Category Archives: power

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

mad.eagle_.image_[1]

In the Presence of a Prophet

The third Sunday of Advent is always John the Baptist Sunday. In his homily yesterday, the new priest at our little Episcopal church said “When you’re in the presence of a prophet, you’ll know it.” Odd, quirky, direct, hearing a different drummer. Tell me about it. I spent the first seventeen  years of my life in the house of a prophet and have spent much of my adult life trying to deal with the ramifications.

Igrand tetons national park 2[1]n a beautiful, crystal clear June afternoon I sat in an alpine meadow at the foot of the spectacularly majestic Grand Tetons in northwestern Wyoming. A handful of family was gathered to pay final respects to and spread the ashes of my father,17251_297220732720_3663220_n[1] who had died a few months earlier. On the porch of my brother’s house that morning, I had considered what scripture text might be appropriate to read as we honored a man who had memorized massive amounts of scripture in his lifetime, a man whose life and teaching had been a catalyst of liberation in the lives of many for whom the traditional church no longer gave life, and with whom I had maintained a tenuously “okay” relationship for most of my life. My brother was always closest to my Dad, but it fell to me, the academic one, to find the suitable text. Sitting on a rock in that meadow next to my son Justin, who could barely keep his emotions in check, I read the following verses from Isaiah that were yesterday’s Old Testament reading, verses that had jumped off the page through my tears that morning:

0070-Isaiah-61[1]The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,

Because the Lord has anointed Me

To preach good tidings to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the prison to those who are bound . . .

To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion,

To give them beauty for ashes,Beauty for Ashes[1]

The oil of joy for mourning,

The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;

That they may be called trees of righteousness,

The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.

Scholars will tell us that these verses are prophetic of the Messiah to come, but my father would have embraced this text as descriptive of his own calling, particularly to “proclaim liberty to the captives” whose lives had been stagnated or ruined by organized religiomad.eagle_.image_[1]n. As I choked my way through the reading on that summer afternoon—tears filled my eyes today, ten years later, as I typed the words into my computer–I knew that “Mad Eagle,” as we sometimes called  him when he wasn’t around, would have approved.

One of my favorite Biblical texts is from the Gospel of Luke and involves the passage from Isaiah that I read at my father’s memorial service. Jesus is fresh off his forty days and nights of temptation in the desert and returns to Nazareth, his home town. What better place to kick off his ministry? The scene is powerfully portrayed in the 1977 Franco Zeffirelli television mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.” It is the Sabbath, and Jesus is in the synagogue with wall-to-wall men and boys, while the women of the town observe from behind a screen. Although it is apparently not his turn to read, Jesus steps to the front and takes the scroll. After a pregnant pause, he begins to read. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor . . .” Exactly the same verses from Isaiah that I read in that alpine meadow a decade ago. When he is finished,66461_570623672965898_345802370_n[1] Jesus rolls up the scroll, makes eye contact with the congregation, and says “Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled.”

As the camera slowly pans the faces of those at the synagogue, their expressions pass from piety, to confusion, to outrage and anger. For every man and woman present knows that this scripture can only be fulfilled by the Messiah. And they know who this man is. He is Mary and Joseph’s son. He is a carpenter—a bit odd at times, but just like they are. Nazareth is an insignificant town in an insignificant backwater of the eastern Roman Empire. “I remember when I chased you out of my bakery for stealing a cookie,” one thinks. “I remember when I had to break up a squabble between you and my son when you were teenagers,” thinks another. And he has just declared himself to be the son of God. No wonder they tried to kill him.

Christians believe that, despite the appropriate incredulity of his fellow worshippers on that Sabbath, Jesus was indeed the Messiah, God in flesh. Remarkable and astounding. But even more remarkable is that these twenty-five hundred year old words from Isaiah were not only fulfilled by Jesusandretti-01G[1]—they continue to be fulfilled by God in human form. Isaiah’s prophecy foretells a time when healing, justice and liberation will be brought to the sick, oppressed and prisoners. That time is now, and we are the vehicles of that healing, justice and liberation. Our world is full of the poor, the bound, those who mourn, those who are in captivity both physically and mentally. We live in a world crying out for liberation, peace, and consolation at every level. So often we wonder where God is, where the divine solution to the never-ending problems and tragedies of our world is to be found.

But we miss the clear answer to our questions. Joan Chittisterdf66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] writes that “having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.” We are to be the oil of joy for those who mourn, to be the beauty in the midst of ashes, and to wrap the heavy of heart in the garment of praise. As the closing prayer in each Eucharistic celebration in the Episcopal liturgy asks, “send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Amen.freedom[1]

Myths and Stories

I spent two hours of seminar last Friday with twelve honors freshmen enjoying the wonders of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source of many of my favorite stories as a child. I was so taken with ancient mythology that I read it in secret at times I was supposed to be reading the Bible. The seminar reminded me of one of my earliest posts on this blog a couple of years ago–how stories shape our lives.

Some of my favorite stories growing up come from Greek and Roman mythology. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was one of my regular reading companions–sort of like a mid-twentieth century Ovid–so much so that my parents must have replaced a torn and worn out copy with a new one at least three times. What’s not to like? Action, violence, sex—they were better than comic books! The Olympian deities are gigantic projections of human beings, with all of our strengths and shortcomings, likes and dislikes, jealousies and kindnesses, massive egos and even more massive insecurities. Human beings in these stories, if they are smart, look (usually unsuccessfully) look for a place to hide when the deities start throwing their divine weight around, as the fallout frequently lands on unwitting and innocent mortals. Yet occasionally mortals are able to manipulate the blundering gods and goddesses by offering the right sacrifice, stroking the right part of a divine ego, making deals that the less-than-omniscient deities fail to recognize as guaranteed to end in results that will thwart their purposes. I think the main reason I took four years of Latin in high school was simply because it gave me to opportunity to be immersed deeply in the ancient myths. I spent fourth period senior year with Ms. Thomson and one other Latin geek translating large portions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—nothing better.

My mother used to occasionally try to get me to put down Edith Hamilton and pick up my Bible. But I knew the Bible stories backwards and forwards from the hours and days spent in my home away from home, church—I’d even memorized a lot of the dialogue and plots of these stories (in King James English, of course). My mother worried that I wasn’t paying sufficient Baptist homage to the Bible stories as opposed to the pagan Greek stories. When she couldn’t pry me away from Edith, she would say “you know, of course, that these are only stories?” Opposed, that is, to the stories in the Bible, which are true, meaning that they are factual reports of things that really happened, not stories at all. As a good son, I paid lip service to the distinction that my mother, out of concern for her heretic-in-the-making son, was insisting upon.

But I never bought it. The stories in the Old Testament (by far the most interesting Bible stories to a young kid) were just too much like the Greek and Roman myths for me to make a sharp distinction. God in the Old Testament is just as arbitrary, whimsical, loving, nasty, powerful, and petty as the various Greek deities. He gets into arguments and debates with various mortals and sometimes loses. He sometimes gets into a snit and goes silent, while at other times you just wish He’d shut the hell up and leave people alone. If a skilled psychologist sought to identify all of the various, conflicting personalities of God in the Old Testament, I’m sure they would be at least as great in number as the residents of Olympus. The “truth” of the Bible stories for me did not depend on whether they “really happened”—they were true because they rang true in a deep place.

At a very young age, for instance, I resonated with Jacob in Genesis; he’s still my favorite character from the Bible. As the younger of two sons, I identified with Jacob’s preference for his mother and for hanging around the house rather than going out hunting and killing things, something my older brother did with my Dad. Jacob’s ability to regularly outsmart and manipulate his doofus older brother Esau rang true, because I was sure I could get my equally challenged doofus older brother to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was sure that if Baptist fathers gave special and exclusive blessings to oldest sons, I could get my older brother to hand over his blessing in exchange for a can of soup. Jacob is persistent and smart, but he’s also a conniver and occasionally has a very difficult time being truthful and transparent to himself and others. He loves his family, but some of them more than others. He’s courageous at times and a total chicken at others. He wants to know God, but wants to write the script according to which that knowledge will unfold. Every time the divine breaks through in a vision or dream, Jacob immediately wants to nail it down and contain it by naming it. In other words, looking back, my original attraction to Jacob makes a lot of sense, because he’s a lot like me.

A couple of years ago, when I read Kathleen Norris’ definition of  “myth” in Amazing Grace as “a story that you know must be true the first time you hear it,” I was jerked up short. I knew this definition to be true the first time I read it. In ethics classes with nineteen to twenty-one-year-olds who are predominantly survivors of twelve years of parochial education, I lean heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight that we human beings are “story telling animals”—we understand ourselves and each other by telling stories. Through the stories we tell, we make sense of our past and do our best to recreate the world by telling better and better stories projected into the future. We are lived stories, in the middle of a “never-ending story” with themes and characters that we catch only brief glimpses of. At the outset of The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a rabbi who confesses to a young listener that he’s old, his memory is failing him, and all he can do is tell stories. But, the rabbi concludes, “It is sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories.”

If my mother were here (and how often I wish she were), I’d try to convince her, with scholarly support from Plato through Nietzsche to Rorty, that my childhood conviction was right, that the stories from ancient mythology and from the Bible are true in the same, human affirming and life defining ways, mirrors of what we as human beings are and suggestions of what we can hope for and perhaps become. I’d end with “Q.E.D., Mom–What do you think of that?” And she’d reply, “That’s wonderful, honey, but the stories from the Bible are really true.”

The World’s Most Interesting Man

In one of my interdisciplinary classes we are in the transition between Ancient Greece and Rome. Which means we’re in the world of Alexander the Great. As I listened to my history colleague’s excellent introductory lecture to the Hellenistic world the other day, my thoughts drifted to someone else who, as Alexander was in his day, is simply the best at everything . . .

His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man’s jaw

Every once in a while, Madison Avenue gets it right and an advertising campaign takes on a life of its own. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, miller-lite-ad[1]Miller Lite’s “Tastes Great . . . Less Filling” campaign went viral. This simple disagreement about what was more remarkable about Miller Lite—that it tasted more like real beer than expected or that its reduced calories made it possible to drink more of it without feeling bloated—started showing up in the strangest places. During the campaign’s heyday, I was studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Wyoming and never missed a UW Cowboys’ basketball game.Pic C - Cat Fight[1] During time-outs, the student section behind the basket at one end of the arena would stand as if on cue, point threateningly at the student section behind the other basket, and scream TASTES GREAT!!! at the top of its lungs. In response the opposite section would rise as one, point back and scream LESS FILLING!!! Back and forth the challenge would go, louder and louder, soon involving every one of the several thousand fans in a competition that for the moment was more intense than the game on the court.

When opportunity knocks and he’s not home, opportunity waits.

super-bowl-etrade-baby-[1]Jeanne’s favorite current ad campaign is the talking baby on E-trade ads—“I guess that riding the dog like a small horse is frowned upon in this establishment!”—who never fails to cause her to laugh uproariously. I find these ads occasionally amusing, but personally find talking babies somewhat creepy. images[8]My own favorite campaign, one that unfortunately seems to have almost run its course, is Dos Equis’ “The World’s Most Interesting Man.”

In a past life, he was himself.

The picture of suaveness and refinement, perfectly dressed for every occasion, sporting the perfectly groomed salt-and-pepper beard I wish I could grow, surrounded by gorgeous women, various ads show The World’s Most Interesting Man saving babies from fires, playing polo or cricket, and generally excelling at everything he does, as the voice over reveals various remarkable facts about him.

His mother has a tattoo that says “son.”

Some ads include life advice from The World’s Most Interesting Man.

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Skateboarding: “No”

Or

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Boxers or Briefs: “What comes between a man and his pants is his own business”

the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-drink-beer-but-when-i-do-i-make-chuck-norris-serve-it-to-me-in-a-dress-f73cff[1]Each ad concludes with The World’s Most Interesting Man at table in a mahogany-paneled room, flanked by beautiful people, lifting a glass of beer toward the viewer. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friend.”

The World’s Most Interesting Man is every man’s best imagined self, the man who he would like to bring into the world every day but who is never available. Napoleonzyexvm[1] is a central character in War and Peace; he is one of the few human beings ever—along, perhaps, with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and a few others—who actually was able to for a number of years to not only believe that he was The World’s Most Interesting Man but also to have millions of people agree with him and to see events bear their collective opinion out. One of my favorite chapters in Tolstoy’s novel is at the Battle of Borodinoaleksandr-averyanov-battle-for-the-shevardinsky-redoubt-undated[1] , where Tolstoy gives the reader access to Napoleon’s inner dialogue as he slowly realizes that, on this day at least, he is not The World’s Most Interesting Man. There is a Napoleon in each of us convinced that we are the center of the universe and undoubtedly the world’s most interesting and important human being. It’s just that for most of us this inner World’s Most Interesting Person never seems to show up except when we are alone.

He once had an awkward moment, just to see what it felt like.

My position directing a large academic program often requires me to act as if I have more confidence than I actually do, as if I am The World’s Most Effective and Intimidating Director. Sometimes props help. My favorite coffee cup at work, a cup that I paid forty dollars for because a monk made it, was shattered a few weeks ago when I dropped it on a particularly stressful day. So I’m considering which coffee cup to bring from home in the fall as my replacement Director’s coffee cup to break in the new Ruane Center for the Humanities, the beautiful new digs that we will be moving into over the summer. The top candidate for new Director’s coffee cup at the moment is one that my son gave me last year for Father’s Day, a cup large enough to take a bath in.

005

Maybe it will do double duty as the Development of Western Civilization version of a speaking staff, and I’ll allow each faculty member at meetings to hold it as they speak. It seems that I come closest to letting my internal “Most Interesting Man” out at work. On the door of my philosophy department office is a take-off on “The World’s Most Interesting Man” that I found on-line. There he is, perfectly coiffed, manicured and dressed, holding a glass of beer and sayingMost interesting man

I don’t always hear from God, but when I do, He sounds like me

            What I suspect makes this ad campaign so amusing to me and many others is that it actually hits very close to home. We really do frequently believe and act as if we are the world’s most interesting human, usually to discover in short order that not only are we not that interesting, we’re not even that important in the larger scheme of things. The Psalms are particularly effective at pricking balloons of self-importance. As I have developed the habit of reading the assigned Liturgy of the Hours psalms every weekday morning, I have been treated to regular reminders that I’m not so great. This morning at Vigils, the assigned psalm-reading monk read Psalm 62:

scale-balance[1]Common folk are only a breath,

The great are an illusion.

Placed in the scales they rise;

They weigh less than a breath.

“Placed in the scales they rise”—as my friend Ivan once commented, that’s the ultimate description of a lightweight. Coupled with such deflating put downs from the Psalmist, of course, are lines similar to those that close Psalm 62:

Psalms-62-Verse-11[1]For God has said only one thing;

Only two do I know:

That to God alone belongs power,

And to you Lord, love;

And that you repay us all

According to our deeds.

God’s coffee cup, which I’m sure is as vast as the Pacific Ocean outside my retreat room, undoubtedly says055

I AM a BIG fucking deal . . . and you’re not

Good to keep in mind. And yet . . . this is the same God who invites me to intimacy and friendship. It is probably best to keep my inner “World’s Most Interesting Man” to myself—except on those rare occasions when I just have to let him briefly see the light of day.

He wouldn’t be afraid to show his feminine side—if he had one.

lifes-a-bitch[1]

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

my own property

A Compassionate Capitalist

I had the privilege of giving the sermon at Trinity Episcopal in Cranston, RI yesterday morning. Challenging readings–here’s what I said.

What are the responsibilities of those who have to those who do not have? This simple question drives much of the debate between competing economic systems—it becomes even more pressing when placed in the context within which we are gathered this morning, the context of faith. have and have notComparatively speaking, most of us here fall into the category of “haves,” yet we know that in our very communities there are those who are “have nots,” those who do not have regular shelter and do not know where their next meal is coming from. As the prophet Micah asked, “What does the Lord require of us?” Through example and parable in our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today, some interesting clues are provided.

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

The problem is, God no longer seems to be in the quail-and-manna business. We frequently talk in our monthly Living Stones seminars about the strange and peculiar strategy God has chosen to spread divinity throughout our troubled world, a strategy that hands the responsibility for bringing God into the world completely to us. In a continuing incarnational plan, God chooses to engage with the world in human form. vineyardSo the question “What does the Lord require of us?” takes on even greater importance since for all intents and purposes, we are it.

Today’s gospel reading is one of my favorite New Testament texts to use in seminar every fall with largely parochial-school educated freshmen who are under the false impression that they pretty much know everything that they need to know about the Bible. Here you have this crazy vineyard owner who pays everyone the same daily wage no matter how long they have worked, from a full day’s labor to just an hour or so. The workers aren’t unionized, it is clearly a “supply and demand” and “hire and fire at will” situation, so what is going on? What is this vineyard owner up to? My students bristle at his apparently cavalier attitude toward the rule that people should be paid in proportion to the amount of work that they do, a rule so engrained in our Prot work ethicWestern, Protestant-work-ethic assumptions that any apparent violation is not only a mistake, it’s an economic crime. “This guy sounds like a socialist!” several of my students complained, as if that in itself was a devastating argument against how the vineyard owner is choosing to dis-tribute wages. And on the surface, at least, these students had a point. But let’s take a closer look.

The situation described has a very contemporary feel to it. People out of work gather at an agreed location in the hope that they will be one of the few picked when bosses with work available arrive at the crack of dawn. Those looking for work might not have proper documentation, might be illegal immigrants—whatever their situation, they are not blessed with the security of regular employment. The vineyard owner or his representatives arrive at dawn, agree with the handful selected to work on the wages that will be paid for a day’s labor, and those who are not selected are left unemployed for yet another day. But the harvest is ready to be gathered, and the owner returns every three hours, at 9:00, at noon, and at 3:00, hiring more workers each time.pay day Even at 5:00, a few more are grabbed from the marketplace to help make a final push in grape-harvesting for the final hour of the work day.

Only when wages are paid do things get really interesting. We know what the vineyard owner does—he pays all of the workers the same amount of money, no matter how long they worked. Why does he do this? Is it because, as my students suspected, he has bought into a social and economic experiment that forces him to pay everyone the same, no matter how hard or long they have worked? No—when he responds to the complaining laborers who have worked all day for and have just been paid the same amount of money paid to the one hour people, it is clear that this is no economic innovator or radical:

my own propertyFriend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?

In the vineyard owner’s world, contracts mean something. This is what we agreed to—this is what is going to happen. And in the vineyard owner’s world, the profits from his vineyard are not common property—they are his property. He’s a first century capitalist through and through.

So why does he distribute wages in such a non-capitalistic way? In the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the kingdom that it is the responsibility of all of us who profess to follow Jesus to establish on earth now, familiar rules are not eliminated. kingdomRather, they are transformed. With Kingdom of Heaven eyes, he sees something more important than profit—he sees that at the most basic level, all human beings share the same needs. A daily wage is meant to meet daily needs—and each person has these needs regardless of how long they work. The vineyard owner never asks why his workers were unemployed, nor does he ask why some of them never were available for work until late in the day. These details simply do not matter. What does matter is that each of the workers at the end of the day needs the same things, and the vineyard owner chooses to satisfy those needs out of his own money. In the opinion of those who worked all day, they deserved more than those who came late. In the eyes of the landowner, all deserve a daily wage because all have the same needs. It turns our expectations upside down and violates our comfort zone. But that’s how things work in the Kingdom of God. The more you own, the more opportunity you are provided to give it away.

After asking his powerful question—What does the Lord require of us?—the prophet Micah provides an answer so direct, so seemingly simple, that it always jerks me up short. “He has showed you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6 8The genius of the vineyard owner in the parable is that he is an embodiment of Micah’s directive. The vineyard owner embodies humility because although technically the profits from the vineyard belong to him, he understands that everything we have is a gift, and that the only possible response to such generosity is to channel the generosity outward. He understands that justice is never spread evenly in terms of talents, wealth, abilities or anything else—it is our responsibility to create, just as he does at the end of the work day, a world in which all human needs are responded to equally, regardless of which humans have the needs. And he is merciful because he sees his laborers not as necessary cogs in the money-making machinery, but fellow human beings with whom, at least for this day, he can share his abundance willingly and liberally. Justice. Mercy. Humility. That’s what the Lord requires of us. Let’s give it a shot.