Category Archives: power

Making the Truth Laugh

One of the many enjoyable occurrences at the end of each semester is occasionally receiving thank-you notes from students. Often they come from quiet students who said little in class but eloquently mention a moment or a text from the semester that made a difference or that will stick with them. The bookshelves in my philosophy department office are lined with such cards and notes, welcome reminders that once in a while something works better than expected.

A year ago I received such a note from a student in the Honors interdisciplinary class that I teach with two colleagues. The student wrote that our class was “the best college course I’ve ever taken,” a judgment tempered slightly by the fact that she was a freshman and at the time had only taken six college courses so. Later in her note, however, she thanked the three of us for our senses of humor, writing that “I have never laughed so hard or as often in any class I have ever taken.”simone weil[1] That one I’ll cherish for a long time, because my teaching philosophy for years has been shaped by Simone Weil’s observation that “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” For this student, at least, mission accomplished.

chickenthoreau[1]When it comes to learning, laughter is serious business. Although they often do not occupy front row seats in the pantheon of philosophical greats, many of my favorite philosophers—Epictetus, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche and others—depend on various forms of humor to shape their thought. Irreverence is a particularly effective philosophical tool. A logical argument demonstrating that human capacities do not match human pretensions is not as effective as Montaigne’s126763672545178[1] “even on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own ass.” Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest master of irreverence who ever lived, undermines commitment to logical precision with ““It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!” and scoffs at piety with “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” As I told a junior faculty member after observing a skilled but humorless performance in his logic class, “philosophy is serious, but it isn’t deadly serious.”

nameoftherose[1]In Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose, laughter plays an unexpectedly central role. Set in a fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery, Eco weaves murder, heresy, liturgy, medieval medicine, sexual deviance, the Inquisition, opulence in the face of abject poverty, and political intrigues between the Emperor and two competing popes into a memorable fictional tapestry. A central thread in that tapestry is a question that sparks frequent and passionate debate: Did Christ ever laugh?protectedimage[1] This seemingly random question becomes the center of an intense debate that ultimately involves far more than academic curiosity. Jorge, the venerable and blind former librarian insists that Christ never laughed. Not only is there no record of such a thing happening, but there are also solid theological reasons for denying laughter to Jesus. “Laughter foments doubt,” Jorge argues, and doubt undermines those things about which we must be certain. Those in doubt must turn to the relevant authority—a priest, abbot, text—to remove uncertainty. 4349348690_947b4e3701[1]Laughter makes light of what is most serious and most indubitable.

William of Baskerville, the visiting Franciscan monk who becomes the medieval Sherlock Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of several murders at the abbey, counters that there is nothing in the sacred texts indicating that Jesus did not laugh, and also points out that laughter is part of human nature (and Jesus was human, after all). Furthermore, William claims, “sometimes it is right to doubt,” given that doubt and uncertainty are part of the natural human rational thought process. “Our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason must also please divine reason.” William is not given to hilarity, but has a keen eye for the ironic and incongruous throughout the novel, frequently showing that the true pursuit of truth often takes one down paths of uncertainty and irreverence. The adventure and openness of the process is far more instructive than any certainty that hypothetically lies at the end of the path.

As the novel progresses to its dramatic conclusion and the body count of dead monks increases, the depth of Jorge’s commitment to certainty and rejection of the twin demons of laughter and doubt is revealed. For decades, Jorge has been the self-appointed concealer of the only existing copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, in which Aristotle show that the value of comedy is to cause us to laugh at power, at pretension to greatness, and at human aspirations. Laughter allows us, at least temporarily, to abandon fear. In Jorge’s estimation, laughter is the enemy of authority, both temporal and spiritual, and must be snuffed out at all costs. Accordingly, he has murdered those in the abbey whom heJorge_&_William[1] suspected of knowing about and lusting after this dangerous text.

In the climactic confrontation  between Jorge and William at the novel’s denouement, as the depths of Jorge’s insane commitment to protecting certainty and truth  becomes apparent, William exposes the true nature of Jorge’s obsession. “You are the Devil. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” Jorge has shaped his life and actions according to his conviction that truth is to be protected, that it must be defended against all threats—there is a strong element of fear in his conviction that he owns the truth. He is absolutely right about one thing, though—laughter and doubt are direct threats to everything he considers holy. Laughter can bring pretensions to certainty and truth to their knees far more effectively than argumentation.imagesCAEB25EV Rather than face such a world, Jorge destroys the book, himself, and ultimately the library and entire monastery.

In the final pages of The Name of the Rose, in the midst of smoking ruins and ashes, William reflects with his young apprentice Adso on what they have seen and experienced. William refers to the dead Jorge as the “Antichrist,” an appellation that Adso does not understand.images[5]  “The Antichrist,” William explains, “can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear those who are willing to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them.” What is to be learned from the tragic and apocalyptic events at the abbey? William’s speculation is one that all seekers of truth and lovers of human beings should take to heart. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Anne LamottAnne Lamott, whose work causes me to laugh more than any author I can think of, defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is not only uniquely human, it is one of the many signs of divine love that each of us carries into the world daily. Did Jesus laugh? That depends on whether he was a human being or not. Since incarnation, humanity infused by divinity, is at the heart of the Christian faith, laughter is a fundamental expression of God in us. “Lighten up!” is a call to holiness.

diy-quote-wall-art_856-1[1]

Is Democracy Overrated?

 

house of cardsJeanne and I just finished binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards, an undoubtedly appropriate activity to complete just before our nation’s birthday on the Fourth of July. In one of the early second-season episodes, 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 per year on Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other 355 days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

The Greater Jihad

0690=690[1]Lead on King Eternal, the day of march has come

Henceforth in fields of conquest Thy tents shall be our home

Through days of preparation, Thy grace hath made us strong

And now O King Eternal we lift our battle song. 

Almost five centuries ago, as he observed his fellow French Catholic and Protestant citizens regularly kill each other in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Michel de Montaigne wrote that “there is no hostility so extreme as that of the Christian.” A strange statement—hostility and bloodshed seem entirely incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount. But I learned at a very early age to ignore or set aside this contradiction. Many of the hymns of my childhood shared a common theme—we Christian believers are at war and must be prepared to do battle at any moment. From “Lead On, O King Eternal” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”onward_christian_soldiers-detail-new[1] through “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” to “Who is On the Lord’s Side?” I learned a spiritual vocabulary of aggression, violence and warfare. I was never clear about exactly who we were supposed to be fighting or how to recognize the enemy, but I knew I had been drafted into an army, whether I liked it or not. And in the more than five decades of my life, world events have regularly made it clear that religion and aggression, faith and violence, often go hand in hand.

sons%20of%20thunder[1]In the Gospel of Luke, James and John, known as “the sons of thunder,” have this sort of thing in mind when they ask Jesus for permission to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan town that refuses to put Jesus up on his way to Jerusalem. It is no surprise that Samaritans would turn Jesus away, because the center of Samaritan religious worship was in Samaria, not in Jerusalem where Jesus was going, as it was for Jews. Samaritans and Jews then were as different as Catholics and Unitarians today, as different as Sunnis and Shi’ites.imagesCAON6NA5  James and John want to kick ass and take names, all in the interest of spreading the word that the Messiah has come and if you don’t like it or believe it, watch out! But Jesus won’t let them do it; he even “rebukes them” for thinking of such a thing. And the disciples, even those in his inner circle, are confused yet again. If you have the power to establish the truth and eliminate those who won’t follow it, why not use that power?

A book I recently finished reading for the second time, Stephanie Saldana’s The Bread of Angels published in 2010, places the reader in the middle of such questions. breadofangels[1]Saldana’s book is a memoir of the year that she spent from September 2004 to September 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship in Damascus, Syria studying Arabic. It would be another five or six years before the current civil war in Syria that has claimed over 100,000 lives to date would erupt, but Syria in the early years of the twenty-first century, as it had been for decades, was a place of both religious and political tension. These tensions were heightened by the fact that Stephanie’s home country, the United States, had invaded Syria’s neighbor to the east, Iraq, just a few short months prior to her arrival in Damascus.

Stephanie lives in the Christian section of the Old City of Damascus, Syriac_Catholic_Church_logo[1]surrounded by Arabs who follow the liturgical rites of the oldest known form of Christianity, but her daily walks across the city place her in contact with the predominantly Muslim working urban class. She particularly befriends Mohammed, who keeps a carpet shop and looks like Groucho Marx. Although his carpets are extraordinarily beautiful, often the product of his own painstaking restoration, business is slow and his shop is almost always empty. In response to Stephanie’s sympathetic concerns, Mohammed tells her a story.

“When the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, was returning from battle, he stopped on the top of a hill before entering the city. He turned to his companions and he said ‘Now we return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ Do you know what that means, Stephanie? The lesser jihad, the jihad of holy war, is simply to fight in a military battle. But the greater jihad is to work all day repairing carpets without any new business. It is to feed your family. The greater jihad, Stephanie, is just to live.”

In Arabic the word “jihad,” so frightening to many non-Muslim Westerners, simply means “struggle.” The point of Mohammed’s story—told from within the context of a religion that shares a history of violence and warfare with Christianity—is that the greatest struggle of the life of faith is not winning converts or defending one’s beliefs against those with whom one disagrees. The greater struggle of faith is worked out in the daily grind—the struggle of weaving divine threads into the often mundane tapestry of a particular human life. As a novice monk tells Stephanie toward the end of her book, “Resurrection is not an event in the past, but a concrete reality, something we look for every day.” So where is this concrete reality to be found? How are we to participate in the greater jihad of faith?

fruit-of-the-spirit[1]A familiar passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians provides a direction. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” At first read, these characteristics are not particularly remarkable, certainly not as attention-getting as the gifts of the Spirit—tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, and the like—that Paul lists elsewhere. Jeanne pointed out to me the other day that while the gifts of the Spirit direct attention to the person with the gift, the fruits of the spirit are directed outward away from the person exemplifying the fruit. Love, generosity, kindness—these are expressed toward others, channeling divine energy away from oneself into the world. And note that these are the fruits of the Spirit. A tree does not expend extraordinary effort or grit its leafy teeth or work overtime to produce fruit. A tree’s fruit is the natural result of health, growth, maturity, and time. These fruits cannot be rushed—often waiting and silence are the best incubators. jeremiah1[1]As Jeremiah, in a rare good mood, writes in Lamentations, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” What more likely place for that to occur than in the daily routines of our lives? The greater jihad cannot be won as one might win a battle or war; 220px-Molana[1]it must be lived. As the great thirteenth-century Muslim poet and mystic Rumi wrote, “If you want to witness the resurrection, then be it.”

Yet clearly it is possible, even typical, for even those human beings most in touch with their divine nature to fail to live out these fruit. Just consider Jesus today in the gospel reading after he saves the Samaritan town from being burnt to a crisp. Is it loving, gentle, or kind to tell someone whose father just died to “let the dead bury their dead”? Is Jesus being patient or generous when he casts aspersions on the commitment of a person who just wants to be a faithful son and say goodbye to his family? Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace? One of the most attractive things about Jesus in the Gospels is also one of the most confusing—he is so recognizably human.

In Yann Martel’s award winning novel, Life of PiYann Martel holding Life of Pi[1], which was recently made into an Academy Award winning movie, Pi Patel wonders about this Jesus guy. Pi loves God and everything about God, so much so that he is trying to be a Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time. But one of the main things he doesn’t get about Christianity is Jesus, who Pi critiques by comparing him to a Hindu God who temporarily became human.

vishnu_40[1]There is the story of Vishnu incarnated as Vamana the dwarf. He asks demon king Bali for only as much land as he can cover in three strides. Bali laughs at this runt and his puny request, and he consents. Immediately Vishnu takes on his full cosmic size. With one stride he covers the earth, with the second the heavens, and with the third he boots Bali into the netherworld. . . . That is God as God should be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.

      This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him—what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. . . .This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god—and in a hot place at that—with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; depositphotos_5367133-Jesus-Riding-a-Donkey[1]and when he splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a God who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?

Pi has a point. And yet he admits a few pages later that “I couldn’t get him out of my head. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.”

“God on too human a scale.” For anyone imagining what God in the flesh might look and act like, Jesus is a surprise, sometimes even a disappointment. And so are we—some days will be better than others in the greater jihad. But God in human form is the whole point of the Incarnation. Energized by the fruits of the spirit, the life of faith introduces the kingdom of God into the world.

Lead on, O King Eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease

And holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace

For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum

But deeds of love and mercy thy heavenly kingdom comes.

Passing the Baton

sp-olympics-athl_0498999228[1]A disturbingly common mishap in recent Summer Olympic games has been the failure of U.S. track and field relay teams. Individually, these teams almost always are made up of the best runners, top to bottom, of any nation’s relay contingent. Best times, best individual win-loss records. But great individuals do not a successful relay team make. In a relay race, each runner is required not only to run her or his lap as swiftly as possible, but also to hand the baton to the next runner smoothly and securely within a specified number of meters. As the baton falls to the track during these attempted transfers, time after time, the truth becomes crystal clear.Women%20baton%20drop[1] In the quintessential American spirit, the members of the U.S. relay teams have spent far too much time honing their individual running skills, and far too little time practicing how to be a team (if they’ve practiced at all). Passing a baton while both the passer and passee are running, one decelerating and one accelerating, within a limited amount of space takes practice, practice that is not nearly as sexy or stimulating as running as fast as one can by oneself.

Baton-passing serves as an interesting analogy for many human situations, particularly generational ones that involve passing a virtual baton from the geezers to the young punks. A successful transfer requires the ability and desire to receive and run on the younger generation’s part and a willingness to let go and slow down from the older veterans. Debate about curriculum reform has been swirling around my campusimages[2] for close to a decade now, centering on a large, four semester course, described as the “core of the core” at my college, that is required of all freshmen and sophomores. This course was created, and then established as the heart of the college’s core curriculum in the early 1970s, a course that was groundbreaking and audacious in its day. Many of the faculty who were the “young Turks” of that time, the movers and shakers who invented this course and shepherded it through the faculty senate and administration against all odds, are now senior faculty on the verge of retirement. Others have already retired, some have died. And the course they created, which  defined many of their academic careers both in the classroom and out, became stale and badly in need of fresh vision and creative reconstruction. Despite the good will of many of the next generation of faculty, highly qualified and motivated women and men who willingly seek to carry a revitalized course forward for the next few decades, the reform debate was frequently poisoned by the resistance to any meaningful change by the older generation.resisting_change[1] It has been sad to observe. By accident of age and time served at the college I am positioned, as both one of the youngest of the older generation and one of the most experienced of the new generation, at the very point where the baton transfer should occur. As a veteran of teaching in this program and a long-standing advocate for needed change, I was asked just short of three years ago to direct the new version of this program that emerged from curriculum reform as it transitions from the past into the future. We’ve been doing it with some success over the past three years, in spite of some continuing resistance. As I’ve told several of my senior colleagues over the past few years, “it’s impossible to run a relay race if you won’t let go of the baton.”

Five years ago Ascension Sunday happened to be the seventeenth and last Sunday that I would be worshiping at St. Johns Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota on sabbatical. As I sat in my choir stall seat during seven-o’clock morning prayer, then in the sanctuary later in the morning during mass, there was a certain wistfulness and a bit of emotion, but not as much as I expected. For this Ascension Sunday was an appropriate milestone in my spiritual growth, a marker of the point at which I would tentatively and with fear and trembling take what I had learned and experienced over the previous four months “into all the world.” I was never taught to pay attention to Ascension Sunday in my religious tradition. But even after I was introduced to the liturgical calendar for the first time in my middle twenties, Ascension Sunday was simply the Sunday before Pentecost, after which we would slog through week after week of Ordinary Time boredom in green through the summer and fall until we were rescued by Advent purple right after Thanksgiving. 0181[1]But as I inhabited for the first time the psalms and New Testament texts on that Ascension Sunday, I thought “Wow. Jesus was the ultimately prepared and successful baton passer.”

In one way Ascension Sunday completes the story of the Incarnation that began with Jesus’ birth. Jesus doesn’t ascend out of his human body to heaven—he takes it with him, because the next lap of this story, the “Christ in us” lap, is just about ready to explode. Jesus showed extraordinary patience with his all-too-human followers during his short stay on earth, teaching them basic truths through stories and actions, all preparation for when it would be up to them to receive the baton and run their own incarnational race. The forty days after the Resurrection were all practice for a smooth passing of the baton. Jesus kept telling them “It’s all right. I’m not leaving you alone. It’s better for you that I go, because I’ll be sending you the greatest teammate ever. You can do this, because I’ll still be with you. When I leave, don’t go crazy and start running in every direction out of fear or impatience. Wait. Pray. You’ll know when it’s time to run. And when you do, you’ll turn the world upside down.” And when the clouds closed on Jesus’ heels as he ascended into heaven, for once the men and women who had loved and followed him did what they were told. j0387426-11[1]They went into an upper room in Jerusalem and waited.

I’m told that the receiver of the baton in a relay race should not seek to accelerate until she or he feels the slap of the baton in the palm of the receiving hand they have extended backwards as they begin to run. The receiver never sees the runner coming up behind, but there’s no mistaking the transfer from the unseen runner when it happens. And in the upper room ten days after Jesus left, as we will celebrate next Sunday morning, there was no mistaking that the baton had been successfully transferred. holy_spirit[1]The Incarnation goes on, and we recipients of the Holy Spirit carry it “to the ends of the earth.” In his homily on that Ascension Sunday, the Abbott observed that with Ascension Day, the Easter message of “Glory, Glory, Glory” that has been front and center since Easter changes to “Go!” 4423454959_524f73018a_z[1]The word to me that day and ever since was “Take what you’ve been given, what you’ve found, and go.” As my favorite Psalm says,

Day unto day takes up the story

And night unto night makes known the message.

We are carrying the baton, and are to run as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

Will the Truth Set You Free?

I just don’t trust people who are convinced that they know the truth. Marcus Borg

I wrote in a recent blog post about my love of mystery novels, especially those that come in developing series

“It’s a Mystery”

and have also written about my long-standing habit of taking on an author every summer whose work I have never read and devouring everything she or he has written in three months.

“Unvisited Tombs”

nesboThis summer it appears that I will have the opportunity to combine these obsessions—I have discovered the work of Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbø. He is an internationally bestselling author whose books have only started becoming available in the US over the past few years. I first stumbled across the batThe Bat, the first of ten books in his Harry Hole series, a couple of months ago in the college bookstore. The cover looked interesting, Nesbø’s name was mentioned by a friend and colleague on Facebook a few weeks later as a favorite mystery writer, I recognized the usual random confluence of events that frequently leads me to a new favorite author, I ordered The Bat on Amazon and my summer reading plan was established.

Harry Hole, Nesbø’s main character, is complicated and well outside the boilerplate fictional detective. Toward the end of The Bat he has a conversation with an Australian detective about why police officers and detectives go into such a thankless profession. supermanThe Aussie sounds like the 60s Superman show I grew up with, suggesting that such public servants are motivated by a thirst for “truth and justice.” Harry isn’t buying it.

I’ve been a policeman all my life, but I still look at my colleagues around me and wonder what it is that makes them do it, fight other people’s wars. What drives them? Who wants to go through so much suffering for others to have what they perceive as justice? They’re the stupid ones. We are. We’re blessed with a stupidity so great that we believe we can achieve something.

I love it when my fictional detectives go below the surface of the current case and begin exploratory ruminations about the dark underbelly of human nature and motivation. And Harry’s not finished.

Truth is a relative business, and it’s flexible. We bend and twist it until it has space in our lives. Some of it, anyway. . . . The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

truthTruth is a slippery business, but everyone seems to have something to say about it. For instance, Jesus is memorably reported as having said that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” This is one of the many things I wish Jesus had never said, not because I think it is wrong but rather because it has been subject to all sorts of misinterpretation and coopted by all sorts of agendas. For instance, many suggest that the “truth” Jesus is referring to actually the “Truth.” The capital letter makes all the difference, as it signifies that the person making the proposal believes in such a thing as absolute truth, something that Harry Hole apparently does not believe in the existence of. Absolute Truths are universal, fixed, inflexible, and not subject to the subjective preferences of mere mortals such as ourselves. Sounds attractive—such Truths, if they exist, would provide an indispensable touchstone for adjudicating conflicts between mere truths, which as Harry suggests are often mere projections of our own preferences and interests that we seek to implement to the greatest extent that our power and influence allows.true believer

The problem with the idea of absolute Truths is at least twofold. First, many agree that such Truths exist but few agree on what they actually are. I believe that absolutes do exist, but discovering their content is far more difficult and complicated than many “True believers” want to admit. This leads to the second problem—True believers tend to cut corners on the search process, adopting what very well may be just provisional as if it is an absolute, then beating others over the heads, either virtually or actually, with their Truth pretenders. I’ve just spent a semester with my students in two different courses studying the limitless ways in which human beings have used Truths they claim to be in possession of—religious, political, what have you—to justify violence against and killing of fellow human beings who happen to embrace different and incompatible Truths. The Crusades, various wars of religion, the Nazis—virtually any truth can be dressed up as a Truth and used as a weapon of mass destruction. The best comment on this dynamic I ever read came from the author of a letter to the editor in the local newspaper a number of years ago: Pursue the truth, and run like hell from anyone who claims to have it.

In reality, I think the fact of the matter concerning the truth was clearly expressed by one of my colloquium students who wrote the following in her intellectual notebook this past semester: “The truth will not set you free, but it will definitely mess your life up.” This is because the truth about the truth for human beings is that it is a process rather than a thing. The truth is more like a continuing creative act than a treasure hunt that will hopefully stumble into the pot of gold at the end of an evanescent rainbow. Harry Hole is right about one big thing—the truth is something that we make. This is not a surprise, because as a matter of fact all ways of seeing reality are human constructions. Truth is not an exception. Everything we believe is a product of a complex filtering and organizing process through any number of filters, from genetic to experiential. the wayHarry is also correct in saying that truth is a relative business—relative to each human being since each of our filters are uniquely ours.

This does not mean, however, that just anything goes. It does not mean that we simply get to make truth up as we go along, as those who fear the ogre “relativism” would claim. Jesus said something else about truth that is directly applicable—“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth is not something we find at the end of a search—it is in fact the search itself, a search that in many traditions is connected directly to a way of life, a person. Harry is wrong when he concludes that the only motivations for the process of truth are self-interest and power. The “I am the way” alternative is that truth is a divine process in which we participate; our participation is energized positively by the things for which we hope and the things which we love.

 

Something Rather Than Nothing

One of the most reliable ways to deaden a lively conversation in class is to ask a “philosophical question.” indexNothing is more certain to produce blank stares, then uncomfortable silence, than questions like “Is the world we experience primarily a matter of what we perceive or of what we create from what we perceive?” or “Is the truth something we find or something we in-vent?” Jeanne read one of these sorts of questions—“Is the self assembled from my memories, and if so, what if my memories are inaccurate?”—in a book she was reading not long ago. “This person sounds like you,” she said. “The problem is, I just don’t care about this question.” I know. The fact that in twenty-five-plus years together I have failed to get Jeanne to understand the importance of properly splitting philosophical hairs is a constant source of disappointment.

For most of my years of teaching philosophy, I have managed to ask such questions, which are the bread-and-butter of my discipline, in ways that actually have some relevance to the lives that my students live. But there’s one philosophical question, perhaps my favorite, which is close to perfect in the form that it has been asked for thousands of years. 100030303-the-mystery“Why is there something rather than nothing?” That doesn’t grab you? Try this version: Assuming that the world (and us in it) could have been different, or not have existed at all, why is it the way that it is? And what might we learn about ourselves and the larger reality within which we find ourselves by pursuing possible answers? These were the guiding questions behind the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium I spent with a dozen Honors juniors and seniors last semester.

I ended a post a couple of weeks ago

http://freelancechristianity.com/2014/03/10/blue-maples/

P2P_swith the following thought-provoking observation from physicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne: Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. I ended the post speculating that the creator might be more like Ella Fitzgerald than Ludwig van Beethoven. Many people carry a model of the natural world around that we inherited from the Scientific Revolution, the model of an intricately and finely tuned machine, designed and created by a cosmic being whose favorite things are precision, order, economy and control. As we begin to speculate about the personality traits of this “designer God,” characteristics such as “powerful,” “rational,” “logical,” “rule-making” come to the fore, which are but a short step to “judgmental,” “controlling,” “aloof” and “distant.”

The problem is, we don’t live in that sort of world. If our world was designed with precision, order and economy in mind, the designer was having a pretty bad day. Darwin opened the door wide to speculation that the world we live in is vastly more messy and open-ended than ever imagined; a century and a half of further investigation in all of the various sciences has con-firmed Darwin’s insight. teilhard-1-sizedIt’s very possible to investigate the messy, inefficient and spectacularly fascinating universe we inhabit without reference to anything greater than ourselves, but I find it impossible to do so. If we are in fact part of a creation that is unfinished, in which in Teilhard de Chardin’s memorable phrase, “God does not make: He makes things make themselves,” where does intelligent speculation about such a creator lead? In directions both stimulating and iconoclastic.

We spent a number of weeks in my colloquium teasing out some of the differences that understanding the world in this way might have for how we think about God. For some of my students, the implications were fascinating and liberating, while for others they were disturbing and paradigm-shifting. Two of the traditional characteristics attributed to God, for instance, are omniscience and omnipotence. God knows everything and has the power to do anything. These “omni” characteristics have been problematic for centuries when thinking about human choice and freedom. 20080626_kristatippett_2When thinking about an open-ended universe that continues to be created by the creatures that inhabit it, such characteristics are more than problematic—they need to be jettisoned entirely, as many cutting-edge scientists and theologians suggest. Here is the full John Polkinghorne quotation, taken from an interview with Krista Tippett:

The act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love. Kenosis-school-of-art-and-creative-services_11310_imageIt is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word. God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world involves God accepting limitations, and, I believe, accepting limitations such as not knowing the future.

Rather than a tightly controlled and designed universe, this is a universe in which power and knowledge on the part of the divine are sacrificed for—something. Freedom? Choice? Beauty? At the very least, the motivations for such an ongoing creative process are something other than control and order. HaughtA world in which creatures are empowered to create in novel and unique ways sounds less like a universe energized by ordering power and more like one embedded with creative love and emerging beauty, a beauty that theologian John Haught defines as “ordered novelty.” Only a universe structured on the edge of order and chaos could generate such results.

Such speculations were at the heart of my “Beauty and Violence” seminar last semester, to both the delight and dismay of my students, a delight and dismay often occurring in the same person. As one of my students said during her oral examination, “This class really messed me up—in a good way.” A God who intentionally created a partially finished, non-economical and messy universe that is still a project in the making is not a God who knows everything that will happen or inserts divine power into every organizational detail. god_created_risk_postcard-r1d8ae1c777454aa29480a38b805f6646_vgbaq_8byvr_324This is a God who has taken a significant risk—on us. In an intellectual notebook entry, one of my students captured this idea concisely and beautifully.

God is only truly taking a risk if He has a desired intention for us—a purpose, so to speak—that could either be fulfilled or unfulfilled through our free actions and the way in which we live our lives. God is gambling on us because He has allowed for the opportunity of failure. God has fixed His hand by giving us everything we need to fulfill our purpose. He is actually no less omnipotent, he is simply using His power to limit His power, a theory that if true would be the noblest of all divine endeavors. If we deny our egos, we are to be awakened by His silence and transformed by the realization of our limitations.

This, of course, raises many more questions than it answers. But they are better questions in my estimation than the traditional ones, in keeping with my favored definition of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions.” Yet another confirmation that Socrates was right when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”quote-the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living-socrates-174068

Raising the Bar

One of my greatest joys as a philosophy professor is that I get to be bad on a regular basis. There were a number of people about whom I was told little growing up, other than that they are dangerous and to be avoided like the plague. images.1I work out my rebellion against these restrictions now by ensuring that these thinkers make as many appearances on my syllabi as professional integrity will allow. So I teach Darwin, for instance, with gusto in the interdisciplinary program I direct and participate in, and took great delight a few years ago in hearing an older Benedictine monk—a biologist by training—say that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all the theologians put together.” indexI take a perverse pleasure in making sure that my mostly parochial school educated students know that Marx is more than a four letter word and, more importantly, is not an irrelevancy simply because the Berlin Wall fell twenty-five years ago.

This morning I want to focus on the biggest and the baddest of all the dangerous thinkers I was taught to fear in my youth—Friedrich Nietzsche. Even the slightest familiarity with Nietzsche and his thought indicates that he is an unlikely topic for a Sunday morning sermon at any church of any denomination—nietzsche1even the broad tent of the Episcopal Church would have to be stretched beyond the ripping point to include him. He’s the philosopher who infamously proclaimed that “God is Dead,” after all. But humor me for a bit, because a few moments with Friedrich will help illuminate just how radical and subversive today’s gospel—the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount—actually is. And yet it this very text, hopelessly beyond the highest standards we can imagine for ourselves, that completes the road map for the life of faith that we all profess.

Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist, despite the fact that his father and grandfather were Lutheran ministers. Yet throughout his life he focused his philosophical and creative energies on ethics, on the ways in which human beings make moral choices and use them to shape their lives, to create their character, and to influence others. friedrich_nietzsche_in_christianity_neither_mousepad-r6e52a64025c1012fb64900ffb0cb9003_x74vi_8byvr_324It was this intense interest in morality that caused him to be one of the most eloquent and influential critics of Christianity who has ever lived. He developed his critique in response to texts such as our gospel reading for this morning, the final paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” eye for eye copyBut I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Nietzsche complained that this is a moral framework for the weak, for those who are incapable of asserting their own excellence or even protecting themselves. As in the Beatitudes from a few weeks ago, Jesus is telling those lacking the power or will to be independent that it is okay to be mediocre or weak. In so doing, Nietzsche complains, Jesus is turning the natural moral order of things upside down. Nietzsche’s critique is borne out in the very next paragraph from today’s gospel.

love-your-enemiesYou have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Our natural wiring inclines us to love our friends and hate our enemies, but Jesus is asking us to embrace and love those who we should hate, as He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount. As do many moral philosophers, Nietzsche insists that moral requirements should be fitted to what human beings actually are, not to what someone might wish them to be—hence his charge that Jesus’ challenge is inhuman and unnatural. We expect that good people will be rewarded and bad people will be punished, but Jesus reminds us, just as Job found out, that it rains on both the good and the evil, that the sun shines on everyone regardless of whether they have earned or deserve it. spirituality-science-beyond-good-and-evilEventually, in one of his most important works on ethics—Beyond Good and EvilNietzsche summarizes his critique of today’s gospel and of the moral standards that arise from it.

What is it I protest against? That people should regard this paltry and peaceful mediocrity, this spiritual equilibrium which knows nothing of the fine impulses of great accumulations of strength, as something high, or possibly as the standard of all things.

Jesus is describing a moral framework for losers, one that enables the weak and exalts those who cannot make it on their own. This is a powerful critique, one that over the century and a half since it was written has for many been the basis for an outright dismissal of Christianity as a workable moral system. For persons who take a faith commitment to Christ seriously, these should be fighting words. But how should we respond? imagesIf Friedrich were with us this morning, what could we say?

We might start with a certain amount of defensiveness, by noting that if Friedrich thinks that what is described in the Sermon on the Mount is for sissies or for the weak, he ought to stop pontificating about it and actually try living it for a day. Anyone who has ever turned the other cheek, who has been harmed or betrayed and has actually tried to love that person in response, knows what extraordinary strength doing this even once requires. This is not a morality for wimps, Friedrich; this requires strength of character of which most persons only dream.

Recall, though, that the heart of Nietzsche’s critique is that the blueprint for a human life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is unnatural—it does not square with what we actually are. And the final line of today’s gospel confirms, in no uncertain terms, that Nietzsche is exactly right. Jesus’ final words in the Sermon on the Mount?be-ye-perfect1

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Really? Are you serious, Jesus? Iris Murdoch once responded to this command by asking “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to say ‘be ye therefore slightly improved?’’ The standard of divine perfection is so out of the reach of human effort that it blows our first response to Nietzsche out of the water. We might be able to turn the other cheek once in a while or even convince ourselves that we forgive and love those who have hurt us and who wish us harm, but who but an insane person would claim to have attained perfection? Nietzsche is right—Jesus is asking us to do what no one could possibly do, except by watering it down so far as to be unrecognizable. The demands of the Sermon on the Mount are humanly impossible and entirely ill-fitted to what human beings are capable of achieving.

Elijah-in-desert-lowEach of us this morning, in a moment of honesty, should tell God “I can’t do this. This is impossible. I quit.” In the spirit of Elijah hiding in a cave from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, we might as well say “I can’t do what you are requiring of me.” And in the same still, small voice that Elijah heard, we hear “you’re right. You can’t do this. And that’s the whole point.” Nietzsche’s mistake is not in his judgment that the demands of the Sermon on the Mount are ill-fitted to human nature. His mistake is not realizing that this is the whole point—Jesus is describing a transformed human nature, a transformation made possible by the Incarnation. The bar has been raised to a level that cannot be reached by the greatest of human effort, but is the hallmark of a human life infused with divine energy and love. Those who follow Jesus can expect to see every expectation that is natural to human beings turned on its head. As Paul wrote, every person who is in Christ “is a new creature. othpa-iconOld things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation, not to endless frustration and falling short of the mark, but to the discovery of divine life within, a life that Jesus promises will “overcome the world.”

Buster and Donna

imagesCAZ6J1WDJeanne and I are the living embodiments of the old adage that “opposites attract.” Quickly. We knew within a week or so of meeting each other that something serious was up. We are so different in so many ways, beginning with her extreme extroversion and my extreme introversion, that it caused a few people to pause when the two of us first set up shop together. My minister father, who had known Jeanne for ten years before I met her, violated everything he had ever been taught in his own Baptist upbringing and advised me that the two of us should live together for a while before we commit to anything permanent. Which we did. I pulled up stakes and moved with Jeanne to Santa Fe220px-Adobe_in_Santa_Fe_at_the_Plaza_-_Hotel_Inn_and_Spa_at_Loretto[1] while she completed the last semester of her master’s degree and while I prepared for heading God knew where for my PhD program.

As we got to know each other, Jeanne told me stories of her best friends in Brooklyn, people who sounded far more interesting and out-of-the-box than the relatively boring people in my background. I particularly enjoyed hearing about Buster, a long-time friend whose connection with Jeanne went back to when Jeanne was just out of high school. Buster’s mother, Rose, who had recently died had been an iconic figure in Jeanne’s life. Rosie’s favorite word was “fuck,” and her outrageously unique personality helped Jeanne break out of the restrictive Irish/Italian Catholic world she grew up in. In her life prior to meeting me Jeanne had been a singer, culminating in one-woman cabaret acts that Buster had managed and directed. An accomplished singer and actor0[1], Buster sounded like exactly the sort of larger-than-life character that one never encountered in the northern Vermont of my upbringing.

One day shortly after I moved into Jeanne’s postage stamp size apartment, Buster called. After several minutes of conversation, Jeanne asked Buster if he wanted to say hi to me. Apparently he did, because she immediately handed the phone to me—an introvert’s worst nightmare. In a loud voice that perfectly matches the extraordinary tenor voice I would come to know and love, Buster asked “Do you know what the hell you have gotten yourself into?? The Bean [Buster’s nickname for Jeanne] is a pistol! You’d better be sure about what you’re doing!!” Nice to meet you too, Buster! I, of course, did not know what I was getting myself into—nor did Jeanne—but something about my first conversation with Buster strangely gave me confidence.

Buster came from Brooklyn to Santa Fe for Jeanne’s graduation a few months later. Since Jeanne’s parents also made the trip and she was tied up with entertaining them, it fell to me to pick Buster up at the l[1]Albuquerque airport sixty miles south of Santa Fe. I was not sure how I would recognize him, but Jeanne assured me that there would be no mistaking Buster—he tends to stand out in a crowd, she said. This was twenty-five years ago, so I don’t clearly remember what Buster was wearing as he stood by the curb waiting for some unknown person to pick him up, but he was clearly the only displaced New Yorker amongst the surrounding south-westerners. Buster was an introvert’s dream on the ride back, as I didn’t need to say more than a dozen words during the hour trip. As I pulled into our driveway, Jeanne ran out of the apartment yelling “BUSTERRRRRRRR!!!!!” as Buster leaped out of the car screaming “BEEEAAAANN!!!!!,” followed by a rib-cracking embrace, the same way they have greeted each other every time they have met in my presence over the past twenty-five years.

02874170[1]It was not until several months later that I met Donna for the first time. Buster and Donna have been a couple for over thirty years and are more living proof that opposites attract. While Buster’s career has been a matter of cobbling singing extravaganzas together with acting in travelling musical theatre companies that often take him away from home for months at a time, Donna has been the person with a sensible and successful career in the travel agency business. Buster is larger than life and a force of nature, while Donna is quieter, compassionate, patient, generous and welcoming. Buster doesn’t have an athletic bone in his body, while Donna loves volleyball, tennis and golf. Donna also is musically gifted—just a couple of months after 9/11, Donna and Jeanne did a cabaret show together (directed and produced by Buster, of course). Buster and Donna’s home in Brooklyn looks like Buster exploded in it, with stacks of sheet music and books, DVDs and CDs,  piled high on every square foot of available floor space; Donna incrementally and steadily gets things organized and in shape while Buster is on the road, in preparation for the next explosion when Buster’s gig is over.

I’ve often described Buster and Donna as “the most married couple I’ve ever met,” a wonderful embodiment of the strangeness, inexplicability and power of love. I have a hard time thinking of the one without thinking of the other. Unlike most of Jeanne’s New York friends and family, Buster and Donna visit us in Providence frequently, usually on the way back from spending a few days with friends on Cape Cod. Their visit is always an all-too-brief and welcome hurricane, as they blow through the house disordering our dogs’ routines and minds, teaching us to play card games that Buster and Donna both take very seriously, and leaving a Buster-and-Donna glow in their wake that takes several days to dissipate.

522277_10100354953417606_320992379_n[1]When word got out last year that, after more than three decades together, Buster and Donna were getting married it was fabulous news. For in a moment of clarity and wisdom that is all too infrequent in politics, the New York State Assembly passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state of New York. Anthony (Buster) and Bob (Donna) would be able to establish their relationship—which had been established in the eyes of God and every else for over thirty years—legally for the first time. As Jeanne and I speculated, with my sons and my daughter-in-law, about what the wedding would be like, our imaginations ran wild. A ball room filled with a tableau of the most diverse and outrageous fashions this side of Provincetown, with the broad and beautiful panoply of human beings, from Catholic priests to drag queens, gathered to honor and express their love to Anthony and Bob. And the event did not disappoint.547048_4874810428616_1194368657_n[1] The food was great, the music was even better, and the people watching was spectacular.

The officiant at the ceremony was a gay minister who is a former Roman Catholic priest. Anthony and Bob exchanged rings that had belonged to their fathers. Although I expected this event  to be outrageously different than any other wedding I had attended—and it was155365_10151118382548479_799282796_n[1]—what struck me most powerfully both during and since the ceremony was how fundamentally normal it was. Two people who clearly are deeply in love, who are making a life together, invited several hundred of their best friends to celebrate that love with them, just as couples planning to be married always do. Bob and Anthony just had to wait for more than thirty years for their marriage to be recognized as legally valid. It’s about time.409003_4874793588195_966913713_n[1]

Magical Thinking

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.

Redeeming the Time

“That’s so sweet!” my student said, reading the item on my office door. “How old was your son when he wrote that?” “He was in first grade,” I replied. “What grade is he in now?” “He’s working on his Master’s degree in psychology.” The item has been on my office door for a while, because it was a gift—the sort of gift that keeps on giving.onamissionnight4[1]

The year that my son was in first grade, I was on a mission from God, just like the Blues Brothers. My course work was done, my language exams were passed, I had survived my comps. All that remained was to write my dissertation, defend it, get my PhD, get a teaching job somewhere (anywhere), and get on with our lives. I had a one year fellowship, paying the same pittance that my teaching assistantship had for the past two years, but with no teaching required. alllogo[1]In other words, this fellowship was paying me to write my dissertation within a year. I’d heard an endless number of  horror stories about people taking teaching jobs ABD (“all but dissertation”) who never finished the dissertation. It was now or never; hence, the “mission from God.” I warned my sons that once it was all done, they would forever after have to call me “Doctor Dad.” I threatened to put “Dr.Dad” on our Wisconsin license plate.

I spent 12-15 hours per day in the bowels of the Raynor Memorial Libraryraynorrave_fullsize_story1[1] at Marquette that academic year, while Jeanne and the boys saw less of me than ever. I clacked away on the keyboard at a mainframe computer terminal, then stood in line at the dot-matrix printer to get a hard copy of what I had produced. I lost weight—Jeanne says I’m the only person she’s ever met who could lose weight typing. I got an autumn cold that, after several weeks of being ignored, turned into walking pneumonia. But I kept trudging. A few months in, Christmas was approaching. One day Justin came home from school and pulled something out of a folder in his backpack. “Here,” he said holding the item toward me, “this is for you.” One of the first grade class’s projects was to imagine that they had the power to give any Christmas gift that they chose to whomever they chose. What would the gift be, and to whom would it be given?

Jgift_of_time_2[1]ustin’s choice was neatly printed on a piece of lined paper cut out in the shape of a gift box with a ribbon on top. After coloring the ribbon, he had written, “If I could give a gift, I would give it to my Dad. I would give him the gift of time, because he’s writing a dissertation and he needs more time. If I knew anyone else who was writing a dissertation, I would give them time too.” Where on earth did this kid come from? I thought, as my eyes filled with tears. Jeanne laminated it at the school where she worked so that it would last, and it has—hanging on several different office doors over the past twenty plus years.

I had never thought of time as a gift. It was something to waste, something to spend, something that races too fast on occasion, then drags its ass at a tortoise pace, framing my days and years whether I like it or not. I was in my early thirties when I received the gift of time, hogarth_62[1]with (I hoped) well over half my time on earth still to be lived. Now I’m in my middle fifties and passed the half-way mark years ago. More and more often I sense the bartender from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” behind me, calling with increasing urgency: “HURRY UP PLEASE! IT’S TIME!”

But what is time? That’s the question St. Augustine famously asked toward the end of his Confessions over a millennium and a half ago. After several pages worth of spinning his philosophical wheels,imagescaew8q8n[1] Augustine admits with his usual directness that “I must confess, O Lord, that I do not know what time is.” Time is indeed a classic philosophical puzzle. Is it “out there,” imposing itself on me? Is it “in here,” a subjective part of me that I impose on what’s “out there”? Both of the above? None of the above? I’ve had a lot of fun with students exploring the intricacies of time over the years.

Time is on my mind this week because school is back in session and going forward for the next several weeks I could easily work fifteen-hour days seven days a week (and probably will). But I began to learn on sabbatical five years ago that the most important changes in life are incremental, silent, and slow. To even notice change and growth, I’ve had to learn how to treat time as a gift occasionally rather than as a taskmaster. Most mornings begin with fifteen minutes of silence and reading the Psalmssilence-600x400[1]. Starting this blog a year and half ago has made it possible for me to discover little time-gift packages in unexpected portions of the day and week, ready to be unwrapped and used for nothing but reflecting on and writing about my spiritual journey. Not long ago I would have said there was no time for such an activity. Now I find that my centeredness and sanity depends on finding the time.

P1191387[1]My six-year-old son, all those years ago, had an insight that most of us never have, or forgot immediately if we ever had it. Time is indeed a gift, grace on a silver platter. But so is everything else. Our lives, our very existence, every season, every task, every person we encounter, every molecule we breathe, is a gift of grace from the divine so profligate that the gifts continue regardless of what we do with them. The Apostle Paul told the church at Phillipi that they should “redeem the time,” do something appropriate and fitting with this one of the many “good and perfect gifts” that come from above. One place to start is sheer gratitude. “Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.”