students worked on their exams. Nobody commented on what I thought was a stroke of genius. I didn’t notice a significant increase in the quality of the exams, but I’d like to believe that it might have reduced the stress a bit. There is something mesmerizing and comforting about such videos; the one I chose is complete with the crackling of the logs (and no elevator music in the background). It’s low maintenance, too. No heat, but no kindling, no mess to clean up, no chance of the fire jumping out of the fireplace and causing damage edith(as in Edith’s room in Downton Abbey a couple of weeks ago), and no burns. There’s a lot to be said for domesticated fire—except that it isn’t fire. That’s what usually happens when we try to domesticate something wild and dangerous. It becomes something else entirely.

Domesticating the wild and dangerous is a favorite and necessary human activity, beginning with the domestication of the small human barbarians we call “children.” As a child, my favorite character in the pantheon of classic Bugs Bunny characters was the Tasmanian Devil.Taz I lived vicariously through his uncontrolled and destructive energy. Who doesn’t occasionally wish for the opportunity to make a god-awful mess with impunity and without repercussions, just because you can? Mom doesn’t like the way I picked up my room? I’ll show you “picked up”! I whirl into a tornado of destructive frenzy, clothes and bedding flying everywhere, leaving a child-sized hole in the wall as I exit the scene. Dad doesn’t like my attitude?  I’ll show you an attitude, as I leave flying paper and debris in the wake of my Tasmanian exit through your floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Just as the Tasmanian Devil was an infrequent visitor to the Bugs Bunny Show (maybe once every third Saturday), tasmanian_devil_and_bugs_bunny_by_erickenji1so I wasn’t looking to be destructive on a regular basis. Infrequent and arbitrary scenes of total chaos would have been enough to keep everyone on edge and suitably respectful.

I was reminded of the Tasmanian Devil as we read portions of Psalm 29 last Sunday morning:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare . . .

dillardBroken cedars, whirling oaks, naked forests—sounds like the Tasmanian devil has been here. But for the most part, this is not the God we encounter in church (or anywhere else for that matter). As Annie Dillard writes, we tend to “come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though [we] knew what [we] were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.” We want contact with the divine, but not with the Tasmanian Devil deity or with the consuming fireGod that Deuteronomy and Hebrews describe as “a consuming fire.” We want a domesticated God that we can predict and perhaps control. Why is that?

In When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we opt for a domesticated God because we suspect that the alternative is too disturbing to consider. Religious history is littered with stories of those who asked to meet God face to face and barely survived to tell about it. “Many pray for an encounter with the living God. Those whose prayers are answered rarely ask for the same thing twice.” Persons of faith complain (frequently, endlessly) that God is silent, that no direct communication from the divine is ever forthcoming, at least not in a language anyone can understand. Just ask Job. But it just might be that God is silent because this is what, in our heart of hearts, we have asked for. As the children of Israel quaking in their boots at Mount Sinai after God’s direct communication, we would rather dabble around the edges, and we would much rather hire someone to represent God to us (and us to God) than take the face to face risk.

god is silentWe are not up to direct encounter with God. We want it but we don’t want it. We want to be warmed, not burned, except where God is concerned there is no such thing as a safe fire. Safe fire is our own invention. It is what we preach to people who, like us, would rather be bored than scared.

The next time I am in church I’ll have a hard time forgetting the YouTube video of a fireplace burning. A pleasant enough experience, I suppose, but offering nothing of the warmth and danger of the original. As we proceed through the various portions of the liturgy—Gloria, Sanctus, sermon, creed, confession, collection, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so on—Annie Dillard will be poking me in the side.

I often think of set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed . . . If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.

Indeed we would be—and attendance the following Sunday would be effected. Much better to pretend that we know what we are doing and that God somehow is entertained. Because the alternative—that God might actually show up and do something, including making us responsible for what we so blithely parrot every week—makes us uncomfortable. And above all else, human beings want to be comfortable.

holy the firmWhy do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? . . . On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. Annie Dillard